Dispatch March 20, 2018

How Cambridge Analytica May Fit Into the Collusion Investigation

Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of private data from 50 million Facebook users is a significant development for the Russia investigation.

Cambridge Analytica was the brains of the Trump team’s vaunted digital operations, identifying targets and blanketing social media with campaign messaging.

  • They played a key role “designing target audiences for digital ads and fund-raising appeals, modeling voter turnout, buying $5 million in television ads, and determining where Mr. Trump should travel to best drum up support.”
  • Reporting before and after the election frequently touted the importance of Trump’s social media operation, which several publicationsand the president himselfcited as a key part of  his victory.
  • Last month, Trump appointed Brad Parscale, a Cambridge Analytica interlocutor as head of the digital operation in 2016, to manage his 2020 re-election campaign.

UK Channel 4 exposed Cambridge Analytica as a dirty-tricks company willing to do anything – break laws, spread lies and disinformation, and compromise candidates – for its clients.

  • They bragged about doing it all anonymously: According to managing director Mark Turnbull, “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.”
  • Their stated goal is to “put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again … it has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda,’ because the moment you think, ‘that’s propaganda,’ the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?’”

Cambridge Analytica has major ties to Russia—which they’ve lied about.

  • When British investigators asked Alexander Nix, director of SCL Group and CEO of Cambridge Analytica, if his company had any ties to Russia, he replied, “We’ve never worked with a Russian organization in Russia or any other country, and we don’t have any relationship with Russia or Russian individuals.”  But…
  • Before working for Trump, Cambridge Analytica met at least three times in 2014 and 2015 with Kremlin-connected executives from the Russian oil giant Lukoil, who “showed interest” in using data to target messaging to American voters.
    • That same year, the Internet Research Agency began working on its campaign to sow discord in the American electorate by “[seizing] on controversial issues and [exploiting] racial and ideological fissures to inflame tensions.”
  • In June 2014, Cambridge Analytica enlisted Russian-American academic Aleksandr Kogan to mine private Facebook user data. Kogan received grants from the Russian government to research “stress, health and psychological wellbeing in social networks” and hid the fact that he was an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University.
  • Tablet magazine noted in August 2016 that Vincent Tchenguiz, the largest shareholder in Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL Group, has ties to the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash — who has also ties to Paul Manafort.
  • SCL Group’s promotional documents highlighted Russia in a map of its global clients.

The Russians had their own digital operation. Did they coordinate with the Trump campaign’s? If so, it would likely be through Cambridge Analytica.

  • Both Cambridge Analytica and the IRA had similarly unusual strategies aimed at depressing voter turnout.
  • According to Vox, “congressional and DOJ investigators believe that Trump’s campaign might have helped guide Russia’s voter targeting scheme and that [Michael] Flynn, who worked for Trump’s campaign and with Cambridge Analytica, is suspected of having extensive ties with Russian operatives.”
  • If the Internet Research Agency was aided by data stolen from unsuspecting Facebook users, it could go even further, spreading racist messages the Trump campaign didn’t want attributed to it and creating fake-grassroots pressure to convince minority voters not to turn out for Clinton.

The Russians digital campaign run out of the Internet Research Agency could have benefited immensely from partnering with an organization with political expertise: an organization like Cambridge Analytica. Investigators should probe whether such a partnership existed.