Cambridge Analytica's History of Dubious Election Tricks

(Bloomberg) -- By capturing the former head of Cambridge Analytica bragging about offering bribes in elections, the U.K.’s Channel 4 highlighted an underappreciated aspect of the company that is facing scrutiny over its manipulation of Facebook: a history of questionable campaign tactics.

Cambridge Analytica's History of Dubious Election Tricks

Alexander Nix, who was suspended as chief executive officer on Tuesday, was secretly recorded by Channel 4, which showed the video this week. Last year he told Bloomberg News that his company was involved in up to 10 campaigns for prime minister and president every year. “Right now we’re active in national campaigns in Asia, Africa and Europe and South America," he said.

The company -- SCL Group, the British affiliate of Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the Trump campaign -- has often felt no need to hide some of its tactics, although Nix, in response to Channel 4, denied ever engaging in entrapment or bribery.

In sales documents given to prospective clients, SCL said it helped a candidate in Trinidad by emblazoning graffiti slogans around the island that ostensibly was posted by young Trinidadians. “The client was then able to ’adopt’ related policies and claim credit for listening to a ‘united youth,’” the SCL document said.

Nix acknowledged advocating the use of “street media” such as graffiti and fly posters and says it’s “normal election practice in many of the Caribbean islands.” The work was for the United National Congress, which didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In the past year, Cambridge Analytica has refashioned its website, taking credit for some SCL campaigns, reflecting the blurred lines between the two companies.

Disinformation Campaign

In Latvia, SCL helped a client by running a disinformation campaign designed to stoke ethnic tensions between Latvians and ethnic Russian residents: “In essence, Russians were blamed for unemployment and other problems affecting the economy,” the SCL document said, claiming that the effort helped its nationalist client to victory.

SCL’s website also claimed to have advised “Ainars Slesers and his running mate Andres Skele” in analyzing the Latvian electorate to “inform the candidate’s campaign strategy.” Slesers and Skele were running mates in 2010 under the alliance “Par labu Latviju!” (“For a good Latvia!”), which won only eight seats in parliament and never joined the governing coalition.

Marcis Bendiks, who advised Skele and was asked by the alliance to examine why it did so poorly, said last year that SCL subcontracted its polling to a local company, but never paid it for the work.

“They swindled a huge amount of money out of that campaign,” Bendiks told Bloomberg at the time, declining to say how much. “No one in the campaign saw any analysis or some strategy outline based on focus groups from them.”

Paying the Agency

Nix said then that he provided a 148-page report to the party and SCL wasn’t responsible for paying the polling agency. Aigars Freimanis, founder of the local polling company, disputed this, saying his contract was with SCL. Slesers declined to comment. Nix didn’t immediately respond to a request for further comment on Tuesday.

Nix, known as Bertie, graduated from the elite boarding school Eton College. He set up Cambridge Analytica in 2013 to target the U.S. market, installing himself as CEO after 14 years as a director of SCL. In the past couple of years, Nix, 42, has become a darling in tech and marketing circles, popping up on the international speaking circuit to promote his data-driven approach.

Cambridge Analytica has repeatedly overstated its political and military connections. SCL’s website used to say its methodology had been approved by NATO and other defense organizations around the world, including Sandia National Laboratories, which works closely with the U.S. Department of Defense. Sandia disputed that characterization, saying that it consulted with SCL on its methods a decade ago but never did any formal evaluation or worked together on any projects. Bloomberg questioned Nix about this characterization a year ago. The website now says, “Our methodology has been executed in programs commissioned by NATO and Sandia National Labs.”

Secure Facility

Some of SCL’s work was so secretive it maintained a separate secure facility in south London to store sensitive files and computers, according to people familiar with the situation. “It was all very hush hush,” said a woman who runs the property company that rented it the facility but declined to be named because it was a private contract. She said the storage facility was moved about four years ago.

The secret office space is in a brick building behind a row of shops and across from Bunga Bunga, the club that was a favorite of Prince William before his marriage to Kate Middleton.

On the tiny Caribbean island of St. Lucia, SCL did a research project for the government to understand how to stem rising crime, according to its marketing presentations. Hoping to build on its work there, the company offered to help then-Prime Minister Stephenson King on his 2011 reelection campaign for free, according to a former employee.

In return, after getting reelected, the government of St. Lucia would pay SCL $1.9 million to run a public-health campaign focusing on smoking and obesity, the person said. The source claimed the actual cost of the health campaign was $1 million and the $900,000 difference was supposed to go toward back payments to SCL for election work. King lost, and the development project never happened. Nix said last year that SCL didn’t work on the 2011 election campaign. King, now St. Lucia’s infrastructure, powers, energy, and labor minister, declined to comment.

Ballot-Box Stuffing

SCL also played a role in the 2007 general election in Nigeria, which the late Umaru Yar’Adua’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won. According to the U.K.’s Department for International Development, the 2007 elections were “the worst in Nigeria’s post-independence electoral history” due to widespread ballot-box stuffing, falsification of votes and “deliberate denial of election materials to perceived strongholds of the opposition.”

According to a 2016 version of its website, SCL advised the PDP to try to dissuade opposition supporters from voting. This was achieved, the website said, “by organizing anti-poll rallies on the day of the election.” SCL later revised its website to say it “advised its client to focus on discrediting their opponent’s electoral policy platform … by organizing rallies on the day of the election to highlight those shortcomings.”

Without saying why the wording changed, Nix denied last year that SCL had ever “undertaken any campaign to discourage voting or undermine the democratic process.” A PDP spokesman, Olisa Metuh, said he wasn’t aware of SCL’s work and couldn’t comment.

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