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Mon 30 November 2020
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Dr Emma Briant reports on the contract between the famous media company and the now-defunct data operation set up by Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer

One of Britain’s most respected media companies, the Financial Times, published an article on 7 October asserting with the headline: ‘Cambridge Analytica Probe Finds No Evidence It Misused Data to Influence Brexit’.

The article by Izabella Kaminska, editor of the FT Alphaville blog, cited the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s letter to Parliament explaining the absence of a long-awaited final report into the Cambridge Analytica investigation servers, which were impounded a week or so after the journalist Carole Cadwalladr broke the scandal in March 2018 in the Observer and The New York Times.

Kaminska came to the conclusion that the “sprawling investigation” into “Cambridge Analytica and its associate company SCL has found no evidence that it misused data in an attempt to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum or help any Russian intervention in political processes”.

But, as Cadwalladr has pointed out, Denham’s letter, far from proving the Cambridge Analytica scandal on Brexit to be an elaborate hoax, actually stated that there were “systemic vulnerabilities in our democratic systems” and confirmed both the exploitation of Facebook data by the company and the largest fines possible given to the Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaign groups and Facebook. 

Denham also confirmed that it was the remit of the UK’s National Crime Agency to investigate the evidence of Russian access to Cambridge Analytica’s database.

The FT Alphaville headline was not only tendentious. The article failed to declare an  important point: the Financial Times’ own involvement in the story.


The Contract

Though not declared in the FT Alphaville piece, the fact that the Financial Times was a client of Cambridge Analytica has previously been reported by Buzzfeed.

But Byline Times can now exclusively reveal more details of this contract with the company founded by Alexander Nix of SCL, far-right site Breitbart supremo Steve Bannon, and the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer.

Signed on 24 November 2016 and ending on 24 November 2017, the contract followed Cambridge Analytica’s successful work for the Donald Trump presidential campaign. The contract, to profile US Financial Times subscribers, was also undertaken after the questionable practices of the digital campaigning company had already been reported in the UK.

I interviewed Cambridge Analytica’s digital marketing director Molly Schweikert about the Trump campaign in 2017. She explained how the company used data management platforms to match cookies online and to build richer profiles of voters mentioning the newspaper which they were working with.

“Using a data management platform, ad-tech technology allows you to consolidate a bunch of data and keep building up profiles of cookies, so they’ll assign an ID to somebody,” Schweikert told me. “They see that they were on the Financial Times reading this article, and then they were also on this website and made this purchase, so you can really start to build up information on the identity of that person, which yes, can help you better speak to them.”

More recently, the US managing editor of the Financial Times, Gillian Tett, explained to me how she met two Cambridge Analytica employees in the spring of 2016 because she had a “keen interest” in data science and digital anthropology. In what Tett describes as a “routine interaction”, she put them in contact with the Financial Times’ commercial department and had no further dealings in the matter.

When Tett wrote about Trump’s use of big data and personal targeting in 2017, she did reveal that Cambridge Analytica worked with the Financial Times “to make sure we complied with our editorial code”.

Emails given to me by Brittany Kaiser, Cambridge Analytica’s former business development director, confirm that the data marketing and campaign company was “offering the FT our analytics capacity to profile their readers and we strategize subsequent communications to convert readers into subscribers”. 

“Most newspapers target with political variables and exploit current events such as Brexit, in the case of the FT to increase subscriptions,” the correspondence from Cambridge Analytica explained.

Email from Cambridge Analytica to the Financial Times on 15 July 2016. Source: Emma Briant

Documents reveal how Cambridge Analytica analysed and mapped the Financial Times subscriber database against the wider US population by matching against Cambridge Analytica’s database, which included Facebook data used for psychographic targeting, developed for commercial as well as political campaigns.

Cambridge Analytica plan to map US Financial Times subscribers. Source: Emma Briant

The company created “Household-based Consumer Segmentation” based on income, buying habits, demographics and life events’ These modelled segments included “Jet Set Urbanites”, “Power Elite”, “Young, City Solos”, “Booming with Confidence”, and “Thriving Boomers” as below.

Segmenting the Financial Times subscriber list. Source: Emma Briant

Ensuring the retention of subscribers is a major priority for newspapers and the Financial Times was trying to reduce ‘churn’. Cambridge Analytica proposed a “targeted intervention program” which would identify 70% of those US subscribers who might leave the newspaper without intervention.

Cambridge Analytica’s list of recommendations included using ‘lookalike’ models and profiling of FT subscribers, as well as a “content recommendation system” and a “tailored incentives scheme” to boost engagement.


The “Material Breach”

When the revelations of Cambridge Analytica’s data misuse broke in early March 2018, the Financial Times was deeply concerned about confidentiality – but, it appears, primarily about that of the company rather than its readers. 

Its general counsel, Dan Guildford, wrote to Cambridge Analytica on 31 March 2018 and then again on 9 April 2018 demanding that the company remove evidence of the partnership from its website, where it was promoted publicly as a ‘case study’.

The day after the Guardian reported that Facebook was contacting 87 million people, including British citizens, to tell them that their data had been breached by Cambridge Analytica, Guildford complained that “the case study clearly contains our confidential information”.

The newspaper was worried that it would be “easy for an interested third party to work out that the case study relates to the FT” and that this was a “material breach” of the contract that insisted on strict agreements on data. Guildford demanded that Cambridge Analytica delete the mapped and modelled case study from its servers.

The same day as this email was sent, the Financial Times published an article entitled ‘Cambridge Analytica Attacks Critics for Creating Political Scandal’, in which the data company claimed that its use of Facebook data was legal – it wasn’t – and that its critics were peddling “speculation and hearsay”. It neglected to mention that the newspaper had itself hired Cambridge Analytica.

Despite the unfolding scandal, the Financial Times did not appear to ask Cambridge Analytica to confirm that all data it held on its subscribers be deleted, or whether the data had been used for any other purposes. Though Cambridge Analytica had access to the media company’s US subscriber list, the Financial Times does not seem to have notified readers of any potential risks of their data being held by a company embroiled in the biggest data misuse investigation in history.

For the last year, I have been questioning the Financial Times’ commercial team about the datasets it shared with Cambridge Analytica, whether it knows if it was shared with third parties or used in political campaigns. Its global communications director told me: “Our commercial team worked with Cambridge Analytica briefly in the past on US market research. Data was shared securely and for FT use only. There is no evidence it was used otherwise.”

They declined to comment on whether they knew that the information was deleted.


The Digital Data Barter System

It is unlikely that any members of the Financial Times’ editorial team knew anything in detail about the activities of the commercial team, but commercial activities do leave the journalistic reporting exposed.

The newspaper’s senior data-visualisation journalist John Burn-Murdoch claimed that Cambridge Analytica was “selling snake oil” and dismissed the media’s fascination with it as politically motivated, seeking “desperately to find a bogeyman” to explain Trump’s win.

The US managing editor of the Financial Times, Gillian Tett, told Byline Times that she is now writing about her experience in a forthcoming book and said that Cambridge Analytica told her how it often got data for “free” – a system she later realised was a form of ‘barter’ in which data was being swapped for services.

Tett now observes that “these exchanges are the bedrock of how Silicon Valley works, and until policy-makers start discussing barter in an explicit manner, it will be very hard to create a tech sector that feels ethical to consumers, combat political misinformation –or even just get an accurate vision of how the economy works.”

For readers of the Financial Times, that accurate vision is still hard to find and questions about the use of its database remain unanswered – the most significant: was it used to help identify media audiences in populist political campaigns and misinformation?

It would be a dark irony indeed if a journalistic organisation’s data ended up being used to help target Donald Trump’s attacks on the press, and to denigrate journalists as the ‘enemy of the people’.

Dr Emma Briant is a journalist and Associate Professor at Bard College in New York. This article draws on work for her forthcoming book ‘Propaganda Machine: Inside Cambridge Analytica and the Digital Influence Industry’


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