The British data firm that some credit for swinging the 2016 election to Donald Trump has been under fire for the last several days, after The New York Times and the Observer revealed that it improperly used Facebook data to build extensive profiles of voters. But another front was opened up on Monday evening, when the British television station Channel 4 posted an undercover exposé of the company’s sketchy—and possibly illegal—methods.
In the 20-minute documentary, a Channel 4 fixer posing as a Sri Lankan businessman catches Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, Chief Data Officer Alex Taylor, and Managing Director Mark Turnbul boasting about the company’s influence campaign in countries around the world. They open up about their work in America, Europe, and Africa, and hint at a (non-political) campaign underway in China. They claim that they sometimes send sex workers to candidates’ houses or send operatives offering bribes to attempt to catch rivals in compromising positions. And they brag again and again about their ability to act undetected.
In one revealing moment, Turnbull explains the company’s methods to the fixer, saying, “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again ... like a remote control. 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?’” Nix ends another conversation by saying, “We’re used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows, and I look forward to building a very long-term and secretive relationship with you.”
Cambridge Analytica has strenuously—and not very convincingly—denied any wrongdoing. In a statement to Channel 4, they insisted that they were only appearing to be shady in an attempt to suss out whether or not the potential client was above board or not: “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. ... We routinely undertake conversations with prospective clients to try to tease out any unethical or illegal intentions.”