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- The Facebook data scandal has all-but confirmed Cambridge Analytica’s shadowy role in the US election, but its involvement in Brexit is even more murky.
- The company repeatedly claimed it worked with Leave.EU, only to later completely deny any collaboration with Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign group.
- Leave.EU executives have also contradicted themselves on the role Cambridge Analytica played in helping it influence voters in Britain.
The Facebook data scandal all-but confirmed a long-held suspicion that Cambridge Analytica (CA) used online voter profiling techniques that may have helped swing the 2016 US election in favour of Donald Trump.
But while questions about CA’s shadowy work in American democracy are being bottomed out, many still linger about the company’s involvement in the UK’s historic vote to leave the European Union.
British politicians have called for a full investigation into CA’s work in the UK and overseas, particularly after the firm gave differing accounts of the work it undertook for Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign group, Leave.EU.
Here are all the times CA has brazenly contradicted itself over its involvement in helping to persuade British voters to leave the EU.
CA’s CEO wrote that the firm had “teamed up with Leave.EU” – then furiously backpedalled
In February 2016, CA’s Chief Executive Alexander Nix penned a comment piece for British trade journal Campaign about how data had – ironically – helped Ted Cruz beat Trump in the Republican primary in Iowa.
Within the column, which is still online here, Nix said the company had “teamed up with Leave.EU” to help the Brexit advocates “better understand and communicate with UK voters.”
The CEO boasted: “We have already helped supercharge Leave.EU’s social media campaign by ensuring the right messages are getting to the right voters online, and the campaign’s Facebook page is growing in support to the tune of about 3,000 people per day.”
But in evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee (DCMSC) last month, Nix furiously backpedaled from this version of events. He said the Campaign comment piece was drafted by a “slightly overzealous PR consultant” and was published before it entered into an official partnership with Leave.EU.
“It was an error. We were very vocal about that at the time and we addressed it head-on immediately when we realised that it had been put out,” he told the DCMSC chair Damian Collins. Asked why the article is still online, Nix said: “I cannot speak to that personally, but I am sure that we have asked them [to withdraw it.]”
The CEO was pressed on the matter repeatedly by the committee. “The facts of the matter are that we did no work on that campaign or any campaigns. We were not involved in the referendum,” he told MPs, adding that he would be “pleased” to provide bank statements showing that no money passed hands between Leave.EU and CA.
On Sunday, Collins cast doubt over Nix’s evidence to MPs. He said the revelations that CA harvested data from 50 million Facebook accounts meant Nix had “deliberately misled the committee and Parliament” by saying CA does not engage in such activities.
Nix admitted CA “did undertake some work” for Leave.EU – but it was only preparatory
A year after writing in Campaign magazine, Nix again admitted to a relationship with Leave.EU. He told Bloomberg: “We did undertake some work with Leave.EU, but it’s been significantly overreported.”
Nix explained that the work he referred to was simply preparatory. He said: “I was using the word ‘work’ to mean that we met with them to discuss an opportunity. That is working.
“Unfortunately, having meetings, even if they do not lead anywhere, is still work but it does not entail the sort of relationship that you are trying to suggest existed between their organisation and our company.”
A CA employee took part in the Leave.EU launch event, despite claims they weren’t working together
Flashback again to 2015, and at a launch event for Leave.EU in November, CA’s Business Development Director Brittany Kaiser was sat on the press conference panel.
She told the audience that CA will be “running large-scale research of the nation to really understand why people are interested in staying in or out of the EU. The answers to that will help inform our policy and communications.” You can watch the full press conference here.
But Nix said it was perfectly normal for two organisations to appear alongside each other at a launch event, despite having no formal connection. He told MPs: “It is not unusual, when you are exploring a working relationship with a client, to speak in public together about the work that you hope to undertake.”
Kaiser told PR Week that CA was working on targeted messaging for Leave.EU
Soon after the Leave.EU event, Kaiser elaborated on their connection in another trade journal. She told PR Week that CA’s “team of data scientists and analysts” were working on targeted messaging by “understanding why certain things worry people… probing why people care about a certain issue.” Again the piece is still online.
Of course, according to Nix, this was a public pronouncement by a more junior member of his team about a contractual relationship with a client that never existed.
Leave.EU also repeatedly boasted that it worked with CA – and named the company in documents applying to be the official Brexit campaign group
It wasn’t just CA that repeated claims that it worked with Leave.EU, the campaign group itself boasted about their collaboration on a number of occasions.
Aaron Banks, who bankrolled the campaign, wrote in his book “The Bad Boys of Brexit” that on 22 October 2015, Leave.EU “hired Cambridge Analytica, an American company that uses ‘big data and advanced psychographics’ to influence people.”
- Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
Furthermore, Communications Director Andy Wigmore admitted last year that Leave.EU hired CA and can “highly recommend” the company’s services.
He also told The Observer that the group harvested personal data and targeted voters on Facebook with anti-EU messaging. He said Facebook was a powerful weapon in Leave.EU’s armoury, claiming that the accuracy of the technology is “really creepy.”
Wigmore explained that CA was “happy to help” with its work on Brexit because Farage is a “good friend” of Robert Mercer, the hedge fund billionaire who is reported to have invested in CA.
Leave.EU even named CA in its paperwork when it applied to the Electoral Commission to be the official Brexit campaign, according to DCMSC chair Collins. The company was not designated as the official campaign group and Nix said he was unaware CA had been named in the documents.
And just like Nix, Banks has rowed back from his statements about CA and Leave.EU’s relationship.
In a letter to the DCMSC last week, he said: “Leave.EU’s dealings with Cambridge Analytica were limited to tender discussions, negotiations regarding contract terms contingent upon winning designation, and Cambridge Analytica being presented as an intended strategic partner in the event that designation was secured.”