Series of articles in The Guardian and NYTimes.com
In 2014, Facebook was revealed to have conducted a vast experiment on users, without their consent, which entailed tweaking the amount of positive and negative content appearing on their feeds to see if the tech giant could manipulate some kind of “emotional contagion”.
Last year, leaked documents revealed how Facebook had told advertisers they had the capacity to monitor posts in real time and identify when teenage users were feeling “insecure”, “worthless” and “need a confidence boost”.
That kind of finite information is invaluable to advertisers – whether selling products or political candidates – as it helps them more effectively tailor and target their message to individual users on the platform.
Facebook’s ability to create granular profiles of its users has been at the very core of its business model, transforming the social media platform into one of the most profitable companies on the planet.
The company at the centre of the Facebook data breach boasted of using honey traps, fake news campaigns and operations with ex-spies to swing election campaigns around the world, a new investigation reveals.
Executives from Cambridge Analytica spoke to undercover reporters from Channel 4 News about the dark arts used by the company to help clients, which included entrapping rival candidates in fake bribery stings and hiring prostitutes to seduce them.
In one exchange, the company chief executive, Alexander Nix, is recorded telling reporters: “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed.”
Nix later detailed the dirty tricks the company would be prepared to pull behind the scenes to help its clients.
When the reporter asked if Cambridge Analytica could offer investigations into the damaging secrets of rivals, Nix said it worked with former spies from Britain and Israel to look for political dirt. He also volunteered that his team were ready to go further than an investigation.
“Oh, we do a lot more than that,” he said over dinner at an exclusive hotel in London. “Deep digging is interesting, but you know equally effective can be just to go and speak to the incumbents and to offer them a deal that’s too good to be true and make sure that that’s video recorded.
“You know these sort of tactics are very effective, instantly having video evidence of corruption.”
Nix suggested one possible scenario, in which the managing director of Cambridge Analytica’s political division, Mark Turnbull, would pose as a wealthy developer looking to exchange campaign finance for land. “I’m a master of disguise,” Turnbull said.
Another option, Nix suggested, would be to create a sex scandal. “Send some girls around to the candidate’s house, we have lots of history of things,” he told the reporter. “We could bring some Ukrainians in on holiday with us, you know what I’m saying.”
Cambridge Analytica works hard to cover traces of its operations, Nix said, using a shifting network of names and front groups.
“We’re used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows, and I look forward to building a very long-term and secretive relationship with you,” Nix told the source in a first phone call.
Cambridge Analytica sometimes contracts under a different name, so that there are no records of its involvement, Turnbull said. That does not only protect the company, but also makes its work more efficient, he is recorded saying.
“It has to happen without anyone thinking it’s propaganda, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’ the next question is: ‘Who’s put that out?’”
He added: “It may be that we have to contract under a different name … a different entity, with a different name, so that no record exists with our name attached to this at all.”
In a recent project in eastern Europe, the company sent a team but “no one even knew they were there, they were just ghosted in, did the work, ghosted out”, Turnbull said.
Covers include the setting up of fake academic projects, sometimes simply going in on tourist visas, as former employees have told the Guardian they did for US elections – apparently employed in violation of Federal law.
Nix also offered details regarding the services of professional ex-spies from Britain and Israel. “We have two projects at the moment, which involve doing deep deep depth research on the opposition and providing source … really damaging source material, that we can decide how to deploy in the course of the campaign.”