A British data-mining company hired by the Donald Trump campaign to influence US elections outcome used Israeli companies to aid its efforts, a British television report showed Monday.
In the report by UK’s Channel 4, hidden camera footage captures Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix describing some of the tricks and tools his company uses to get information about people.
In addition to mining data from Facebook, Nix and the managing director of Cambridge Analytica’s political division, Mark Turnbull, spoke of bribery stings, honey traps and spying with the help of ex-spies from Britain and Israel.
“We have two projects at the moment, which involve doing deep, deep, depth research on the opposition and providing source… really damaging source material, that we can decide how to deploy in the course of the campaign,” he told an undercover reporter posing as a Sri Lankan businessman.
“We use some British companies, we use some Israeli companies,” Nix said. “From Israel, very effective in intelligence gathering.”
In response to the Channel 4 exposé, the organization said, “We entirely refute any allegation that Cambridge Analytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honey-traps’ for any purpose whatsoever.”
Britain’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, told Channel 4 she plans to seek a warrant to access servers of data mining firm Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook has been under fire since The New York Times and The Guardian newspaper reported that Cambridge Analytica used data inappropriately obtained from roughly 50 million Facebook users to try to influence elections. Among that information were users’ likes.
Facebook stock plunged 7 percent in trading Monday. The head of the EU parliament has promised an investigation. US congressional members and Connecticut’s attorney general are seeking testimony or written responses. After two years of failing to disclose the harvesting, Facebook said Monday that it had hired an outside firm to audit Cambridge Analytica and its activities.
During the 2016 US presidential elections, Cambridge Analytica worked both for the primary campaign of Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Trump’s general-election campaign. Trump’s campaign paid Cambridge more than $6 million, according to federal election records, although officials have more recently played down that work.
Cambridge Analytica was also backed by the conservative billionaire Richard Mercer, and at one point employed Stephen Bannon — later Trump’s campaign chairman and White House adviser — as a vice president.
The type of data mining reportedly used by Cambridge Analytica is fairly common, but is typically used to sell diapers and other products. Netflix, for instance, provides individualized recommendations based on how a person’s viewing behaviors fit with what other customers watch.
But that common technique can take on an ominous cast if it’s connected to possible elections meddling, said Robert Ricci, a marketing director at Blue Fountain Media.
Wylie said Cambridge Analytica aimed to “explore mental vulnerabilities of people.” He said the firm “works on creating a web of disinformation online so people start going down the rabbit hole of clicking on blogs, websites etc. that make them think things are happening that may not be.”
Wylie told “Today” that while political ads are also targeted at specific voters, the Cambridge Analytica effort aimed to make sure people wouldn’t know they were getting messages aimed at influencing their views.
The Trump campaign has denied using Cambridge Analytica’s data. The firm itself denies wrongdoing, and says it didn’t retain any of the data pulled from Facebook and didn’t use it in its 2016 campaign work.
Yet Cambridge Analytica boasted of its work after Cruz won the GOP caucuses in Iowa in 2016.
Cambridge Analytica helped differentiate Cruz from his similarly minded Republican rivals by identifying automated red light cameras as an issue of importance to residents upset with government intrusion. Potential voters living near the red light cameras were sent direct messages saying Cruz was against their use.
Even on mainstay issues such as gun rights, Nix said at the time, the firm used personality types to tailor its messages. For voters who care about tradition, it might push the importance of making sure grandfathers can offer family shooting lessons. For someone identified as introverted, a pitch might describe keeping guns for protection against crime.
It’s possible that Cambridge Analytica tapped other data sources, including what Cruz’s campaign app collected. Facebook declined to provide officials for interview and didn’t immediately respond to requests for information beyond its statements Friday and Monday. Cambridge also didn’t immediately respond to emailed questions.
Facebook makes it easy for advertisers to target users based on nuanced information about them. Facebook’s mapping of the “social graph” — essentially the web of people’s real-life connections — is also invaluable for marketers.
For example, researchers can look at people’s clusters of friends and get good insight as to who is important and influential, said Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. People who bridge different friend networks, for example, can have more influence when they post something, making them prime for targeting.
The Pew Research Center said two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news on social media, according on Pew Research Center. While people don’t exist in a Facebook-only vacuum, it is possible that bogus information users saw on the site could later be reinforced by the “rabbit hole” of clicks and conspiracy sites on the broader internet, as Wylie described.