Analysis

What role, if any, did Cambridge Analytica play in Brexit?

by Luke Lythgoe | 20.03.2018

Was Cambridge Analytica, the data firm at the heart of the controversy over the use of Facebook-derived data in Donald Trump’s election, involved in the Brexit referendum? If so, what tactics did it deploy?

An investigation by the UK’s Information Commissioner may answer some of these questions. She is probing the use of data analytics in the EU referendum campaign and has also requested a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s premises and access their files.

Unlike the US election, the extent of the company’s role in the EU referendum is far from clear. Cambridge Analytica chief Alexander Nix told MPs his firm “did not provide any services (paid or unpaid) to any campaign”. However, there was at least some sort of link with Leave.EU, the campaign backed by billionaire Arron Banks – who has since branded Cambridge Analytica “compulsive liars”.

An article in February 2016 under Nix’s name said his company “helped supercharge Leave.EU’s social media campaign” and boosted its Facebook following “to the tune of about 3,000 people per day”. Nix denies ever writing this article. Banks said Leave.EU devised its own social media campaign without Cambridge Analytica.

There were also tweets from Leave.EU’s campaign chief suggesting Cambridge Analytica worked for the group. The company also appears as a strategic partner on Leave.EU’s submission to be designated the official Leave campaign.

Banks claims the relationship only went as far as negotiating a contract based on Leave.EU winning the designation – which it ultimately lost to Vote Leave. This version of events would be more credible if both organisations agreed on it.

If Cambridge Analytica was involved in the referendum, the next question would be what exactly it was doing? In particular, were any of the tactics allegedly used in America deployed in the UK?

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the Observer that the “company itself was founded on using Facebook data”. Meanwhile, Leave.EU’s campaign chief tweeted that Cambridge Analytica “brings in US voter data” to the campaign. The UK data group is alleged to have controversially gathered data in America by harvesting users’ records – as well as those of their friends – without their consent.

Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica has been covertly filmed bragging about using fake bribery stings and prostitutes to honeytrap rival candidates in a Channel 4 News expose. The public has a right to know whether these tactics were used in the Brexit referendum.

Lots of questions with implications for our democracy. But so far few clear answers.

Want more InFacts?

Click here to get the newsletter

Your first name (required)

Your last name (required)

Your email (required)

Choose which newsletters you want to subscribe to (required)
Daily InFacts NewsletterWeekly InFacts NewsletterBoth the daily and the weekly Newsletter

By clicking 'Sign up to InFacts' I consent to InFacts's privacy policy and being contacted by InFacts. You can unsubscribe at any time by emailing [email protected]

Edited by Hugo Dixon

3 Responses to “What role, if any, did Cambridge Analytica play in Brexit?”

  • There’s little doubt that Cambridge Analytica had something to do with the unexpected success of the ‘Leave’ campaign. N Farage, S Bannon, R Mercer, Trump and the like, know each other well enough to network and it is from there that the story begins. Our political system is broken and it’s high time that something was done about it. The British Constitution is about to be changed on the back of some very dodgy campaign targeting Brits to vote for Leave. At least we still have some professional journalists left in the country. If Britain were Russia or Turkey, they would have been expelled or imprisoned by now and I won’t mention Malta! Most journalists/publishers in UK, have been totally subdued. Money, Big Corporations and advertising. I think people have had enough of being manipulated. It’s worrying that the young generation seem to be clueless and that’s when the Powers that Be will really take over. We ain’t seen nothing yet, tragically though of course I hope I’m wrong! And there’s always hope but we have to continue fight those Powers that Be!

    As mentioned on BBC Newsnight last night, don’t get too excited with the investigation by the UK’s Information Commissioner. It seems this body is very weak and not really very serious at all. I’ll eat my hat if this May cabinet does anything about it at all!

  • I’m a data scientist. If I had no morals I would have used the data from Facebook to train an AI model to predict which users should be targeted with media to flip their vote. I could then discard the ‘hot’ data and use the models i’d Built to target users elsewhere via their meagre public posts and tweets.

    You see once you have an AI model, you don’t need the rich training data any more; we’ve seen similar things happen as result of leaks of large numbers of users passwords; The data ultimately informed attackers how to attack other users.

    The more data available; the more it can be mined thus multiplying exponentially the opportunities for public manipulation anywhere in the world.