MPs at Westminster, London, were turning Cambridge Analytica boss Alexander Nix upside-down today in the hope that evidence of a sinister political conspiracy would fall out of his pockets.
The select committee of Fun* is currently running an enquiry into political propaganda ("Fake News") and regards the company as relevant. You can see why.
Cambridge Analytica is a young offshoot of an older UK company, Strategic Communications Laboratories, now the SCL Group. SCL claims in its marketing to have influenced elections worldwide. The quant tycoon (and former IBM researcher) Robert Mercer, whose family funded Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, bought into the operation (investing $5m).
In the US, Cambridge Analytica appointed Steve Bannon to its board. Over here, in a public statement, Cambridge Analytica claimed to have joined the Leave.EU campaign. Hello hello hello. What was it up to?
Eton-educated CEO Nix described the business as a marketing analytics and prediction operation - SCL was created by an ad man - where 75 per cent of the activity was commercial work for brands, although it also undertook public information campaigns and influencer work for Government on topics such as counter-terrorism and organised crime.
Nix strongly refuted being involved on either side of the EU referendum, twice. (Because one MP repeated chairman Damian Collins questions 20 minutes after Collins.)
The three pieces of evidence for this – as discussed by the committee today – were
- two tweets by Leave.EU’s Andy Wigmore,
- the presence of a CA employee at a Leave.EU press conference,
- and a press release from Cambridge Analytica itself, claiming it had “teamed up” with Leave.EU.
Leave.EU and UKIP donor Aaron Banks has denied it was ever involved - too expensive, he says - but MPs pressed Nix on it.
Nix said Cambridge Analytica had never been involved in any UK election (it was formed to try to crack the United States market), and that “no paid or unpaid” work had been done “with [Leave.EU] or any other organisation.”
The press release? That was released “in anticipation of work with that organisation” and that no deal was signed, he claimed. It had been “drafted by a slightly overzealous PR consultant… work was never undertaken. The moment that it went out we tried to correct the press again, and again, and again,” said Nix.
And the press conference?
“When exploring a working relationship with a client it is not unusual to speak in public together,” said Nix.
Cambridge Analytica was working for two Republican Presidential candidates in 2016 – Senator Ted Cruz and Republican candidate Ben Carson – and joined Team Trump only after he had secured the nomination. Nix played down the outfit’s influence.
“When we joined the Trump Campaign we had five-and-a-half months to go before polling, and had to rebuild the entire analytic capability. We simply did not have the time and resources to go into the same depth we provided to the Cruz campaign… We focused on data and analytics and the technology and digital and TV elements … there was no time to bake in the behavioural approach or the psychographics we used on Cruz.”
The Google connection was unexpected, but sounded tenuous. “[Eric Schmidt's daughter Sophie Schmidt] did not introduce me to her father or [to] Peter Thiel,” Nix said. Thiel’s own CIA-backed data analytics operation Palantir can be thought of as competing with SCL.
Nix also denied using bots, a preoccupation for the Committee.
“That goes back to the era of blanket advertising and spamming people with irrelevant information,” he told the Committee. “We’re trying to get away from anything that could be construed as mass communication. We’re trying to build an individual relationship between brands and their customers.”
Nix also denied CA was a data miner. “We use large data sets and try and find patterns in that data, and make predictions about audiences. We’re just running algorithms on that data to find meaning in it.”
Oh. And the Bannon connection?
“Steve Bannon was on board to help a new company, a British company, to enter a new market,” said Nix. Who could be better than Bannon, who understood commerce and business via Goldman Sachs and the media landscape, Nix asked?
With the Mercers investing in both Cambridge Analytica and the Breitbart operation that Bannon ran, one wonders just how exhaustive the search for such a man was.
The session left Nix in a tricky spot - just not the one the MPs imagined. He had to talk up the company’s brilliance while simultaneously downplaying it. Perhaps it just hadn't been all that influential, or useful?
Trump, Brexit, and Cambridge Analytica – not quite the dystopia you're looking forREAD MORE
A New York Times report on Cambridge Analytica’s success in the US was highly sceptical of its effectiveness. The operation had cost Cruz plenty, but its data was “unreliable”.
The psychologist who devised Cambridge's psychometric analysis was sceptical when The Register interviewed him last year:
"I think people are getting upset about it because they need a scapegoat. Back when Obama used similar methods just calling them different names, no liberals were losing their sleep," said Dr Michal Kosinski. "They also did not care when Hillary was spending way more money on personalised political marketing delivered by people way more competent than those working for Trump."
And how reliable were the predictions for Team Trump, one wonders, if the candidate himself didn’t expect to win? ®
* The Select committee of Culture, Media and Sport