Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that helped launch the campaign of President Donald Trump to victory has threatened to sue a British newspaper over an investigative series into the alleged role it played in the Brexit campaign, in which British citizens voted to leave the European Union.
According to journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who wrote the series for the Observer (which is owned by the Guardian Media Group), the firm's lawyers sent a "Pre-Action Protocol for Defamation" on 13 May 2017. Each article in the series now features a note at the top saying that "This article is the subject of separate legal complaints on behalf of Cambridge Analytica LLC and SCL Elections Limited, and Sophie Schmidt."
The series, published between February and May 2017, alleges that the two separate Brexit campaigns, Vote Leave and Leave.EU violated British election finance laws by failing to report links between the data firms they hired, Aggregate IQ and Cambridge Analytica:
... [T]he Observer has seen a confidential document that provides clear evidence of a link between the two campaigns. More precisely, evidence of a close working relationship between the two data analytics firms employed by the campaigns – AggregateIQ, which Vote Leave hired, and Cambridge Analytica, retained by Leave.EU.
British electoral law is founded on the principle of a level playing field and controlling campaign spending is the key plank of that. The law states that different campaigns must not work together unless they declare their expenditure jointly. This controls spending limits so that no side can effectively “buy” an election.
But this signed legal document – a document that was never meant to be made public and was leaked by a concerned source – connects both Vote Leave and Leave.EU’s data firms directly to Robert Mercer, the American billionaire who bankrolled Donald Trump.
The series has sparked two investigations by British regulatory organizations, the Electoral Commission and the Information Commission Office (ICO). Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a 17 May 2017 statement:
Having considered the evidence we have already gathered I have decided to open a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes. This will involve deepening our current activity to explore practices deployed during the UK’s EU Referendum campaign but potentially also in other campaigns. Given the transnational nature of data the investigation will involve exploring how companies operating internationally deploy such practices with impact or handling of data in the UK.
Shining a light on such practices will require detailed investigative work and engagement with a range of organisations – political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms, as well as international cooperation. This investigation is a high priority for my office in our work to uphold the rights of individuals and ensure that political campaigners and companies providing services to political parties operate within UK law. We will provide an update later in the year.
According to the Guardian, the Electoral Commission is investigating whether Cambridge Analytica provided the Leave.EU campaign with a "gift" of services that was not reported. When asked for comment, a Guardian spokesperson referred us back to the statements that top Cadwalladr's articles saying the reports are the subject of legal complaints.
However, the Guardian told us that no lawsuit has yet been filed as of 14 June 2017, but they would not comment on the record. A Cambridge Analytica spokesman said the firm couldn't comment on "ongoing legal action," and referred us to statements made by CEO Alexander Nix to Sky News:
We've really been quite consistent to explaining to your colleagues in the press over very many months that we didn't work for any of the campaigns that were involved in Brexit. ...
[The ICO] clearly feel that they need educating at this point. This is a very fast moving space and I think it's important that policy makers are up to speed with all the changes that are happening.
I've no doubt that as technologies improve and data becomes increasingly available, that legislation will have to be adapted.
However Cambridge Analytica company officials said multiple times in 2015 the firm was working with the Leave.EU campaign. For example on 18 November 2015, Cambridge Analytica director of programme development Brittany Kaiser told PRWeek that Cambridge Analytica:
...only started working with it more recently. She said the firm's team of data scientists and analysts, some of whom were based full-time in the UK, would be enabling targeted messaging by "understanding why certain things worry people... probing why people care about a certain issue".
On 20 November 2015, the Leave.EU campaign announced the firm had been brought on board and:
...will be helping us map the British electorate and what they believe in, enabling us to better engage with voters. Most elections are fought using demographic and socio-economic data. Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic methodology however is on another level of sophistication. You can read more about their methodology on their website.
Cadwalladr's stories also delve into the personal connections of Cambridge Analytica's Robert Mercer, a major Trump financial backer, who is friends with both Brexit proponent Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon, the U.S. president's chief strategist and former Breitbart.com executive. In January 2017, the Wall Street Journal detailed how important Mercer and his family were to the U.S. President's surprise ascendance, providing him key advisors:
Back when Mr. Trump’s candidacy was on the rocks, Mr. Mercer, co-chief executive of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies LLC, provided financial support. Then, in a surprise shake-up in August, two of the Mercer family’s confidantes, Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, were installed atop the Trump campaign following a recommendation from Ms. Mercer. ...
Mr. and Ms. Mercer won’t have any formal roles in the Trump administration. Ms. Mercer, who has been working from Mr. Bannon’s office in Trump Tower, is advising on the selection of nominees to Mr. Trump’s cabinet. Mr. Bannon and Ms. Conway are headed for influential White House roles. Ms. Mercer likely will help lead an outside group designed to support Mr. Trump’s agenda, Ms. Conway has said.
The Observer stories paint a frighting picture of data firms targeting and manipulating voters via social media to produce desired election outcomes, subverting democracy in both the United Kingdom and the United States:
Finding “persuadable” voters is key for any campaign and with its treasure trove of data, Cambridge Analytica could target people high in neuroticism, for example, with images of immigrants “swamping” the country. The key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter.
Cambridge Analytica worked on campaigns in several key states for a Republican political action committee. Its key objective, according to a memo the Observer has seen, was “voter disengagement” and “to persuade Democrat voters to stay at home”: a profoundly disquieting tactic. It has previously been claimed that suppression tactics were used in the campaign, but this document provides the first actual evidence.
When asked about this portion of the report, the spokesman for Cambridge Analytica told us:
Cambridge Analytica did not engage psychographics for their work with the Trump campaign.
"Psychographics" is a research term for data that go beyond demographic studies to record people's behaviors, habits, spending patterns and beliefs. According to the Observer, the firm harvested this data legally from social media giant Facebook and used it in the lead-ups to recent and particularly consequential elections.
At the same time, the investigators looking into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election are scrutinizing the role played by far-right web sites like Breitbart and InfoWars, along with automated social media profiles known as "bots," according to McClatchy:
Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.
The investigation of the bot-engineered traffic, which appears to be in its early stages, is being driven by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, whose inquiries rarely result in criminal charges and whose main task has been to reconstruct the nature of the Kremlin’s cyber attack and determine ways to prevent another.
In mid-April 2017, British officials voiced suspicion that foreign states like Russia and China may have interfered with the Brexit referendum. In March 2017, Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former FBI agent, testified before the U.S. Congress that part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's goal is to cause chaos inside the borders of his adversaries and break up transnational alliances and treaties like the European Union and NATO that hinder his military and geopolitical influence.
U.S. intelligence officials have also said Russia interfered, albeit unsuccessfully, in the 2017 French election.