The data firm that helped propel Trump to the presidency used sex workers and bribes to entrap political opponents in compromising situations, according to an investigation by Channel 4 News in the U.K.
Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, told undercover reporters that it could “send some girls around to the candidate’s house,” adding that Ukrainian girls “are very beautiful, I find that works very well.” Nix also said that his firm, operating through a series of front companies and sub-contractors, would “offer a large amount of money to the candidate… we’ll have the whole thing recorded, we’ll blank out the fact of our guy and we’ll post it on the internet.”
In the admissions, filmed at a series of London hotels between November 2017 and January 2018, the managing director of Cambridge Analytica Political Global, Mark Turnball, described the damaging information as “propaganda”.
"Send some girls around to the candidates house”
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) March 19, 2018
“We just put the information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push now and again,” Turnball said. “It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda,’ because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’ the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?'” The executive went on to boast that Cambridge Analytica had worked in more than two hundred elections across the world.
“The fundamental human drivers when it comes to taking information onboard effectively are hopes and fears and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious,” Turnball said in a later interaction. “You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you, and our job is to drop the bucket further down the well then anybody else to understand what really are those deep-seated underlying fears.”
The new revelations come just days after the Guardian and New York Times reported that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal information from 50 million Facebook users — without their permission — to help the firm microtarget prospective voters for the 2016 election. Cambridge Analytica is also under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for possible links to Russian interference in the election and by the U.K. Parliament for data privacy violations. Offering bribes to public officials, as documented in the Channel 4 expose, is also illegal under both the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the U.K. Bribery Act.
On Monday, Facebook announced that it had hired a digital forensics firm to audit the claims about Cambridge Analytica and whether the firm still holds data on Facebook users. “If this data still exists, it would be a grave violation of Facebook’s policies and an unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments these groups made,” Facebook said in a blog post. “We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims.”
In an extraordinary statement, Cambridge Analytica denied Channel 4’s allegations and said that they were the ones being entrapped by the undercover journalists. “Cambridge Analytica held a series of meeting with the undercover reporter to discuss philanthropic, infrastructure and political projects in Sri Lanka,” it said. “The undercover reporter later attempted to entrap Cambridge Analytica executives by initiating a conversation about unethical practices.”
The statement added that “the company’s practice is to gently de-escalate the conversation before removing themselves from the situation. However CEO Alexander Nix acknowledges that on this occasion he misjudged the situation.” Apparently Cambridge Analytica de-escalation involves specifically mentioning the nationality of the sex workers he would allegedly use to entrap political opponents.
But even if there is a shred of truth to Cambridge Analytica’s statement — and Channel 4 is renowned in the UK for the strength of its investigative reporting — it ignores the wider issue of the firm allegedly accessing the personal data of 50 million Americans. Now the U.K.’s Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said she is seeking a warrant to examine the data and servers used by Cambridge Analytica.
“We need to get in there, we need to look at the databases, we need to look at the servers and understand how data was processed or deleted by Cambridge Analytica,” she said.
This piece has been updated with Cambridge Analytica’s statement