The first in an occasional series to accompany the UNTOLD: Dial M for Mueller podcast with Carole Cadwalldr on why Britain needs an FBI-style investigation into Brexit.
Two years on the from the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election and Britain’s shock referendum vote to leave the EU, the involvement of the Russian government in both is beyond dispute.
We still don’t know precisely whether, how or why campaigners for Trump and Brexit might have colluded with Kremlin’s unprecedented attack on our democratic process. Until there is more evidence (and that could arrive imminently from the opening of sealed indictments) it’s still in the realm of conjecture, easily dismissed as ‘conspiracy theory’.
But the plan of attack, the five-year-long campaign of information warfare by Putin’s agencies and proxies, is beyond speculation. The various complaints and indictments against the Internet Research Agency, Russian Military Intelligence, Maria Butina and Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova can only be described as ‘conspiracy fact’.
To help understand the broad outlines of this conspiracy – at least from the Russian point of view – two broad phases are obvious. PART ONE covers the development of effective weapons in the ‘fifth battlespace’ – information/virtual war. PART TWO coming soon will follow the financing and deployment.
November 2013: Building the Platform for Virtual War
Putin’s worsening relations with both the US and the EU date back to tension over Georgia and the Orange revolution in Ukraine the previous decade. They became dire during his Presidential re-election in 2012, widely criticised for human rights violations, especially by the then US secretary of state Hilary Clinton.
But by November 2013 Putin reached a turning point…
In November 2013, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovitch reneged on his former policy of closer integration with the European Union and decided to join Putin’s ‘Eurasian Union’ equivalent instead. Protests began in Kiev that month and culminated in the Maidan revolution the following year, during which over 100 protestors were killed. Yanukovich fled Ukraine and his regime was toppled, but Putin invaded the Eastern Donbas region of the country and – to global disapproval and the imposition of sanctions on his key oligarchs and banks – annexed the Crimean peninsula.
PETERSBURG AND MOSCOW
In November 2013, Putin commissioned Concord Management, a private contractor and mercenary organisation run by his close ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, to set up the Internet Research Agency in the Olgino suburb of St Petersburg.
By early 2014 the Russian Troll factory would be hiring dozens of English speaking staff to create hundreds of thousands of social media accounts with a monthly budget of over $1.25m. Operatives would be sent to the US to set up false bank accounts and identities and the company would spend over $35m in the run to the Brexit and Trump votes, creating highly divisive but convincing covert propaganda which was seen by over 160 million people on Facebook alone in the US. (Facebook refuses to disclose the UK figures).
Rykov claimed that Trump himself was involved in the commissioning for this digital project ” a special scientific department of the “Cambridge University”.
Around the time the Internet Research Agency was being established, on the weekend of the 8-9th of November 2013, Donald Trump attended the Moscow version of his Miss Universe pageant, sponsored by another oligarch close to Putin, Aras Agalarov.
There they talked about building a Trump Tower in Moscow, and though he didn’t get to meet him face to face – the President was delayed by state functions – Trump claims to have talked to Putin and received gifts and messages from him.
Soon after the Miss Universe event, the organiser Yulya Alferova started talking about supporting Trump in a presidential bid. Alferova had been accompanied the weekend by her then-husband, another ruble billionaire, Artem Klyushin.
Klyushin was, in turn, a close friend of Konstantin Rykov – known as an internet guru and the “propagandist arm of the Putin government”. As early as November 2012, when Mitt Romney was defeated by Barack Obama, Rykov had been discussing Trump as the next Republican candidate.
Rykov would go on to be an avid supporter of Trump over the next few years. In two Facebook posts in November 2017 Rykov claimed he had coordinated two hacking organisations and Wikileaks to get Trump elected in an “insane, but realisable” propaganda campaign based on psychology and social media, which was able ‘”digitize” all possible types of modern man’.
Rykov even claimed that Trump himself was involved in the commissioning for this digital project “a special scientific department of the “Cambridge University”.
‘British scientists from Cambridge Analytica,’ Rykov continued, ‘suggested making 5,000 existing human psychotypes — the “ideal image” of a possible Trump supporter. Then .. put this image back on all psychotypes and thus pick up a universal key to anyone and everyone. Then it was only necessary to upload this data to information flows and social networks.’
This was only four days after the election of Trump. At that point, Cambridge Analytica’s work for Trump and was not widely known, and its psychometric targeting even more secret.
CAMBRIDGE – WHAT’S IN A NAME
That same autumn of 2013 is also the key moment when Cambridge Analytica was created under the auspices of Britain’s military psy-ops contractor, SCL.
Steve Bannon, vice president and co-founder of Cambridge Analytica, had by now established a friendship with the UKIP leader Nigel Farage and believed that the UK was a key battleground in his belief that history was a turning point in the battle between globalists and nativists.
According to Chris Wylie, who became head of research for the new company, it was born out of exactly this kind of understanding of ‘psychotypes’ or psychometric targeting. With the help of hacked data from over 75 million Facebook users, Cambridge Analytica would spend the next three years researching the ‘ideal image’ of a potential supporter of an authoritarian candidate – then target them in an ‘information operation’ using the networks and flows of social media.
The new digital targeting company was named Cambridge Analytica for two reasons according to Wylie. The first was practical and prosaic.
Much of the key research work into personality profiling and big data was being conducted at Cambridge University by Michal Kosinski at the university’s Psychometrics Centre.
According to Wylie, Bannon believed that ‘politics flows downstream from culture’. In the US, Britain was seen as more cultured, stayed, intelligent. So if the UK could succumb to populism, the US was more likely to follow.
Wylie would soon draw up a contract with a company founded by another Cambridge psychologist, Alexandr Kogan, to test the modelling on a vast amount of data on Facebook users likes and profiles.
The second reason for the name was more evocative and revealing. Steve Bannon, vice president and co-founder of Cambridge Analytica, had by now established a friendship with the UKIP leader Nigel Farage and believed that the UK was a key battleground in his belief that history was a turning point in the battle between globalists and nativists. A year earlier he had encouraged Farage to set up his own Tea Party movement, based on the insurgent populist campaigns in the US that had spread in the wake of the credit crunch and the collapse of Lehmann Brothers.
Bannon had served in the US Navy, worked for Goldman Sachs, as a producer in Hollywood and a brief period employed a team to mine virtual gold for World of Warcraft players, before he had taken over the Breitbart platform after the sudden death of its namesake and founder, Andrew Breitbart.
With this track record in military, finance, films and gaming Bannon was in a perfect position to understand the importance of culture and social media in the new kind of hybrid warfare also being developed in Russia.
According to Wylie, Bannon believed that ‘politics flows downstream from culture’,. In the US, Britain was seen as more cultured, stayed, intelligent. So if the UK could succumb to populism, the US was more likely to follow.
Wylie says he and Nix deliberately created a false office in Cambridge – a kind of Potemkin village – to impress Bannon during his visits.
BRITAIN AS THE BRIDGEHEAD
Called a ‘Conservative Madrasa’, the hard right libertarian Young Britons Foundation was an offshoot of the Young Americas Foundation, which was funded through offshore tax havens by none other than Bannon’s backer in Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica – Robert Mercer
Throughout this period, Putin’s general strategy was to co-opt right wing and anti-EU leaders throughout Europe. After an abortive attempt to reach to reach out to British eurosceptics through the Conservative Friends of Russia group, the Russian Ambassador made a more concerted attempt to get close to the UKIP leadership, and in May 2013 Farage visited Yakovenko at the embassy in London. He then started regular well-paid appearances on, what for all intents and purposes is a Russian state broadcaster, RT.
By December 2013, Farage’s friend Steve Bannon had his own plans for digital and information operations, and they were all coming together in the UK. Wylie remembers the director of Breitbart attending some kind of student conference during a visit to Cambridge. This was the Young Britons Foundation 10th anniversary conference at Churchill College…
Called a ‘Conservative Madrasa’, the hard right libertarian Young Britons Foundation was an offshoot of the Young Americas Foundation, which was funded through offshore tax havens by none other than Bannon’s backer in Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica – Robert Mercer. The YAF listed his activist daughter Rebekah as a staff member.
At the Churchill College event, Bannon appeared on a platform with Harry Cole, then a writer for the Guido Fawkes website, and Raheem Kassam, a young activist who had worked for the Henry Jackson Society and the Tax Payer’s Alliance. Within a few months, Kassam would set up the London branch of Breitbart for Bannon.
The Breitbart media channel, which Bannon has described as his ‘weapons’, would be crucial to weaponising news and analytics in both the election of Trump and the Brexit vote. Farage even admitted as much after the Brexit vote by thanking both on video, saying ‘Well done Bannon. Well done Breitbart. You helped with this hugely’.
(What is still unknown is the precise degree that Bannon combined his media channel at Breitbart with his digital weapons in Cambridge Analytica.)
Three years before Brexit, Kassam wasn’t the only crucial figure at that YBF tenth anniversary conference in Cambridge before Christmas.
Matthew Elliott, a regular attendee and member of the YBF advisory board, set up the Tax Payer’s Alliance and formed a digital campaigning company, WESS digital, with the right-wing blogger Paul Staines that March. Staines’ company Messagespace had worked on campaigns for the Russian Embassy the year before. WESS had plans to expand their digital database METIS from half a million to 10 million for the forthcoming general election ‘to build a picture of people using data on their political behaviour’.
Matthew Elliott would go on to become the Chief Executive of the official Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum.
Another early adopter of digital technology, and a barrister specialising in social media, was the YBF’s executive director Matthew Richardson. He would go on to become secretary of UKIP, and play a key role in introducing Farage’s Leave EU campaign to Cambridge Analytica. He also provided legal opinions on the funding of Leave EU.
In 2017, Matthew Richardson would join Farage and his bankroller Arron Banks in their famous visit to Trump Tower in New York to be snapped in front of the golden lift with the newly elected president.
But all that was to come. In 2013, everything was still to play for. Though Prime minister David Cameron had committed to an ‘In/Out’ EU referendum earlier that year, there was no guarantee he would win the next general election in 2015 and call for the referendum.
Meanwhile, though all his aides by now knew Trump was planning to run for president, there were many potential slips and falls before the campaign would start up in earnest towards the end of 2015.
And that’s where PART TWO will pick up. The second phase of Putin’s plan – the funding and deployment of the new cyber-weapons in the autumn of 2015.
Carole Cadwalladr and I will drill down into these years in much more detail in our new podcast – trail below.