This article was originally published on the ‘Exposing UKIP’ blog a year ago. It concerned UKIP’s involvement with Cambridge Analytica (CA) but has wider relevance now, in light of recent revelations by Channel 4 News – at a time when much media coverage was highlighting the possible electoral-spending implications of CA’s activities on behalf of the Leave campaign, this article was raising questions about CA’s access to ‘Big Data’ and alleged ‘disinformation campaigns’ by CA’s parent company, SCL – and CA’s ‘creepy’ use of Facebook information. It is reproduced here with permission.
There’s been a lot in the news recently about a company called Cambridge Analytica and its activities around the time of the EU referendum and the US presidential election. It’s been suggested that data was mined in a particular way for “psychographic campaigning” and that central people involved in Cambridge Analytica and the Trump administration/Leave_EU campaign may have used ‘Big Data’ and Artificial Intelligence to “change the political landscape”.
Indeed, the media are paying attention, and in recent days the Electoral Commission has been asked to take a look, with Stephen Kinnock MP suggesting “Leave.EU may have broken the law by not declaring the role of a group used by Donald Trump”. He goes on to say “the market rate for a donation of this kind could amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds, based on the previous experience of referendum campaigns and political parties for analytical tools,” as he told Claire Bassett, Electoral Commission chief executive, in a letter seen by the Guardian. He stated “Leave.EU has not declared this donation-in-kind at any point in their returns to the Electoral Commission.”
Certainly, it needs rigid investigation, but what is most striking is the people involved, and the money that was allegedly paid for these technical services.
Any substantial additional spending between 15 April last year and the referendum on 23 June would have pushed Leave.EU over the spending limit for the regulated period. They were allowed by law to spend up to £700,000 but according to the accounts they filed they spent £693,000.
However, there seems to be some discussion about how much of an impact it could have played with MIT Technology Review stating:
It is certainly an attractive proposition to blame big data and psychological profiling for shifts in the political and media landscapes that one finds troubling, rather than believe that there is a large and worrying socio-economic divide in the West. But it’s also unwise to do so without data to support the case.
We spoke to a data analyst for his opinion. We asked him what his opinions are on potential influence of Cambridge Analytica as there seems to be a divided opinion from tech organisations on how much they could actually sway votes.
He told us “much of its effectiveness is due to marginal gains. If you can sway 10% of a target group that can swing the deal. We’re not speaking of mass psychological indoctrination, just enough mind control to achieve a marginal gain.” So, brainwashing of swing voters then?
In view of this, several people have began to question the legitimacy of the EU Referendum. The Canary states that “the result may be thrown into question“.
More recently, SCL Group, a behavioural analysis, data and messaging firm based in London has denied media reports that it worked on military “disinformation” campaigns. and had not done “any paid or unpaid work for the Leave.EU campaign”, “but had appeared at the campaign’s launch event having not finalised a potential contract.”
While The Guardian refers to it as “a donation of services that was not declared to the electoral commission” and goes on to state that the “director of Leave.EU, Andy Wigmore, told the Observer that the longstanding friendship between Nigel Farage and the Mercer family led Mercer to offer his help – free – to the Brexit campaign because of their shared goals.”
Whether it was free or not, people were targeted in a way that was “creepy” and it remains to be seen what the data watchdog will have to say about it. In true UKIP style, the company has now ‘distanced itself’ from the Leave.EU campaign.
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