With Boris Johnson having suppressed a report into how Russian spies penetrated the Conservative Party and UKIP, Peter Jukes looks at how Russian interference in Brexit online campaigning set the stage for Donald Trump.
Starting on 12 November 2016, the day after Donald Trump’s shock victory in the US Presidential Election, a Russian politician and internet activist called Konstantin Rykov posted two bizarre and outlandish Facebook Posts in which he claimed that he and his team had been working for “four years and two days” on ensuring “the victory of Donald in the election of the US President”.
The Facebook posts were like something from The Matrix.
Rykov claimed that, during a US Presidential Election debate between Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney in 2012, he and his colleagues had the “insane idea” that they would “digitize all possible types of modern man” and “change their perception of reality” to elect the New York property tycoon to the presidency.
To do this, Rykov went on to say that Donald Trump himself solicited a “special scientific department of Cambridge University”.
Who is Konstantin Rykov? Who are his colleagues? What is the special scientific department in Cambridge? And what has this got to do with Russian interference in British politics?
The Super Secret Weapon
Rykov is a maverick online entrepreneur, politician and disrupter. An early adopter of internet memes, conspiracy theories and social media disinformation, he founded the anarchic idiot.ru website and a lucrative dark net prostitution service called Dosug before being recruited by Russian state TV to run its internet department and other news websites.
So strong was Rykov’s association with the early years of political trolling, sock puppets, automated avatars and other kinds of information operations that, as early as 2007, his bot armies were described as “Rykovians” or “Rykovites”.
The success of Rykov’s digital warfare soon drew the attention of another playful but powerful ideologue: Vladimir Putin’s former deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, a master of ‘non-linear’ warfare.
Surkov was infamous for deploying all the tricks of theatre and reality TV to create fake opposition parties and sow counter-narratives and conspiracy theories so that Putin’s opponents were constantly lost in a hyper-real fog of doubt and despair. He appears to have adopted Rykov as his protégée. By 2008 – at the age of only 28 – Rykov was elected as a deputy in the Russian Parliament for the ruling United Russia party and became known as Putin’s internet guru.
So, as a provable Kremlin propagandist, Rykov certainly has the credentials to make his extraordinary claim about the 2016 US Presidential Election. Moreover, there is independent corroboration that he was supporting Trump in October 2012.
Rykov’s friend, the young oligarch Artem Klyushin, was in the room with Trump in 2013 during the Moscow Miss Universe event where his candidacy was discussed with Russian oligarch Aras Alagarov.
By 2015, Rykov had created his own site based on Trump’s famous ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan – only in Russian.
Rykov was also part of a wider strategic project to undermine the European Union after the war in Ukraine. He was advocating for Scottish and Catalonian independence in 2014, renaming himself McRykov and insisting that “Scotland will be free”. During the Maidan uprising in Kyiv against Putin’s ally Viktor Yanukovych, he was pushing conspiracy theories that the EU shot 100 or so demonstrators.
By this point, according to British intelligence, the Kremlin had “a secret black budget of tens of millions of dollars” earmarked for populist-nationalist politicians who were opposed to the EU. Text messages show Rykov, using his familiar first name ‘Kostya’, discussing with one of Putin’s top advisors how to get Marine le Pen’s National Front to recognise the recently annexed Crimea in return for Russian loans.
With these connections, Rykov’s next statement cannot be dismissed.
“British scientists from Cambridge Analytica suggested making 5,000 existing human psychotypes the ‘ideal image’ of a possible Trump supporter,” Rykov explained on the morning after Trump’s victory. The company was involved in a vast psychological targeting operation online to “put this image back on all psychotypes and thus picked up a universal key to anyone and everyone”. This “secret super-weapon” cost Trump only $5 million and it was boosted by “a pair of hacker groups [and] civil journalists from WikiLeaks.”
Bear in mind that November 2016 was a full year before Special Counsel Robert Mueller would indict 13 members of the Internet Research Agency, a multi-million dollar operation run from the Olgino suburb of the second Russian city of St Petersburg, involved in ‘active measures‘ to win the US election for Donald Trump. Rykov’s allegations about Wikileaks and two “hacker groups” was years before FBI indictments revealed the role of Julian Assange in deploying material hacked by ‘Fancy Bear’, associated with Russian military agency GRU, and the FSB’s ‘Cozy Bear’ group from the Democratic National Committee and its officials.
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If everything else in this post has come true, what of the claims about Cambridge Analytica?
A couple of weeks before the post, Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix told Sky News that his company held 5,000 data points on each US voter. But it was an obscure interview. Except for a small number of election specialists, the company was virtually unheard of.
It wasn’t until March 2018 that the Observer’s Carole Cadawalladr revealed that Cambridge Analytica had illegally harvested the profiles of 87 million Facebook users and the company was shut down and raided by Britain’s Information Commissioner.
Rykov has both the credibility, connections and inside knowledge to make claims about Russian interests working in league with Cambridge Analytica during the Trump campaign. But what does this have to do with Russian interference in British politics?
Why ‘Cambridge’ Analytica?
Though its front-facing entity was registered in the US, and 90% of its seed corn investment came from the right-wing American billionaire Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica was essentially a British company and played a crucial role in the country’s tumultuous but slim vote in favour of leaving the European Union.
Cambridge Analytica was co-founded in the autumn of 2013 by future Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon and Alexander Nix of SCL – a British company specialising in military-grade psy-ops, cyber warfare and civil society programmes.
The name of the now infamous ‘political consulting’ firm came from the location of its first few meetings because, according to SCL’s then head of research, Christopher Wylie, Bannon was enamoured by the cultural caché of Britain’s ancient university town – one which also conveniently had a psychology department using online data analytics for psychometric profiling of millions of people.
In December 2013, Wylie and his CEO Nix set up a fake office in Cambridge to impress the former Goldman Sachs banker, Hollywood film producer and Breitbart executive Bannon. Round the corner, at Cambridge University’s Churchill College, Bannon was also attending the 10th anniversary of the Young Britons Foundation (YBF), the sister organisation of the Young Americas Foundation, also funded by Mercer.
It was a pivotal moment in British politics. Prime Minister David Cameron had just announced a referendum on UK membership of the EU to pacify his rebellious right-wing (which included most of the attendees of the YBF, which described itself as a ‘Conservative Madrasa’). At that 10th anniversary conference, Bannon sat on a panel with Raheem Kassam of the Henry Jackson Society and Harry Cole of the Guido Fawkes blog, to discuss social media. And the interest in online information operations spread out from here.
Kassam would be recruited by Bannon as editor of his new Breitbart London site a few months later. Matthew Richardson, executive director of the YBF, acted as Mercer’s lawyer and also became secretary of Nigel Farage’s party UKIP. Over the next three years, as the EU Referendum loomed, Breitbart London was using all its resources to push for Brexit.
Meanwhile, SCL’s head of research worked with a Cambridge University professor called Aleksander Kogan to harvest the profiles of millions of Facebook users to analyse their psychological predilections and weaknesses and see how online campaigns could change their behaviour.
Kogan’s special psychometric app allowed Cambridge Analytica to download all the interests, connections, photos, likes, movements and the direct messages of all who used it, and could also access most of this information from all of their friends.
All in all, the original statements of Nix, Banks and Wigmore seem to be more likely to be true than their subsequent denials… Cambridge Analytica played a major role in the Brexit vote – and this is where Russia comes in.
This was a potentially revolutionary development in the social sciences. Here were millions of people on Facebook giving up all their innermost secrets. To Wylie – with at least 5,000 data points on each individual – it provided a model of society in silico on which data analytics and machine learning could trace how millions of individuals reacted in real-time.
But, more importantly for Bannon, it provided one of his ‘weapons’ to target people’s psychological biases by setting up fake news websites, local organising groups and turning online interactions into real-life conflict. Before long, the company was both analysing and generating anger and paranoia around issues of gender (for example Gamergate), and explosive talking points like race (Black Lives Matter), Muslims and migrants.
Throughout this time, Bannon was friends with UKIP leader Nigel Farage (who later credited Bannon and Breitbart with winning the Brexit vote). None of this expenditure or potential donations in kind was ever recorded but, by the time the EU Referendum date was set in the autumn of 2016, Cambridge Analytica’s business development director Brittany Kaiser was at the launch of the Leave.EU campaign funded by Arron Banks.
In the wake of the Brexit referendum and the company’s subsequent work on the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica regularly boasted that it had worked on both. Arron Banks’ sidekick Andy Wigmore told Carole Cadwalladr in early 2017 that Brexit was the ‘petri dish for Trump’ and during the campaign itself Banks told journalists that Leave.EU was spending £5 million a week on social media campaigns and was working with Cambridge Analytica. The Oxford Institute’s Computational Propaganda Project recently estimated that at least £3.5 million was “spent on Cambridge Analytica by Leave Campaigns”.
And then there’s the official Vote Leave campaign run by the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings. They spent 40% of their budget with online messages created by an obscure Canadian online company called AIQ, which Cummings claimed he had found ‘on the internet’ even though it had zero presence at the time. When it was listed, AIQ’s website described the company as ‘SCL Canada’ and it was staffed by associates of Christopher Wylie from his home town in Vancouver. Vote Leave’s Chief Technology Officer, Thomas Borwick, had also been a consultant to Cambridge Analytica. AIQ had common access to Cambridge Analytica’s data hacked from Facebook.
All in all, the original statements of Nix, Banks and Wigmore seem to be more likely to be true than their subsequent denials: that, before playing a central part in Donald Trump’s surprise victory, Cambridge Analytica played a major role in the Brexit vote – and this is where Russia comes in.
Russia’s Online Campaign Against the UK
According to Christopher Steele, the former head of the Russian desk of Britain’s secret service (MI6), Vladimir Putin made a strategic decision in late 2013, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, to target the next US Presidential Election and fund far-right parties who wanted to leave the EU.
This new commitment is first detected in Russia’s major investment in the St Petersburg troll farm, which started hiring dozens of English language speakers in 2014. The second, quite apart from the broadcasts of Putin-controlled outlets like RT and Sputnik, can be seen in the flush of funds coming from the Kremlin.
Operation Charlemagne, as Steele called it, started funnelling dark money to parties in Italy, Germany, Turkey and the UK. The links to France’s National Front, Germany’s AfD and Italy’s La Ligua have since been reported, but apart from meetings with Leave.EU officials, no money into British parties has yet been traced – except through resident Russian oligarchs to the Conservative Party.
When it comes to Konstantin Rykov’s claims about working with Cambridge scientists and Cambridge Analytica, the Russian links are even more extensive.
CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA’S RUSSIAN LINKS
Founder did Business with Dmytro Firtash
Staffed with former Russian Intelligence Officers
Contract with Lukoil
Hiring of Sam Patten
Hacked Facebook database accessed in Russia
One of the original principal shareholders of the parent company, SCL, was Iranian-born Vincent Tchenguiz. He has business dealings with Dmytro Firtash, the Ukrainian oligarch who is at the centre of the current Trump impeachment scandal and reported to be a key lynchpin between Putin and the Russian Mafiya, currently awaiting extradition in Vienna for charges of corruption.
According to Christopher Wylie, SCL also had employees and contractors who were former Russian intelligence officers. Wylie also tells of a strange approach to Alexander Nix from the Russian petrol giant Lukoil which was interested in US polling data. US voters were then targeted with questions about Putin, who polled well among Republicans.
More concerning still is when Cambridge Analytica hired Sam Patten as a consultant. Patten was a close associate of the currently imprisoned Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort who worked for pro-Putin oligarchs in Ukraine. According to the Mueller Inquiry, Patten handed over voter data to a former Russian military Intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik during Trump’s election campaign.
But the most direct connection is with the professor who first accessed the millions of Facebook profiles which were the origin of Cambridge Analytica’s psychometric microtargeting. Aleksander Kogan was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova and lived in Moscow before moving to the US. While working at Cambridge University and SCL, he was simultaneously based at St Petersburg State University, researching the ‘dark triad’ of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism which underpin online trolling and its real-life counterparts of stalking, harassment and death threats.
This was precisely the focus of the Olgino troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, based just around the corner from the university, and allegedly hiring students from Kogan’s department. The FBI indictments of 13 of its employees prove that the agency, funded to the tune of $50 million over three years, emphasised the dark triads to create division and dissent in US politics. Fake accounts pumped out millions of YouTube videos, Facebook and Twitter posts, and Bannon’s Breitbart was one of their top shared news sources.
These same social media accounts were active during Brexit too. Data scientists at the University of Swansea and University of California, Berkeley detected 150,000 Russian-based accounts tweeting about Brexit in the days leading up to the vote on 23 June 2016.
Given that the Internet Research Agency was financed by the same company run by the oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, behind Putin’s mercenary army, the Wagner Group, this is compelling evidence of Russian cyber warfare or ‘information operations’ to separate the UK from its European allies.
Finally, an often overlooked paragraph in Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee’s final report into Disinformation and ‘Fake News’ published in February this year is an admission from the Information Commissioner who raided Cambridge Analytica’s offices in 2018. Commissioner Elizabeth Denham revealed that Kogan’s hacked Facebook database was accessed by IP addresses originating in Russia and that the issue had been referred to Britain’s National Crime Agency.
Byline Times has contacted the NCA to check the status of its investigation, but has not yet received a response.
A Clear and Present Danger – Occluded
Konstantin Rykov’s post now comes into focus. Perhaps, as Putin’s internet guru, he helped supervise the St Petersburg troll farm. Perhaps he didn’t. But the vision and the intent is there.
And whether Cambridge Analytica’s vast psychometric database was penetrated by Russian intelligence, co-opted, or merely emulated, the modus operandi of the Olgino troll farm and the now-defunct UK digital electioneering operation is almost identical.
Both Cambridge Analytica and the Internet Research Agency tested their ‘psychotypes’ at home and across the world. Both would provoke the biases, prejudices and anger of internet users by creating fake grassroots sites, getting staff to impersonate ordinary people to post inflammatory comments which would then be recommended by automated accounts or bots to move them up the algorithms and fake a paranoid consensus.
Both would doctor news stories and videos to inflame racial and religious tensions and hatred towards migrants. Both would create real-life events by trying to get antagonists to meet and fight it out on the street. Both would actively try to suppress turnout during elections, sowing doubt about the legitimacy of the results and the security of the electoral process.
We know that this happened in the US because the FBI’s investigation subpoenaed details from Facebook and conducted a thorough investigation into state-sponsored hacking and Putin’s active measures on social media. No such investigation has been done in Britain, even though there is ample evidence that Russia was active during Brexit.
With the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russian interference in British political life currently suppressed by Boris Johnson, we remain in the dark about this clear and present danger to our democracy from a hostile power.
By hook or by crook, by collusion or carelessness, the great hack of Cambridge Analytica was boosted and emulated by Vladimir Putin. But, unlike the US, Britain has done nothing to secure its elections or its electronic borders and, thanks to the supine and perhaps supplicant attitude of Boris Johnson, the 2019 General Election remains another petri dish for them to infect.