“These are things that don’t necessarily need to be true,” said the Cambridge Analytica boss, unknowingly on camera. Another senior executive working with Cambridge Analytica spent 12 years working for Bell Pottinger, the South African communications company that went bust last year, following a scandal involving allegations of the agency using fake videos, tweets and comments on blogs to spread unsavoury views across South Africa.
“It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion,” said Mark Turnbull, managing director of CA Political Global. Mr Turnbull was recorded as part of a recent Channel Four documentary, he had no idea, of course, that he was being caught on camera.
Between 2000 and 2012, he was employed at Bell Pottinger, the controversial communications agency. His LinkedIn profile says that Mr Turnbull “founded, and then headed up, a strategic media and influence capability with a hand-picked team to conduct work in stabilisation, counter-radicalisation and democratic reform in zones of conflict and geopolitical sensitivity.”
Pottinger Bell itself went bust in 2017 after a campaign it ran was exposed - with allegations it played on racial animosity in South Africa, involving the creation of fake news, to benefit its client Oakbay Investments, controlled by the controversial and influential Gupta family in South Africa.
In the Channel Four documentary, Mr Turnbull was also recorded saying: “Our job is to get, is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.”
Meanwhile, discussing spreading content across social media, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix was recorded saying “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true,” but, he explained that’s the dark side of data, manipulation and what it’s like in “the shadows.”
The Channel Four operation took place over five separate interviews, in which a reporter posed as a representative of a political candidate in Sri Lanka.
In a separate interview, Mr Nix was recorded suggesting that one way to bribe a political opponent to the client involved operatives who “will offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance, we’ll have the whole thing recorded on cameras, we’ll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the internet.” He also suggested sending “some girls around to the (rival) candidate’s house."
In a subsequent interview, however Mr Nix said: “We’re not in the business of fake news, we’re not in the business of lying, making stuff up, and we’re not in the business of entrapment, so we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t send a pretty girl out to seduce a politician and then film them in their bedroom and then release the film. There are companies that do this but to me that crosses a line."
A statement issued by Cambridge Analytica stated: “The (Channel Four) report is edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent the nature of those conversations and how the company conducts its business... Assessing the legality and reputational risks associated with new projects is critical for us, and we routinely undertake conversations with prospective clients to try to tease out any unethical or illegal intentions. The two Cambridge Analytica executives at the meeting humoured these questions and actively encouraged the prospective client to disclose his intentions. They left with grave concerns and did not meet with him again."
Many Pottinger Bell employees left the company before its failure with deep qualms over its methods.
Cambridge Analytica has been accused of using Facebook data, without due permission, to influence the result of the US election.
The UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has said she is seeking a warrant to to search Cambridge Analytica offices.
She said: “A full understanding of the facts, data flows and data uses is imperative for my ongoing investigation. This includes any new information, statements or evidence that have come to light in recent days.
"Our investigation into the use of personal data for political campaigns, includes the acquisition and use of Facebook data by SCL, Doctor Kogan and Cambridge Analytica.
"This is a complex and far reaching investigation for my office and any criminal or civil enforcement actions arising from it will be pursued vigorously."
For more on this story, see Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle shows how GDPR could be a trillion dollar boon