The UK’s Fake News Inquiry, which has recently joined forces with the US Senate Russia probe, took the first open session evidence from Alexander Nix, CEO of controversial big data company Cambridge Analytica, in London on February 27.
In often terse exchanges, Nix robustly defended the firm’s data gathering and psycho-graphic messaging tactics, though his statements were often contradicted by existing evidence and, on occasion, his own words.
Covering topics from Brexit and Leave.EU to Trump and Wikileaks, Nix gave vital insight into a company which operates in politics globally, subject to only limited scrutiny, and which targets voters at a personal-emotional level to drive the behaviour of electorates and change political landscapes for profit.
Prior to the two hour long session Nix had written to Collins, the Select Committee chair, wishing to highlight “factually inaccurate claims” made about Cambridge Analytica in previous committee sessions.
“It was claimed on 23 January 2018 that analysis of Facebook Likes and personality was used in the last US presidential election to target voters. Cambridge Analytica has always been clear that it did not use any personality modelling or “psycho-graphics” in the election, and that it has no access to Facebook likes. On 8 February 2018 Mr Matheson implied that Cambridge Analytica “gathers data from users on Facebook.” Cambridge Analytica does not gather such data. On 8 February 2018 Mr Matheson also implied that Cambridge Analytica had worked on the 2016 EU referendum. Cambridge Analytica had no involvement in the referendum, was not retained by any campaign, and did not provide any services (paid or unpaid) to any campaign,” Nix wrote on February 23.
The correspondence mirrored previous contact the company had with Byline Media in 2017, after they were simply approached to reply to articles.
Nix subsequently gave oral evidence confirming the company pro-actively uses Facebook and draws back data from self-initiated campaigns, and did so in huge volumes during the Trump campaign.
While he claimed they hadn’t used psycho-graphics during the Trump campaign due to time constraints in data gathering after the primaries, in September 2016 Nix himself gave a presentation stating they had already profiled all adult Americans at that time.
The video was filmed at the Concordia Summit in the in September 2016 and during the presentation Nix stated Cambridge Analytica had profiled all adult Americans.
In a broadly reported press release from Cambridge Analytica, Nix is quoted as saying “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win,” but, when later reports started to critique the company’s technique, Nix was quoted in March 2017 by the New York Times saying: “We bake a cake, it’s got 10 ingredients in it. Psycho-graphics is one of them.”
On the balance of probabilities, it appears unlikely psycho-graphics were not used during the Trump election but we may never know the whole truth.
While Nix gave oral evidence denying a working relationship with Leave.EU, he was confronted with evidence – including his own words – which contradicted his position.
“Collins challenged the CEO robustly, telling Nix “what you’ve said today is challenged by you, your own statements, and the statements of others.”[paraphrased].”
Collins opened the session wishing to “clear a few things up,” citing Nix’s letter which the committee published same day.
Collins highlighted Nix’s written claim of never having had involvement in the EU referendum, then raised public statements made by Nix himself claiming association with Leave.EU – the Arron Banks led campaign group currently being investigated by both the ICO and the Electoral Commission – in part over an alleged donation of millions in services by Cambridge Analytica.
The financial cross-funding mess relating to the Leave campaign groups is substantial.
Nix responded immediately, saying: “We’ve been consistent for two years…there was one statement only from an over-zealous PR consultant…it’s crystal clear we were not involved…we’ve tried to correct the press again and again.”
Nix called claims of the company working with Leave.EU Fake News.
In reply, Collins read an article published by Nix himself, in which he confirmed his company was working with Leave.EU and had already “supercharged” their operation.
Backed into a corner, Nix doubled-down and claimed this statement was made “in anticipation” of a formal agreement.
When pressed as to why he had not had his article withdrawn – it is still available – Nix added: “My point is valid. We were not involved and must not dwell on this. Period.”
The committee responded by highlighting footage of Cambridge Analytica’s Brittany Keiser at the official launch of Leave.EU’s campaign, in which she specified they would be targeting “first time and apathetic voters.” Which Leave.EU did.
Kesier, Nix confirmed, was and still is an employee of Cambridge Analytica
While Nix continued to double-down, saying it wasn’t unusual for people with no formal working relationships to appear together formally in public, it was obvious his initial claim of a single press release was untrue.
The committee also raised tweets from Leave.EU campaign manager Andy Wigmore, in which he highly recommended Cambridge Analytica to other political groups in the UK, and confirmed Leave.EU had brought in “US Data Firm Cambridge Analytica.”
Nix was terse with committee, replying: “I don’t know how to explain this more clearly…however it appears to you…we did not work together.”
Collins challenged the CEO robustly, telling Nix “what you’ve said today is challenged by you, your own statements, and the statements of others.”[paraphrased].
Nix tried to refer the argument back to the single press release, despite it being untrue, and then added: “This line of inquiry is not fair.”
“Collins asked Nix whether Leave.EU had a dataset, to which Nix replied: “I’m not sure they did,” adding that the idea was for Cambridge Analytica to gather data for their campaign.”
Discussing the background of the company, Nix told the Committee they had spoken with every political party in the UK at one point or another and had spent 27 years managing campaigns around the world.
“Our communications are rooted in data and science and need access to data sets,” he confirmed.
Collins asked Nix whether Leave.EU had a dataset, to which Nix replied: “I’m not sure they did,” adding that the idea was for Cambridge Analytica to gather data for their campaign.
Recapping a Business Week article, in which Nix said the company would undertake work for Leave.EU, the committee produced a book, The Bad Boys Of Brexit by Arron Banks.
When asked if he had read the book, Nix said: “No I haven’t.”
The Committee highlighted Nix had a copy of the book in his office – which was captured on film during an interview he did with BBC NewsNight. Banks shares space with disgraced US General Michael Flynn.
Suggesting Nix read the page covering October 22 2015, the committee highlighted a passage in which Banks says “We’ve hired Cambridge Analytica which uses psycho-graphics and big data.”
“I’ve read that,” Nix replied.
“But you said you hadn’t read it,” the bemused committee asked, also asking why he had taken no steps to have the statement corrected.
“The book was published and there was little I could do,” Nix replied.
Nix is highly selective about what he wants amended and acts swiftly when unhappy. Cambridge Analytica contacted Byline within 24 hours of articles with only minor corrections required being posted, and also commenced legal moves against the Guardian and Carole Cadwalladr following articles about the big data firm. His position on Banks’s book seems to indicate no falsehood requiring, or able to achieve, remedy.
The committee pressed Nix, asking if Banks was a liar. Nix committed to “It’s not true.”
When Nix then repeated the line “We did no paid or unpaid work for them,” the committee quoted his own statements back to him, saying the firm had undertaken work, and asked: “which is true?”
Having agreed to provide bank statements to the committee, Nix was petulant, adding: “I thought my purpose was to inform the committee and help.”
Unrelenting, the committee asked what went wrong for Cambridge Analytica not to get the job with Leave.EU and why Banks was consistent in saying they had worked together. Nix said he couldn’t speculate on why Leave.EU may be “misrepresenting the truth.”
One MP told Nix: “The English language is changing in my ears. You weren’t working together but you had meetings.”
“We dated, had a couple of dinners, but didn’t get married,” Nix replied, before telling the committee he couldn’t recall detail around the discussions as it was three years ago.
Collins finally highlighted that Cambridge Analytica were officially listed in Electoral Commission designation documentation submitted by Leave.EU.
Nix simply responded: “I can’t answer that.”
During the session, Banks volunteered
to attend and give evidence, which raised laughter among MPs and journalists. They will, however, take him up on this.
“When questioned on where the social responsibility in preying on emotions was, Nix claimed it was an “unfair question” and painted the micro-targeting of voters as beneficial to democracy.”
Nix was given short thrift over the main activities of the company, with the committee highlighting Nix’s business model was to play to the fears of the electorate with misinformation, and noting it was ironic he claimed the same thing was happening to him.
When pressed on the UK for the first time, Nix said: “we don’t involve ourselves in the UK as a rule of thumb.”
When questioned on where the social responsibility in preying on emotions was, Nix claimed it was an “unfair question” and painted the micro-targeting of voters as beneficial to democracy. He launched into whataboutery, citing the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns and mentioning Clinton’s digital operations in 2016.
Pressed by Collins on the ethics of playing to fears, a specific example from the Cruz campaign was cited – involving a lone female being afraid of being attacked and using her second amendment rights to buy a gun.
“Using emotions underpinned by fact is not bad,” Nix responded.
“Fear,” Collins corrected, before the questions turned to psychological profile and data gathering.
Nix confirmed the company acquires large datasets which include consumer and lifestyle data and match this with fresh research through surveys and polls – something Byline has covered extensively. (The illegal practice of Sugging is the collection of data through surveys and its re-purposing for use in campaigns.)
Nix told the committee the datasets held in the UK are not as substantial in the US, and when pressed on Facebook stated they could not access mentions and likes from the social media giant. He referred specifically to the work of an academic in this field, but not by name – which is Michael Kosinski.
Nix confirmed Cambridge Analytica uses the Facebook platform both to advertise and to gather data through surveys – activity which is closely monitored in order to adapt campaigns.
This, in fact, confirms Cambridge Analytica is using Facebook data on a self-initiated basis, judging the success of its campaigns on shares, likes, and mentions – which form part of ‘Reach’ – and would subsequently have manual access to the Facebook profiles of people interacting with their campaigns, as well as those taking part in surveys.
In the US, during the Trump campaign, Nix told the committee they were running 400,000 surveys per month for five months, and amassed 5,000 data points on every American.
Describing how the Facebook surveys work, Nix told the committee they
post survey questions to the platform and collect the results from them
too. “We might use Facebook as a means to engage with the public and
gather data,” he said.
Collins also highlighted he had personally completed a psychological profile survey on Cambridge Analytica’s own website, which asks for a log in by Facebook at the very end in order to receive the results.
Nix went on to confirm that a major source of data for the group comes from browser cookies.
When one MP described the company as “all powerful” and operating with little scrutiny, Nix replied that he was very flattered, but added: “What we are doing is no different to advertising agencies…we only work in free and fair democracies.”
Having seen FARA filings relating to Cambridge Analytica group company SCL Social Ltd – which Nix is a director of – being actively deployed in Qatar at the behest of UAE parties and supporting Russian regional interests in doing so – Nix’s view appears to be at best misguided and at worst disingenuous.
The Boycott campaign they ran in Qatar was deliberately divisive.
“Nix attempted throughout the session to paint narratives in a controlled fashion but became repeatedly entangled in facts.”
Nix, throughout the session, made the structure of SCL sound as ambiguous as it looks on paper, though he did confirm Cambridge Analytica does share datasets with SCL. This isn’t mutual, however, as SCL datasets are security cleared due to their operation in the defence arena.
Data is a significant commodity and integral to hybrid warfare.
Nix cited work in the US and UK using group audience behaviour to target hostile actors and mentioned the group supports governments in delivering “programmes of social change.”
Discussing the difference between data operations in the US and UK, because of regulation from the EU, Nix explained that in the US they could get and share what data they like, whereas he set out a distinct position that Cambridge Analytica would only ever process and not control data in the UK.
This set him at odds with his earlier statement around data gathering for Leave.EU and survey activity.
Discussing the security of his data, which is held partly in the cloud, Nix told the committee it was “technically possible an employee could have taken data and passed it on.”
Towards the end of the session, the committee highlighted findings in the account filings of the SCL Group which showed over $24 million coming in. Nix drew a line and said this was not up for discussion in a public forum.
Other points of interest during the session included Steve Bannon and Wikileaks.
The issue of Steve Bannon being a board member was raised and Nix tried to play this down, saying they used him to help a “small British company” better understand the American market.
The committee responded straight away that this appeared incompatible with the non-partisan image Nix had tried to portray throughout his evidence, and he conceded “Look, in the US you don’t get to switch sides.”
On Julian Assange and Wikileaks claiming Cambridge Analytica had contacted them for the hacked DNC data, Nix was adamant he had “never spoken to them” and there was “no relationship.”
When pressed a second time at the end of the session, Nix changed this story and said: “News channels were reporting Assange had a large quantity of information which could influence the election…we reached out through a speaking agency and asked if he would like to meet. We heard back that he wouldn’t.”
Nix attempted throughout the session to paint narratives in a controlled fashion but became repeatedly entangled in facts.
Finally, while Nix denied any use of bots or trolls to spread targeted messaging, he admitted that clients were briefed in detail on what messages would be delivered, on what platforms, and at what frequency of messaging success would be achieved.
It’s quite apparent there is no constraint on a client beyond this, and they would be free to employ whatever automation or managed media tactics they wanted, with whatever partners they wanted, with a very specific degree of accuracy.
He denied any work had ever been done with Russia or for Russia, but indicated they had and could work with third countries targeting others – as had occurred in Qatar.
The committee requested several follow up items to be sent in writing.