Cambridge was nothing special
A comprehensive investigation into the infamous data firm Cambridge Analytica has concluded after finding no evidence that the group influenced Brexit or coordinated with Russians to intervene in the 2016 election. But the news has yielded barely a whimper from the mainstream press that so hyped the firm for years as the secret puppeteer behind modern electoral upsets.
Over two weeks ago, on October 2, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced that it had closed a three-year probe based on a review of 31 servers, over 300,000 documents, and 700 terabytes of data seized from Cambridge’s London offices.
The ICO found that the firm’s data practices were “in the main, well recognised processes using commonly available technology,” and that there was “concern internally about the external messaging when set against the reality” of Cambridge’s capabilities. It also confirmed that, “beyond some initial enquiries,” the firm was “not involved in the EU referendum campaign in the UK,” and that there was no “additional evidence of Russian involvement” found on its servers.
In other words, Cambridge was nothing special, despite what its salesmen founders — and its “whistleblowers” — claimed.
But mainstream outlets have been silent on the developments; the news has yet to appear in The Atlantic, the New York Times, or the Washington Post. With the opportunity to finally put to bed the countless conspiracies surrounding Cambridge, the editorial decision to ignore the news is galling given the level of coverage dedicated to the supposed threat posed by the firm.
Once upon a time, CEO Alexander Nix’s brash — and likely commercially self-interested — claim that his firm’s cutting-edge work had aided Donald Trump’s shocking victory and “helped supercharge” the U.K.’s Brexit campaign were viewed with skepticism.
“I think we are on the cusp of something enormous,” Nix told the Times in 2017. “Those agencies that don’t adapt will die.”
Critics, including political scientists, data experts, and journalists, had raised serious questions about the effectiveness of Cambridge’s methods. But when an ex-Cambridge employee, Christopher Wylie, revealed to the Guardian and the Times in 2018 how the firm had secretly accessed the Facebook data of millions, the media’s worst fears about election interference were suddenly confirmed. Such access “allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016,” the Times reported. The implication? Cambridge’s infamous “psychographic” modeling tools, which purported to psychologically profile voters and expose their hidden political leanings based on data, helped explain Trump’s otherwise inexplicable election.
“It’s insane,” Wylie told the Guardian. “The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.”
Wylie’s stunning revelations were presented as confirmation that the firm really had the power to swing national elections and referenda. News of the data breach caused shockwaves, with Cambridge subsequently folding and Facebook paying billions in fines for failing to stop the data breach. Meanwhile, Wylie’s assertions were taken at face value — Nix wasn’t a snake-oil salesman, he was a supervillain.
“Cambridge Analytica has struggled to escape the perception that it has, indeed, engaged in something like spycraft,” Vanity Fair’s Isobel Thompson reasoned. “There is no question that the firm had some impact on voter behavior,” Karen Yuan and Abdallah Fayyad wrote in The Atlantic.
In the midst of Trump-Russia collusion hysteria, the Cambridge legend only grew. An undercover reporter captured Nix boasting about his history of shadowy political campaigns and raising hypothetical plans in which he’d use bribes and prostitutes to sink opponents. And Wylie told the Post that Nix would stop at nothing to win political campaigns for his clients.
He pointed to Steve Bannon, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, as the mastermind. “We had to get Bannon to approve everything at this point. Bannon was Alexander Nix’s boss,” he explained. Wylie also elaborated on contacts between the firm and executives from Lukoil, the Russian oil giant, saying the contacts were initiated because the Russians wanted information on “political targeting in America.” The press and Democrats, desperate to absolve themselves of blame for Trump’s victory by pinning it on the Kremlin, salivated.
A second “whistleblower,” Brittany Kaiser, also came forward with plenty to say. She testified to the U.K.’s House of Commons in April 2018 on how she had “evidence from my own eyes of possible breaches of the Data Protection Act” regarding Cambridge’s use of data to aid the Brexit movement; she also said she had been subpoenaed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and was cooperating.
Now, thanks to the ICO, we know Kaiser had no idea what she was talking about. “I have concluded my wider investigations of several organisations on both the remain and the leave side of the UK’s referendum about membership of the EU,” U.K. information commissioner Elizabeth Denham stated. “I identified no significant breaches of the privacy and electronic marketing regulations and data protection legislation that met the threshold for formal regulatory action.”
Maybe that’s why Mueller didn’t even mention Kaiser, or Cambridge for that matter, in his 448-page report. But such an admission didn’t stop those hyping the narrative. Despite the nothing-burger, known Steele Dossier–truther Natasha Bertrand wondered aloud whether Cambridge was tied to the Russian troll-factory known as the Internet Research Agency.
Kaiser and Wylie have certainly made the most of their public prominence, publishing personal memoirs to further detail their claims. In his autobiography, Wylie thanked House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff and his fellow Democrats “for all the unseen work you do” and Christopher Steele’s backers Glenn Simpson and Fusion GPS “for your brilliant investigative work.” The two also starred in a Netflix “documentary” about Cambridge called “The Great Hack.”
“If we targeted enough persuadable people in the right precincts, then those states would turn red instead of blue,” Kaiser explains in the film. “We bombarded them through blogs, websites, articles, videos on every platform you can imagine until they saw the world the way we wanted them to – until they voted for our candidate.”
Last November, The Atlantic published a glowing profile of the Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr, who played an integral role in boosting Wylie, in which she admitted to helping find Wylie a lawyer, who then found him “a financial backer,” and described her future plans for leading “the online Twitter sleuths” to eventually find the ever-elusive Trump-Russia-Brexit connection.
“For different reasons, Facebook and the government really, really, really don’t want the truth to come out, so that just makes me more convinced we have to get it,” she said, adding, apparently unironically, “They can’t just dismiss me as a conspiracy theorist anymore.”
And while other media outlets have ignored the ICO’s recent findings, Cadwalladr’s backers at the Observer did run an editorial claiming its “exposé of the exploitation of private data has been vindicated.” On the ICO’s failure to unearth Russian meddling in Cambridge, the editorial argued that “it stretches credulity to present that as a full investigation into potential Russian influence on Brexit.”
The public will apparently have to keep waiting with bated breath for the evidence.
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