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Like everyone else, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this Cambridge Analytica mess, and whether I should delete my Facebook account (actually, I would if I didn’t need it for work), and whether right-wing moneybags managed to hack their way to Trump’s electoral victory two years ago. Here’s what we know:
- From WaPo: “Conservative strategist Stephen K. Bannon oversaw Cambridge Analytica’s early efforts to collect troves of Facebook data as part of an ambitious program to build detailed profiles of millions of American voters, a former employee of the data-science firm said Tuesday. The 2014 effort was part of a high-tech form of voter persuasion touted by the company, which under Bannon identified and tested the power of anti-establishment messages that later would emerge as central themes in President Trump’s campaign speeches, according to Chris Wylie, who left the company at the end of that year. Among the messages tested were ‘drain the swamp’ and ‘deep state,’ he said. Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Trump’s 2016 campaign, is now facing questions about alleged unethical practices, including charges that the firm improperly handled the data of tens of millions of Facebook users.”
- Yesterday, the firm suspended its CEO, Alexander Nix, after undercover British reporters caught him being extraordinary shady. From NBC: “On hidden camera, the reporters recorded Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, discussing the idea of hypothetically entrapping an opposition leader. He described how the company could record a person accepting a bribe, ‘an offer he can’t refuse’ or ‘send some girls around to the candidate’s house.’ Nix also floated the idea of spreading misinformation about politicians. ‘It doesn’t have to be true,’ Nix said. ‘It just has to be believed.’”
- The CEO also boasted that they got Trump elected. From The Daily Beast: “British political consultants that worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign said they secretly used proxy organizations and super PACs to spread ads in the U.S. that could not be traced back to the Trump campaign. Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, was secretly recorded by undercover reporters from Channel 4 in Britain who were posing as prospective ‘There’s no evidence, there’s no paper trail, there’s nothing,’ said Nix, reassuring them that his company’s dirty tricks for his clients would never be detected. Nix said Cambridge Analytica used encrypted emails that were timed to self-destruct and boasted that U.S. politicians on the congressional committees weren’t smart enough to catch him out. … Nix claimed they had overseen much of the Trump presidential campaign, we ‘ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign
andour data informedall the strategy.’ He said he had met Trump ‘many times.’”
- CNN adds: “Alex Tayler, labeled as the chief data officer for Cambridge Analytica, is recorded separately as saying the firm’s analysis was responsible for Trump’s Electoral College performance. ‘When you think about the fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, but won the Electoral College, that’s down to the data and the research,’ Tayler said. ‘That’s how he won the election.’”
- The firm is largely funded by board member and Republican megadonor Rebekah Mercer. Bannon, Trump’s former campaign manager, was another former investor and board member, who helped found the firm with the Mercer family, which cut ties with Bannon earlier this year after he said mean things about Trump. Bannon served as secretary and VP for Cambridge up until he became Trump’s campaign manager.
WHAT IT MEANS: So you have this shadowy outfit, funded by right-wing, free-market zillionaires, founded by a white nationalist, that boasts openly to prospective clients about bribing politicians with hookers and cash, and that scraped the Facebook data of fifty million American users to build highly detailed voting profiles that its execs credit with winning Trump the Electoral College. Add to it that Nix told a third party that he had contacted Wikileaks in 2016 about helping to release Hillary Clinton’s emails (Wikileaks says it rejected that request), that Cambridge’s parent company has had dealings with a sanctioned Russian oil company, and that the British researcher who harvested Facebook data on Cambridge’s behalf has Russian ties, and well, it adds up to something, though I’m not sure what.
- On the one hand, it’s hard to tell how much of what appeared in those undercover recordings is mere posturing, the kind of stuff people say to impress prospective clients and get them to sign on the bottom line. But Robert Mueller has requested Cambridge’s docs as part of his Russia investigation, so maybe we’ll find out soon enough.
Related: There’s a local angle, too—of course there is. Senator Thom Tillis and the NCGOP paid Cambridge Analytica $345,000 to help with Tillis’s 2014 operation, and Cambridge helped Tillis devise a strategy to attack incumbent Kay Hagan for his absences from votes on the Senate Armed Services Committee [N&O]. As The Charlotte Observer’s editorial board noted: “The company made no secret of its work in North Carolina, boasting about it on its website. The problem for Cambridge Analytica is that it apparently has obtained at least some data illegally. There’s no indication, however, that Tillis knew the company used stolen Facebook information
profiling voters. In fact, it’s unlikely the company would expose itself by telling a client that sort of thing—especially when that client is running for U.S. Senate. Also, given that Cambridge Analytica didn’t purchase the data trove until 2014—well into the U.S. Senate race—it’s questionable that the data was even used to help Tillis.”