Life Inside S.C.L., Cambridge Analytica’s Parent Company | The New Yorker,c_limit/Knight-Life-At-SCL-Parent-Company-of-Cambridge-Analytica.jpg 2x” style=”max-width: 100%;” class=””>,c_limit/Knight-Life-At-SCL-Parent-Company-of-Cambridge-Analytica.jpg 2x” style=”max-width: 100%;” class=””>,c_limit/Knight-Life-At-SCL-Parent-Company-of-Cambridge-Analytica.jpg 2x” style=”max-width: 100%;” class=””>,c_limit/Knight-Life-At-SCL-Parent-Company-of-Cambridge-Analytica.jpg 2x” style=”max-width: 100%;” class=””>

Alexander (Bertie) Nix was the chief executive of S.C.L. Elections and Cambridge Analytica, and is currently suspended from the companies.

Photograph by Christian Charisius / picture-alliance / dpa / AP

Since last week, when stories ran in the Observer, the Times, and on Britain’s Channel 4 News about Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, the S.C.L. Group, the organizations have been portrayed as possessing frightening ability and power. According to a whistle-blower, Christopher Wylie, who helped set up Cambridge Analytica, in 2013, the company managed to obtain the Facebook data of fifty million Americans, creating a digital platform of unprecedented influence and accuracy—“Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool,” in Wylie’s phrase—that was deployed by the Trump campaign in 2016. S.C.L. and its subsidiaries have also been linked to the two main Leave campaigns during Britain’s E.U. referendum of 2016, which boasted of their digital prowess. S.C.L. denies those links—which include documents, witnesses, and its own employees acknowledging their existence—to the point of incredulity. Which leaves you wondering exactly what it means when a political consultancy boasts of its methods in “behavior change,” “military influence campaigns,” “psychographic segmentation,” and other euphemisms for messing with your mind.

Last week, I met a former employee of S.C.L. In our conversation, the account that emerged of life at S.C.L. and Cambridge Analytica was prosaic, chaotic, and opportunist. The company, which frequently moved offices, was small and riven by disagreements about its strategy and personal loyalties. “It was ‘Game of Thrones’-y shit,” the employee said. S.C.L. was dominated by two charismatic Old Etonians: Nigel Oakes, the company’s founder, who is based in Dubai; and Alexander (Bertie) Nix, whose mother remains a shareholder. (Nix was the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, and is currently suspended from the company.)

There were times during our conversation when the employee seemed as bemused as anybody that a company that was started in the early nineteen-nineties with some intuitive but eccentric ideas about group psychology—one of Oakes’s first ventures was selling aromas to stores, to persuade customers to buy more—was now at the center of a transatlantic conversation about voter rights, data privacy, and the integrity of the world’s most important social network. But the employee was also clear that access to big data, particularly in the form of Facebook, combined with S.C.L.’s long interest in psychological profiling and audience segmentation, had been able to equip political campaigns with digital weapons that most voters were unaware of. “You can get philosophical about this and say that Facebook being an advertising platform masquerading as a social platform is the start of the rot and the tool was always there,” the employee said. S.C.L.’s executives were the wrong people who came along at the wrong time. “There were always going to be dodgy fuckers willing to work for rich people, and the S.C.L. was just an example of the dodgy fucker.” (S.C.L. did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company claims that it destroyed the Facebook data, in October, 2015, and that it played no role in the Presidential election.)

The employee welcomed the current attention on S.C.L.’s methodology and behavior, whether it was illegal, or whether it should have been. The leaders of the company were not interested in these questions. “Alexander is not constrained by the sort of worries we are seeing expressed right now,” the employee said. “It really is about getting money together.” The employee continued, “What is wonderful about now is this bit of it is being opened, and I think it is bloody important, because something as catastrophic as Brexit and Trump—the technical possibility of that—is achieved through this dark shit. And this dark shit can be done by fucking cowboys. And, for lots of people who worked for the organization, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

Oakes, who is now fifty-five, founded S.C.L. after spells as a d.j., a television producer, and an account executive at Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising firm. In the late eighties, he had developed an interest in mass psychology and had set up something called the Behavioural Dynamics Institute (B.D.I.) with two psychologists, Adrian Furnham and Barrie Gunter. Gunter is now an emeritus professor at Leicester University. In an e-mail, he explained that the three men met regularly between 1989 and 1993 to discuss ideas, and that the academics acted as consultants on a handful of projects before ending the relationship. “Towards the end we became increasingly concerned about the kinds of pitches being made by Nigel,” Gunter wrote. “We felt he was promising more than the science of psychology at that time could substantiate.” Oakes spun Strategic Communications Laboratories (S.C.L.) out of the B.D.I. In early interviews, Oakes distinguished the company’s scientific approach from plain old political advertising in language that sounded, well, a lot like advertising. “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler,” Oakes told Marketing, in 1992. “We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.”

S.C.L. claims to have worked on more than a hundred election campaigns around the world, but evidence for its early work is hard to come by. In 2000, the British press caught wind of Oakes’s activities in Indonesia. In Jakarta, he’d established what the company called an “operations centre”—a room full of dozens of computers, giant TV screens, and a large one-way mirror—to monitor popular opinion on behalf of the country’s troubled President, Abdurrahman Wahid. The tone of the press coverage at the time was curious and ironic. Oakes was an Englishman abroad, staying in nice hotels and chancing his arm in the former colonies. “We didn’t know the purpose of it all, we just did what he asked,” one contractor who worked for Oakes told the Independent. “We called him Mr Bond because he is English, and because he is such a mystery.”

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, S.C.L. rebranded itself as a communications company for a dangerous world, claiming that its in-house research group (the B.D.I. kept an office at the Royal Institution, Britain’s foremost scientific body) gave it an edge in “psychological warfare” and “influence operations.” In 2005, the company rented a prominent booth at Defence Systems & Equipment International, the United Kingdom’s largest military trade fair, where S.C.L. staff simulated another ops center, running the communications strategy for a fictitious smallpox outbreak in London. The company told Slate it had worked for the U.N. and in post-apartheid South Africa. According to the Observer, in 2007, S.C.L. paid twenty thousand dollars to a Washington lobbying company, Global Policy Partners, to help it win defense contracts in the United States, and the company subsequently carried out surveys for the U.S. military in Iran and Yemen.

By then, S.C.L. had hired Nix, a gifted salesman whose upper-class bearing, along with Oakes’s, helped to charm potential clients. “Alexander is a different kind of posh,” the employee said. “Nigel Oakes is a different kind of posh. . . . That means they were able to get themselves into situations.” But S.C.L. was by no means a blue-chip political consultancy. According to the employee, the company survived mainly by offering “election management” services to political parties and their funders in democracies in the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa. Rivals from London’s political-consultancy scene, who were competing for the same contracts, told me either that they hadn’t heard of the firm at the time or that they were not particularly impressed. “You can judge a political firm a bit by who its clients are,” one told me. “If they all look like people you wouldn’t trust if they sent you an e-mail, then that firm is not doing very well.”

The company’s in-house research institute, the B.D.I., was also less substantial than it sounded. “I would ask Alexander, specifically, where are the files?” the employee said. “The only things that we had in relation to all these projects were, like, little case studies and that was it.”

By 2012, S.C.L. was suffering financially. Nix, who led the London office, wanted to concentrate on the election part of the business, which was profitable, although reliant on a pipeline of fees of between two hundred thousand and two million dollars per campaign, while Oakes, who led S.C.L. Defence from Dubai, wanted to sell ops centers across the Middle East, based on the Indonesia model, which was still pictured in the company’s marketing brochures. “They would be screaming to each other on the phone, swearing loudly,” the employee said. “Bertie always used to take the piss out of the op centers.” The group more or less split, with Nix taking charge of S.C.L. Elections. Most of S.C.L.’s London staff were fired, and the remnants of the company moved to a rented office in Willesden Green, a scruffy neighborhood in the northwest part of the city. “It was a phased-withdrawal death-type thing,” the employee said. “The joke was that we had more accountants than projects.”

S.C.L.’s reconstituted London staff, which numbered about a dozen, including interns, were mostly young, ambitious political-science graduates, thrilled by the prospect of taking part in real-life elections, often in exotic places. “The vibe, I would put it, was like what you would come across in a startup,” the employee said. And in Nix they had a fearless promoter. “Alexander is a salesman,” the employee said, describing Nix’s self-confidence as “superhuman.” “If you are in sales, you go to someone that wants something, and then you present them with what they need. And then you work it out afterwards how the fuck you are going to deliver it.” In 2012, S.C.L. won a series of election contracts. The employee described work in Guyana, Kenya, and Ghana. “We could only eat what we killed,” the employee said. “We had to jump from contract to contract.”

Some of S.C.L.’s methods had merit. Oakes’s insight in forming the B.D.I. was to aim messages at social groups—rather than at individuals—and to place a low expectation on persuading people to change their minds. In a “classic S.C.L. project,” the employee explained, the company would use subcontractors, survey companies, and academics in the run-up to an election to create what it called a “super sample.” “We would speak to sixty thousand people, and we wouldn’t say, ‘Who are you going to vote for?’ ” the employee said. “We would say, ‘How do you feel about life?’ ” S.C.L.’s data concentrated on local concerns, such as housing, water shortages, or tribal conflict. “With all of that, we would delineate a strategy for them to win by focussing on targeted groups that we had identified within the population,” the employee said. “It is not so much, let’s make these people do this thing; it is, can we take this thing in such a way that the people who should get it do get it?”

S.C.L.’s research was expensive. The company charged more than a million dollars to create a super sample, and in developing countries it was frequently outbid by better-known political firms, which promised their own winning strategies. So Nix often looked for outsider candidates with wealthy patrons. “It was always going for the underdog,” the employee said. S.C.L.’s candidate in Kenya’s 2013 Presidential election, Uhuru Kenyatta, was under indictment for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court and polling a distant second place in late 2012. (The charges were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.) “Those are the people who you go for,” the employee said. In March, 2013, Kenyatta won the Kenyan Presidency, with 50.1 per cent of the vote.

Until recently, S.C.L. was unable to secure much work in Europe, and the company had never sought to take part in any U.S. campaigns. “These large, rich countries had their own infrastructure of organizations that they used,” the employee said. S.C.L., which lived contract to contract, lacked the capacity to woo major political parties and their donors. “There are more people one needs to sell to if one is going to work in a proper country,” the employee said. “There will be layers. There will be self-regulatory mechanisms.”

But in 2013 Nix travelled to the U.S. “He was very, very turned on by America,” the employee said. “That was, like, the holy grail for him.” The company targeted only Republican groups and donors. “The magic that happened for S.C.L. in America was that the Republicans at that stage essentially were a third-rate country,” the employee said. “Whoever had money and whoever wanted to do stuff was going to do it.” S.C.L.’s first work in the U.S. was for Middle Resolution, a conservative PAC in Virginia, on the state’s gubernatorial race. The Republican candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, lost. But for the first time S.C.L. had genuine in-house digital expertise. The company had hired Christopher Wylie, a twenty-three-year-old Canadian with a mastery of data, who had been working on political campaigns in the U.K. and in Canada since he was a teen-ager. Last Sunday, Wylie went public, describing his work for S.C.L. in stories for the Times and the Observer, whose reporter Carole Cadwalladr has been investigating S.C.L. for more than a year.

Wylie’s arrival gave the company new capabilities. “He was a deeply, deeply intelligent young man,” the employee said. Before Wylie, Nix’s proposal to Republican donors had been a version of S.C.L.’s work in Africa and the Caribbean: conducting super samples and focus groups, and combining that work with digital data to make a platform, known as RIPON, that could be used by campaigns to identify likely voters. Wylie’s knowledge of social platforms and large data sets promised to transform S.C.L.’s approach into something much more immediate. “It was, like, ‘A-ha!’ ” the employee said. “This kid can actually turn what we are pretending to do into more than us just gathering data and sitting in a room for a couple of weeks.”

In the fall of 2013, Steve Bannon, the editor of Breitbart News, introduced Wylie and Nix to Robert Mercer, the billionaire founder of Renaissance Technologies, who agreed to invest five million dollars in a new S.C.L. venture, named Cambridge Analytica, that would seek to influence the upcoming congressional elections. According to the Times and the Observer, Cambridge Analytica, during the summer of 2014, acquired the Facebook data from a Cambridge University researcher named Aleksandr Kogan. The S.C.L. employee was not involved in the transaction but was aware that the company finally had sufficient data to demonstrate what Nix and Wylie had been proposing. “What that did was solve the problem,” the employee said. By 2015, Cambridge Analytica had been hired by Ted Cruz’s campaign, whose spokesman, Rick Tyler, told Politico, “I’ve seen their product, and it’s better than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Cambridge Analytica was incorporated in Delaware, in order to comply with U.S. election law, but within S.C.L. there was no meaningful difference. “I make no distinction between S.C.L. and Cambridge Analytica, because nor does the company,” the employee said. “People sit together. You have both e-mails, depending which country you are writing to.” S.C.L.’s Web site listed more than fifteen branches around the world, but many of these were just an e-mail address or staffed by a single person. S.C.L.’s Ghana office, the employee explained, consisted of one person, who did transcriptions for the company.

While S.C.L.’s involvement in U.S. politics has been public for several years, its role in Britain’s referendum on whether to leave the E.U. remains disputed. In late 2015, at the launch of Leave.EU, Nigel Farage’s pro-Brexit campaign group, Brittany Kaiser, an employee of Cambridge Analytica, appeared onstage. She later told Bloomberg that the company had begun interviewing “close to half a million Britons” on behalf of Leave.EU. As late as March, 2017, Arron Banks, an insurance entrepreneur from Bristol, who helped to fund the group, wrote on Twitter, “We have made no secret of working with Cambridge. We created a huge SM [social media] machine that took the message to voters.” However, Banks would soon deny that S.C.L. played a major role in Leave.EU’s campaign, telling the Observer that the two companies planned to work together “if we won the official designation—but we didn’t.”

Instead, “Vote Leave,” a more polished, mainstream campaign group, led by establishment Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, the current Foreign Secretary, won the official designation from the U.K.’s Electoral Commission. Being the official campaign allowed “Vote Leave” to spend seven million pounds in the three months leading up to the referendum, on June 23, 2016. Vote Leave’s posters and slogans were designed to be palatable to Middle England, but the campaign also had a strong digital component that sought to mobilize voters who were often poorer and less well-educated; these people were often anti-E.U. but less likely to vote. Last year, receipts released by the Electoral Commission showed that Vote Leave paid 3.9 million of the seven million pounds to a small digital-software company called Aggregate I.Q., whose offices are above an optician’s store in Victoria, British Columbia. Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director, said in a testimonial, “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of Aggregate I.Q. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Why was the majority of the official funding for the Brexit campaign devoted to an obscure Canadian company with little visible experience? Until February, 2017, the Observer reported, the phone number on S.C.L.’s Web site for its Canada office rang through to Aggregate I.Q. The company, the employee explained, was part of the network of coders and developers that Wylie brought to S.C.L.: “A.I.Q. were friends of Chris.” Aggregate I.Q. was founded, in 2013, by Zack Massingham and Jeff Silvester, two I.T. specialists who had worked in Canadian politics. “They could do data stuff for us,” the employee said. “They could crunch numbers. They understood the Internet—they became like our shop for that kind of stuff.” In 2014, Massingham visited S.C.L.’s offices in London to give a presentation on an app, based on RIPON, that the company was developing for the U.S. market. According to the employee, Aggregate I.Q. also worked on an S.C.L. project to help elect the mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, in 2015. “They were our employees.”

In her reporting for the Observer, Cadwalladr unearthed an apparent agreement between Aggregate I.Q. and Cambridge Analytica, from September, 2014, which assigns Aggregate I.Q.’s intellectual property to Cambridge Analytica. Over the weekend, in another article for the newspaper, Wylie corroborated what the S.C.L. employee told me, describing A.I.Q. as an “internal department” of Cambridge Analytica and as “a Canadian entity for people who wanted to work on S.C.L. projects who didn’t want to move to London.” But Cummings and Vote Leave, whose insurgent campaign won the E.U. referendum and has been widely credited with using data to identify and bring out hard-to-reach voters on a scale that has never been seen before in British politics, have always denied any contact with S.C.L. or Cambridge Analytica. Cummings has claimed that someone recommended Aggregate I.Q. to him after finding them “on the Internet.” Cambridge Analytica also denies working on the Brexit referendum. Aggregate I.Q. released a statement over the weekend denying that it had a contract with Cambridge Analytica.

The S.C.L. employee laughed at that, saying, “It’s mental.” The employee was also skeptical that Aggregate I.Q. could have produced its own data or targeting platform for Vote Leave without S.C.L.’s involvement. “S.C.L. knew what to do in theory,” the employee said. “It was, like, A.I.Q., they were the taking the—if you can call it—‘the intellect,’ and giving it a body. They could practicalize what we were talking about.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked the employee to describe what it was like to see S.C.L. suddenly at the center of the news. “What I found surreal was before,” the employee said. “When I was aware that very dodgy things were being done by very dodgy people and no one seemed to care.” After hearing about life inside S.C.L., I said that I found it hard to reconcile the two versions of the company: one a minor player in foreign elections, founded by an Old Etonian who liked to be called James Bond; and one that had brought “information warfare” to two of the world’s oldest democracies. “They aren’t two different things,” the employee said. “You can be a slightly hokey Nigel Oakes operation and still weaponize Facebook.” The startling thing, in retrospect, is how easy it was.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.