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The Weaponization of Data: Cambridge Analytica, Information Warfare & the 2016 Election of Trump

StoryJanuary 10, 2020
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We continue our conversation with the directors of “The Great Hack,” Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, as well as former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser and propaganda researcher Emma Briant, about Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL Group’s history as a defense contractor. “We’re in a state of global information warfare now,” Briant says. “How do we know if our militaries develop technologies and the data that it has gathered on people, for instance, across the Middle East … how do we know when that is turning up in Yemen or when that is being utilized by an authoritarian regime against the human rights of its people or against us? How do we know that it’s not being manipulated by Russia, by Iran, by anybody who’s an enemy, by Saudi Arabia, for example, who SCL were also working with? We have no way of knowing, unless we open up this industry and hold these people properly accountable for what they’re doing.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Emma Briant back into this conversation. You mentioned it in Part 1 of our discussion — 

EMMA BRIANT: Of course.

AMY GOODMAN: — this issue of military contractors —


AMY GOODMAN: — and the nexus of military and government power, the fact that with Trump’s election —


AMY GOODMAN: — military contractors were one of the greatest financial beneficiaries of Trump’s election.

KARIM AMER: But I think it’s important to remember that —

EMMA BRIANT: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Karim Amer.

KARIM AMER: — the issue is that also these — when we think of military contractors, we think of people selling tanks and guns and bullets and these types of things. The problem that we don’t realize is that we’re in an era of information warfare. So the new military contractors aren’t selling — aren’t selling the traditional tanks. They’re selling the —

AMY GOODMAN: Although they’re doing that.

KARIM AMER: They’re doing that, as well, but they’re selling the equivalent of that in the information space. And that’s a new kind of weapon. That’s a new kind of battle that we’re not familiar with.

And the reason why it’s more challenging for us is because there’s a deficit of language and a deficit of visuals. We don’t know where the battlefield is. We don’t know where the borders are. We can’t pinpoint, be like, “This is where the trenches are.” Yet we’re starting to uncover that. And that was so much of the challenge in making this film, is trying to see where can we actually show you where these wreckage sites are, where the casualties of this new information warfare are, and who the actors are and where the fronts are.

And I think, in entering 2020, we have to keep a keen eye on where the new war fronts are and when they’re happening in our domestic frontiers and how they’re happening in these devices that we use every day. So this is where we have to have a new kind of reframing of what we’re looking at, because while we are at war, it is a very different kind of borderless war where asymmetric information activity can affect us in ways that we never imagined.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Emma Briant, you talked about when Facebook knew the level of documentation that Cambridge Analytica was taking from them.


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Cambridge Analytica paid them, right?

EMMA BRIANT: Yes. I mean, they were providing the data to GSR, who then, you know, were paid by —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what GSR is.

EMMA BRIANT: Sorry, the company by Kogan and Joseph Chancellor, their company that they were setting up to do both academic research but also to exploit the data for Cambridge Analytica’s purposes. So they were working with — on mapping that data onto the personality tests and giving that access to Cambridge Analytica, so that they could scale it up to profile people across the target states in America especially, but also all across America. They obtained way more than they ever expected, as Chris Wylie and Brittany have shown.

But I want to also ask: When did our governments know about what Cambridge Analytica and SCL were doing around the world and when they were starting to work in our elections? One of the issues is that these technologies have been partly developed by, you know, grants from our governments and that these were, you know, defense contractors, as we say. We have a responsibility for those companies and for ensuring that there’s reporting back on what they’re doing, and some kind of transparency.

As Karim was saying, that if you — you know, we’re in a state of global information warfare now. If you have a bomb that has been discovered that came from an American source and it’s in Yemen, then we can look at that bomb, and often there’s a label which declares that it’s an American bomb that has been bought, that has, you know, been used against civilians. But what about data? How do we know if our militaries develop technologies and the data that it has gathered on people, for instance, across the Middle East, the kind of data that Snowden revealed — how do we know when that is turning up in Yemen or when that is being utilized by an authoritarian regime against the human rights of its people or against us? How do we know that it’s not being manipulated by Russia, by Iran, by anybody who’s an enemy, by Saudi Arabia, for example, who SCL were also working with? We have no way of knowing, unless we open up this industry and hold these people properly accountable for what they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: SCL Defence was the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. Emma Briant, human rights researcher at Bard College, her upcoming book, Propaganda Machine: Inside Cambridge Analytica and the Digital Influence Industry. We’ll be back in less than 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our look at Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and their roles in U.S. and other elections. I speak to the directors of The Great Hack, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, as well as former Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, who’s begun posting online a trove of documents detailing the operations of the now-defunct company. I asked propaganda researcher Emma Briant to talk about the significance of the documents.

EMMA BRIANT: I think the biggest reveal is going to be in the American campaigns around this, but I think you haven’t seen the half of it yet. This is the tip of the iceberg, as I’ve been saying.

My thing that I think that is most interesting of what’s been revealed so far is actually the Iran campaign, because, you know, this is a very complex issue, and it really is an exemplar of the kinds of conflicts of interest that I’m talking about, at a company that is, you know, set out to profit from the arms trade and from the expansion of war in that region and from the favoring of one side in a regional conflict, essentially, backed by American power, by the escalation of the conflict with Iran and, you know, by getting more contracts, of course, with the Gulf states, the UAE and the Saudis. You know, and, of course, they were trying to put Trump in power, as well, to do that, and advancing John Bolton and the other hawks who have been trying to demand that sanctions — to keep sanctions and to get out of the Iran deal, which they have been arguing is a flawed deal.

And, of course, SCL were involved in doing work in that region since 2013, including they were working before that on Iran for President Obama’s administration, which I’m going to be talking more about in the future. The issue is that there is a conflict of interest here. So you gain experience for one government, and then you’re going and working for others that maybe are not entirely aligned in their interests.

AMY GOODMAN: Although it was for the election of Donald Trump, of course, it happened during the Obama years.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s when Cambridge Analytica really gained its strength in working with Facebook.

EMMA BRIANT: Yeah. And SCL’s major shareholder, Vincent Tchenguiz, of course, was involved in the early establishment of the company Black Cube and in some of its early funding, I believe. I don’t know how long they stayed in any kind of relationship with that firm. However, the firm Black Cube were also targeting Obama administration officials with a massive smear campaign, as has been revealed in the media. And, you know, this opposition to the Iran deal and the promotion of these kinds of, you know, really fearmongering advertising that Brittany is talking about is very disturbing, when this same company is also driving, you know, advertising for gun sales and things like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. Explain what Black Cube is, which goes right to today’s headlines —


AMY GOODMAN: — because Harvey Weinstein, accused of raping I don’t know how many women at last count, also employed Black Cube, former Israeli intelligence folks, to go after —


AMY GOODMAN: — the women who were accusing him, and even to try to deceive the reporters, like at The New York Times, to try to get them to write false stories.

EMMA BRIANT: Absolutely. I mean, this is an intelligence firm that was born, again, out of the “war on terror.” So, Israel’s war on terror, this time, produced an awful lot of people who had gone through conscription and developed really, you know, strong expertise in cyberoperations or on developing information warfare technologies, in general, intelligence gathering techniques. And Black Cube was formed by people who came out of the Israeli intelligence industries. And they all formed these companies, and this has become a huge industry, which is not really being properly regulated, as well, and properly governed, and seems to be rather out of control. And they have been also linked to Cambridge Analytica in the evidence to Parliament. So, I think the involvement of all of these companies is really disturbing, as well, in relation to the Iran deal.

We don’t know that Cambridge Analytica in any way were working with Black Cube in this, at this point in time. However, the fact is that all of this infrastructure has been created, which is not being properly tackled. And how they’re able to operate without anybody really understanding what’s going on is a major, major problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Brittany?

BRITTANY KAISER: Black Cube isn’t the only company you should be concerned about. The founder of Blackwater, or their CEO, Erik Prince, was also an investor in Cambridge Analytica. So he profits from arm sales around the world, and military contracts, and has been accused of causing the unnecessary death of civilians in very many different wartime situations. He was one of the investors in Cambridge Analytica and their new company, Emerdata. And so, I should be very concerned, and everyone should be very concerned, about the weaponization of our data by people that are actually experts in selling weapons. So, that’s one thing that I think needs to be in the public discussion, the difference between what is military, what is civilian, and how those things can be used for different purposes or not.

KARIM AMER: And I think what’s important to see —


KARIM AMER: — is that, you know, in the clip you showed, Chris Wylie is talking about how Cambridge is a full-service propaganda machine. What does that really mean? You know, I would say that what’s happening is we’re getting insight to the the network of the influence industry, the buying and selling of information and of people’s behavioral change. And it is a completely unregulated space.

And what’s very worrisome is that, as we’re seeing more and more, with what Emma’s talking about and what Brittany has shown, is this conveyor belt of military-grade information and research and expertise coming out of our defense work, that’s being paid for by our tax money, then going into the private sector and selling it to the highest bidder, with different special interests from around the world. So what you see in the files is, you know, a oil company buying influence campaign in a country that it’s not from and having no — you know, no responsibility or anything to what it’s doing there. And what happens in that, the results of that research, where it gets handed over to, no one knows. Any contracts that then result in the change that happens on the political ground, no one tracks and sees.

So, this is what we’re very concerned about, is because you’re seeing that everything has become for sale. And if everything is for sale —

JEHANE NOUJAIM: Our elections are for sale.

KARIM AMER: Exactly. And so, how do we have any kind of integrity to the vote, when we’re living in such a condition?

JEHANE NOUJAIM: Democracy has been broken. And our first vote is happening in 28 days, and nothing has changed. No election laws have changed. Facebook’s a crime scene. No research, nothing has come out. We don’t understand it yet. This was why we felt so passionate about making this film, because it’s invisible. How do you make the invisible visible? And this is why Brittany is releasing these files, because unless we understand the tactics, which are currently being used again, right now, as we speak, same people involved, then we can’t change this.

AMY GOODMAN: Facebook’s a crime scene, Jehane. Elaborate on that.

JEHANE NOUJAIM: Absolutely. Facebook is where this has happened. Initially, we thought this was Cambridge Analytica — right? — and that Cambridge Analytica was the only bad player. But Facebook has allowed this to happen. And they have not revealed. They have the data. They understand what has happened, but they have not revealed that.

AMY GOODMAN: And they have profited off of it.

JEHANE NOUJAIM: And they have profited off of it.

KARIM AMER: Well, it’s not just that they’ve profited off it. I think what’s even more worrisome is that a lot of our technology companies, I would say, are incentivized now by the polarization of the American people. The more polarized, the more you spend time on the platform checking the endless feed, the more you’re hooked, the more you’re glued, the more their KPI at the end of the year, which says number of hours spent per user on platform, goes up. And as long as that’s the model, then everything is designed, from the way you interact with these devices to the way your news is sorted and fed to you, to keep you on, as hooked as possible, in this completely unregulated, unfiltered way — under the guise of freedom of speech when it’s selectively there for them to protect their interests further. And I think that’s very worrisome.

And we have to ask these technology companies: Would there be a Silicon Valley if the ideals of the open society were not in place? Would Silicon Valley be this refuge for the world’s engineers of the future to come reimagine what the future could look like, had there not been the foundations of an open society? There would not be. Yet the same people who are profiting off of these ideals protecting them feel no responsibility in their preservation. And that is what is so upsetting. That is what is so criminal. And that is why we cannot look to them for leadership on how to get out of this.

We have to look at the regulation. You know, if Facebook was fined $50 billion instead of five, I guarantee you we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. It would have led to not only an incredible change within the company, but it would have been the signal to the entire industry. And there would have been innovation that would have been sponsored to come out of this problem. Like, we can use technology to fix this, as well. We just have to create the right incentivization plan. I have belief that the engineers of the future that are around can help us get out of this. But currently they are not the — they are not the decision makers, because these companies are not democratic whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma Briant?

EMMA BRIANT: Could I? Yes, please. I just wanted to make a point about how important this is for ordinary Americans to understand the significance for their own lives, as well, because I think some people hear this, and they think, “Oh, tech, this is maybe quite abstract,” or, you know, they may feel that other issues are more important when it comes to election time. But I want to make the point that, actually, you know what? This subject is about all of those other issues.

This is about inequality and it being enabled. If you care about, you know, having a proper debate about all of the issues that are relevant to America right now, so, you know, do you care about the — you know, the horrifying state of American prison system, what’s being done to migrants right now, if you care about a minimum wage, if you care about the healthcare system, you care about the poverty, the homelessness on the streets, you care about American prosperity, you care about the environment and making sure that your country doesn’t turn into the environmental disaster that Australia is experiencing right now, then you have to care about this topic, because we can’t have an adequate debate, we cannot, like, know that we have a fair election system, until we understand that we are actually having a discussion, from American to American, from, you know, country to country, that isn’t being dominated by rich oil industries or defense industries and brutal leaders and so on.

So, I think that the issue is that Americans need to understand that this is an underlying issue that is stopping them being able to have the kinds of policies that would create for them a better society. It’s stopping their own ability to make change happen in the ways that they want it to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma Briant —

EMMA BRIANT: It’s not an abstract issue. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: What would be the most effective form of regulation? I mean, we saw old Standard Oil broken up, these monopolies broken up.


AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that’s the starting point for companies like Facebook, like Google and others?

EMMA BRIANT: I think that’s a big part of it. I do think that Elizabeth Warren’s recommendations when it comes to that and antitrust and so on are really important. And we have legal precedents to follow on that kind of thing.

But I also think that we need an independent regulator for the tech industry and also a separate one for the influence industry. So, America has some regulation when it comes to lobbying. In the U.K., we have none. And quite often, you know, American companies will partner with a British company in order to be able to get around doing things, for instance. We have to make sure that different countries’ jurisdictions cannot be, you know, abused in order to make something happen that would be forbidden in another country.

We need to make sure that we’re also tackling how money is being channeled into these campaigns, because, actually, there’s an awful lot we could do that isn’t just about censoring or taking down content, but that actually is, you know, about making sure that the money isn’t being funneled in to the — to fund these actual campaigns. If we knew who was behind them, if we were able to show which companies were working on them and what other interests they might have, then I think this would really open up the system to better journalism, to better — you know, more accountability.

And the issue isn’t just about what’s happening on the platforms, although that is a big part of it. We have to think about, you know, the whole infrastructure.

AMY GOODMAN: Propaganda researcher Emma Briant; Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, the directors of The Great Hack, the Netflix documentary just shortlisted for an Academy Award; and Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, author of Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again.

To see the first hour of our discussion, go to democracynow.org.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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