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Tue 22 June 2021

Facebook hacking, voter suppression, psychographic targeting? Four years on, the congressional denials turn out to be false, reports Zamaan Qureshi

Alexander Nix, former CEO of the now-defunct British consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica was handed a seven-year suspension by the Insolvency Service from serving as director of any company back in September of 2020. Since then, the former boss from West London has largely flown under the radar.

During his time as chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, Nix was a subject in the investigation by the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee as it carried out its inquiry into disinformation and fake news. Nix – a central figure in that investigation – was embroiled in what seemed to be an endless number of scandals, most especially being caught on camera by Channel 4 News admitting to bribery and providing honeytrap services to political clients through Cambridge Analytica/SCL Group. 

But across the pond, a year before the DCMS inquiry started, the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) was conducting its own investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Reports indicated that the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to micro-target voters in key swing states using Facebook ads. The company claimed to have 5,000 data points on every US voter. Nix became a key witness in the investigation and was called to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in December of 2017.

Bizarrely, according to the House Democrats then-minority report, Nix testified via video-teleconference even though “he informed the Committee during the interview that he travelled to the United States almost every month and would have been willing to come in if he had been asked.” 

But more concerning were the responses Nix gave to members of the Committee. The top Democrat on the Committee Adam Schiff told Channel 4 News that he had “serious questions about the truthfulness of his testimony.” The Democrats indicated in their minority report that they wished to ask Nix back for a “follow-up interview” and request more “extensive production of personal and corporate documents.”

Both requests were blocked by the Republicans on the Committee and contrary to the bipartisan investigation conducted by the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), the House Intelligence Committee concluded their investigation in 2018 with little success.


House Intelligence Committee

Two years later in May of 2020, the Committee published a full list of transcripts from their investigation – one of which was Alexander Nix. Given the treasure trove of documents, revelations, and investigations that have spilled out over the course of the past year, the new evidence sows serious doubt in the truthfulness of his testimony. Here are some of the most egregious:

Q (Redacted): Has Cambridge Analytica acquired bulk data through Facebook? A (Nix): No, it has not.Page 59

Nix denied to the Committee that Cambridge Analytica “acquired bulk data through Facebook” but all evidence suggests Nix’s claim is wholly untrue. This was also a claim Nix denied in front of Parliament and was subsequently believed to have misled the body following the evidence session.

Nix signed a contract with former Cambridge University professor Dr. Aleksandr Kogan (who set up the company Global Science Research) to acquire Facebook data through an app GSR built called “This Is Your Digital Life” which scraped data from Facebook users and their friends. In addition, newly released Cambridge Analytica emails show communications between Nix and Facebook’s policy director Allison Hendrix requesting Cambridge Analytica delete its Facebook data. Finally, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office confirmed in its report to Parliament that “the data of these users and their Facebook friends was then available to GSR and, ultimately, to Cambridge Analytica.”

Q (Redacted): Did Cambridge Analytica at any time during the campaign use your datasets to suppress voter turnout? A (Nix): No, we did not.Page 71/72 Q (Redacted): Did the PAC engage in any voter suppression efforts? A (Nix): No, it did not.Page 84

According to Channel 4 News, US voters were labeled by the Trump Campaign for “deterrence” and were bombarded with micro-targeted ads in an effort to persuade them not to turn out to vote. Cambridge Analytica did most of the digital work for the Trump Campaign and the Make America Number 1 Super PAC.

Channel 4 News reported that the Trump Campaign identified African-American and Black voters that were unlikely to be persuaded to vote for Trump in swing states then engaged in suppressing voter turnout. Channel 4 News also noted in their reporting that in a confidential document seen by them, “Cambridge Analytica admitted the Trump campaign did target ‘AA’ (African Americans) with what it called the ‘Predators video’ – spending $55,000 USD in the state of Georgia alone.”


Psychographic Targeting

The revelations uncovered by Channel 4 News also sow doubt in the truthfulness of the testimony provided by former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale to the House Intelligence Committee who denied similar allegations of engaging in deterrence.

The day before the Channel 4 News piece aired around the world, Parscale was detained after his wife called local police alleging Parscale was mentally unstable and suicidal. Many have speculated about the reasoning as to why Parscale acted in such a manner. Nevertheless, the information Channel 4 News obtained seriously implicates Nix and Parscale in their testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.

Q (Redacted): Did Cambridge Analytica use datasets to target based on different personalities? A (Alexander Nix): No, Cambridge Analytica did not use psychographic data in the Trump campaign.Page 69

Over the course of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Committee “obtained documents in the course of its investigation that suggest Cambridge Analytica’s data may have been used in support of the Trump Campaign, and the Campaign may have leveraged Cambridge Analytica’s ‘psychographic analysis’ capabilities.”

Documents demonstrating the flow of data through the Trump campaign shows various circles highlighting Cambridge Analytica’s “psychographic analysis” tools. Nix did not deny the PAC’s (Make America Number 1) usage of such tools but took issue at the suggestion the Campaign directly utilized such techniques. 

Pages 676 and 677 of the SSCI’s Russia Report. Highlights added for clarity.

These revelations go to underscore how much the public still does not know about this company and its influence on the 2016 election. As Guardian and Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr has said, too many simply dismiss Cambridge Analytica as a “conspiracy theory” not because of the lack of evidence but because of the lack of action by investigators and authorities like the House Intelligence Committee.

Professor David Carroll, who first took Cambridge Analytica to court back in 2019, has said, “It [Cambridge Analytica] knows what kind of car I have, it knows if I’m a gamer, it knows my investments, it knows how I eat, it knows if I use coupons.” A company with that much knowledge and power of voters from another country, no less, should be properly investigated and its CEO held accountable. 

The disturbing nature of these revelations led me, an 18-year-old college student from Illinois, to write to the House Intelligence Committee two months ago in a 93-page report detailing what I believe to be misleading and false testimony Alexander Nix provided the Committee in 2017. It’s been almost 4 years since his testimony and a few statements of concern from Chairman Adam Schiff have not held a key witness, who potentially committed perjury, accountable.

As independent journalist Wendy Siegelman has noted, Emerdata – the new iteration of Cambridge Analytica – operates without much knowledge of its practices. So while Cambridge Analytica may be gone, its techniques and its chief executive – never held accountable for his actions – are potentially engaging in further democracy destruction deeper in the shadows.

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