When details of Donald Trump’s 2005 hot mike “Grab ‘em by the pussy” incident emerged during the 2016 presidential campaign, the crisis required a highly specific State-by-State response — something his campaign was able to do successfully with the help of the London-based Cambridge Analytica. While targeted communication was no “panacea” in the closely fought elections across the world, technology could play a huge difference, Alexander Nix, the company’s CEO, boasted, as he spoke at the Online Marketing Rockstars gathering in Hamburg last year.
How did he operate?
He highlighted the hot mike as one instance in which his company had successfully deployed its highly targeted data gathering and analysis strategy in the Trump campaign. The sharp-suited, bespectacled, Eton-educated, polo-playing Mr. Nix could easily have been a modern day British incarnation of an advertising guru of hit TV show Mad Men. Except for the fact that, in his view, gone were the days when creativity mattered the most. “Blanket advertising is dead,” he declared, as he provided a glimpse of the company’s approach to targeted communication for both commercial and political process, while avoiding questions about the way highly specific data was gathered. People gave up information “voluntarily,” he insisted.
Who funded it?
A former banker, the 42-year-old Mr. Nix joined SCL Group in 2003 and set up Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot, in 2013, with funding from Republican donor Robert Mercer.
Until recently, he didn’t have much of a public profile, but he made a name as the company grew, involving itself in campaigns from Brazil to Nigeria, including the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and the Trump campaign. His message — the traditional advertising world, if it didn’t take on the lessons of personalised, predictive data analytics, was doomed to dwindle in obscurity — has overshadowed the industry.
Why is he so controversial?
Questions around the gathering and use of data, and what constitutes consent are nothing new. However, recent investigations by Britain’s Observernewspaper pointed to issues of a different scale. The firm allegedly inappropriately gathered and kept the data of over 50 million Facebook users, via an app, and failed to delete the data, despite claiming it had.
Cambridge Analytica has chosen to play hard ball, forcing the British authorities to apply for a warrant to access its premises.
Undercover work by Britain’s Channel 4 News revealed that the tactics extended well beyond the deployment of technology: undercover journalists posing as agents for a wealthy Sri Lankan captured Mr. Nix, nonchalantly, and with something of the air of a Bond villain, suggesting tactics such as honey traps using “beautiful” Ukrainian women. “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed,” he was captured on camera saying, unnervingly capturing public fears around social media and fake news. Mr. Nix has used the Trump success as a springboard for the firm’s courting of business globally, and was seen as one of the Trump campaign “insiders.”
Where do things go from now?
Mr. Nix has been suspended by the company, pending a full, independent investigation, and is likely to face subpoenas from authorities across the world. He has been recalled by a British parliamentary committee over “inconsistencies” in evidence he gave to an inquiry on fake news.
Associations with Cambridge Analytica and Mr. Nix are swiftly becoming a tool of political point-scoring — as has been the case in India with the BJP and the Congress levelling accusations at each other. A phenomenon likely to be replicated globally.
(Adapted from The Hindu)