News & Politics

Cambridge Analytica Is Proud That It Swayed and Corrupted Elections Across the Globe

It would be a dangerous mistake to assume that the United States was the data analytics firm’s only target.

Photo Credit: Gaudilab/Shutterstock

Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm based in the United Kingdom, has been a topic of heated debate in data science for a while. Now the consulting firm has gained a fresh wave of heightened notoriety after one of its previous employees accused the data company of meddling with and manipulating millions of Facebook users’ personal data in the United States—allegedly for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Christopher Wylie, who once worked for the company, told The Guardian in an explosive interview that he inadvertently created former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon's "psychological warfare mindf*** tool” while working at the firm.

Both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have denied Wylie’s allegations of deliberate misconduct but the contentious subject of social media for political messaging continues. In that vein, it would be an egregious mistake to overlook Cambridge Analytica’s partner company, known as SCL, or Strategic Communication Laboratories. A brief glimpse into the group’s recent history and client portfolio may reveal a significant deal about its ideology and objectives.

In spite of boasting global operations in "over 60 countries" on its website, the SCL group keeps its media presence bare and minimal. Its homepage declares that it uses data, analytics, communication, and behavioral assessment to send commercial and political messages in different countries in order to secure its clients’ goals, whatever they may be. The group’s targeted countries range from Colombia, Thailand, India, Kenya, Ukraine, Italy, Trinidad and Tobago to Albania, Romania, Taiwan, Indonesia, Pakistan, and beyond. On top of that, the group is unquestionably proud of its portfolio and says that it uses “techniques from data mining, statics and artificial intelligence” to “accurately forecast how people will behave.”

SCL's ties with the United States become clear by way of communication between some of the country’s powerful and conservative PACs and its partner, Cambridge Analytica. One of the top conservative PACs known as Make America Number 1 receives mosts of its financing from right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer, whose daughter is under fire for reportedly working with Cambridge Analytica. The billionaire heiress supports her role while a source close to her told The Daily Beast, “She has always worked to make sure she observes and abides by all established norms and legal mandates.”

Ever since the United Kingdom’s Brexit’s campaign as well as Trump’s presidential race, modern application of psychometrics or using psychological manipulation through social media is rapidly gaining the attention of internet users. But it would be naive to assume firms like Cambridge Analytica and SCL targeted the United States and United Kingdom only. In an undercover report by Channel 4, a reporter for the channel posed as a Sri Lankan businessman seeking to entrap political foes in the country and sought the advice of Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix. Nix can be heard saying that politicians can be made offers "too good to be true" such as bribes and sexual favors as "these sort of tactics are very effective.” A “instant” video of such “corruption” could be then used to destroy politicians in developing countries, according to Nix. He then said, “We’re used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows, and I look forward to building a very long-term and secretive relationship with you.”

Later on, Nix disputed the video and said it was “edited and scripted to grossly represent the nature of those conversations.” He added, “I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment, bribes or so-called 'honeytraps', and nor does it use untrue material for any purpose.”

But it’s evident that firms like Cambridge Analytics and its affiliate corporation SCL are here to stay, be it America or elsewhere. The more important question is: how do we plan to prevent our democracies from being hijacked in the era of big data?

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Mehreen Kasana is a news writer. Previously, she worked as the front-page editor for the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @mehreenkasana.