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Propaganda Machine: The Military Roots of Cambridge Analytica’s Psychological Manipulation of Voters

StoryJanuary 07, 2020
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Image Credit: Netflix

We continue our discussion of data harvesting, targeted advertising and voter manipulation — practices used by firms like Cambridge Analytica. The secretive data firm collapsed in May 2018 after The Observer newspaper revealed the company had harvested some 87 million Facebook profiles without the users’ knowledge or consent to sway voters to support Trump during the 2016 campaign. A new trove of internal Cambridge Analytica documents and emails are being posted on Twitter detailing the company’s operations, including its work with President Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton. We speak with Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, co-directors of the Oscar-shortlisted documentary “The Great Hack”; Brittany Kaiser, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower featured in “The Great Hack” and 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”; and Emma Briant, a visiting research associate in human rights at Bard College. Her upcoming book is titled “Propaganda Machine: Inside Cambridge Analytica and the Digital Influence Industry.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Our guests for this hour are Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. They are the award-winning filmmakers who made The Great Hack. It has just been shortlisted for an Oscar and nominated for the British Oscar, the BAFTA. Brittany Kaiser is with us. It is her first major interview since she’s begun a major document leak, troves of documents about Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in various elections around the world. In a moment, we’re going to ask her about John Bolton and Iran. John Bolton, by the way, has just said he will testify at an impeachment trial in the Senate, which has turned the Senate on its head for the moment. And we’re joined by Emma Briant, visiting research associate in human rights at Bard College, who specializes in researching propaganda. Her forthcoming book, Propaganda Machine: Inside Cambridge Analytica and the Digital Influence Industry.

Emma, as you listen to this conversation, your work in Cambridge Analytica has been going on for a long time. Can you relate what they were doing, also Facebook, in manipulating populations, as we move into this current election — we don’t even have to say “2020 election” anymore because we’re in 2020 — and how this work is basically PSYOP, psychological operations?

EMMA BRIANT: Thank you, Amy. Yes, I actually first came across the company SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, in 2007 as part of my master’s and then doctoral research. And I’ve been following their techniques and how they evolved over the years. And what I’ve realized when I started to discover the political work that they were doing, beyond the counterterrorism campaigns that I was studying, was just horrifying to me. The potential for what, you know, escalated during the sort of 2010s is just phenomenal.

So, we started to see them doing these big data projects for the military and so on. And this was, you know, quite a change of direction for them from their earlier work, which was a lot more about qualitative data, doing interviews with people, and so forth, for their research. And it started to change the kind of target audience analysis, this kind of analytics of what — if you like, the persuadables, the people that you want to target your communications at, how those groups were being profiled by the military, then was being taken out and deployed in elections.

And this is deeply disturbing to me because of the fact that I think that these companies have been established with a particular motive in mind, with a particular way of doing things and methodology. And to be repurposing that, when you have been doing work with DARPA, the defense research agency in the U.S., as well as the British equivalent, the DSTL, to develop these kinds of techniques, and then you’re going off and taking them to clients that are working in shady political campaigns around the world and working for human rights abusers, it’s really very disturbing — and then, of course, moving back into our own elections. So, I —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about that.

EMMA BRIANT: Yeah. So, in 2017, I started to realize that they were working in — they had worked on Brexit and that they worked on the Trump campaign. And I started to do a lot more interviews with the company, including meeting Brittany for the first time. And also I met the filmmakers from The Great Hack. And I was weighed down by the responsibility for what I was discovering from my interviews. I was interviewing people like Nigel Oakes, who, as you can see in the — from the evidence that I submitted to the British Parliament, was telling me about the unethical activities that they were doing around the world for — for instance, for Kenyatta —


EMMA BRIANT: — and the role that they played — in Kenya — and the role that they played also in the election of Donald Trump. And he was telling me about how they had basically deployed the same kinds of techniques of the Nazis in the U.S. election. Now, this horrified me. And I had to go further and further and haven’t stopped researching this.

And I think the most important thing is also to put this in the context of their military work, because, actually, these firms are working in multiple domains. You have commercial data use, you have military data use, and you have political data use in the same company. And we have no regulation over what is happening in the United States with companies like this. And there is little transparency over these companies in the United Kingdom, too, which is how we’ve ended up with this real catastrophe for democracy.

So, the issue is that we don’t know how data was being abused by this company. We know some examples of it. We certainly know that they had a slack regard for consent, from the — you know, what’s been revealed in The Great Hack and by Carole Cadwalladr. And the data was being repurposed from research done by academics for their political campaigns. Where else might they have been repurposing data from? And this is the thing that really scares me the most, is that this is rampant, I think, across the industry. I see many, many more companies out there that are working in these multiple domains with little accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to go back to October, when New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about Cambridge Analytica.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Did anyone on your leadership team know about Cambridge Analytica prior to the initial report by The Guardian on December 11, 2015?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Congresswoman, I believe so, in that some folks were tracking it internally.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: I’m actually — as you’re asking this, I do think I was aware of Cambridge Analytica as an entity earlier. I just — I don’t know if I was tracking how they were using Facebook specifically.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: When was the issue discussed with your board member Peter Thiel?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Congresswoman, I don’t — I don’t know that offhand.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: You don’t know. This was the largest data scandal with respect to your company, that had catastrophic impacts on the 2016 election. You don’t — you don’t know?

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s AOC, Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, questioning Jeffrey [sic] Zuckerberg. Brittany Kaiser, was he telling the truth?

BRITTANY KAISER: I have found that during multiple rounds of questioning, that he —

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Zuckerberg, that is.

BRITTANY KAISER: — that Mark Zuckerberg continues to deny the amount of strategies that he is aware of, the amount of data abuses that he is aware of. And just saying that “My team will get back to you,” without being honest with the public, is a massive disaster, not only for his own PR, but for our democracies and for moving forward in a productive manner.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Ocasio-Cortez was getting at when she was talking about Peter Thiel.

BRITTANY KAISER: So, Peter Thiel, as far as I am aware, was the head of Trump’s technology advisory council. There were multiple meetings where Alexander Nix, the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, was either being invited or attempting to be invited to those meetings, through the Mercers, through Kellyanne Conway, through Steve Bannon.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were with Rebekah Mercer, right, on Trump inauguration night?

BRITTANY KAISER: Absolutely. The Mercers and a lot of other people who had played a very large role in the funding and in the campaigning for Donald Trump were reaching as far as they possibly could to technology tools in order to achieve their goals.

AMY GOODMAN: And are they doing it now?

BRITTANY KAISER: Absolutely. I think if anybody thinks that this is different than 2016, they are sorely mistaken. In 2016, everybody saw how successful Cambridge Analytica’s tactics are, so now there’s hundreds of Cambridge Analyticas around the world, especially acting in the U.S. elections right now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t we talk about John Bolton and Iran, the files that you’re releasing, that you had during your Cambridge Analytica days? Can you set up this video that we want to play?

BRITTANY KAISER: Absolutely. So, the files on Ambassador John Bolton show the work that Cambridge Analytica was paid to undertake for the John Bolton super PAC. That was work that started in 2013. It was actually one of the biggest first projects that Cambridge Analytica undertook in the United States. And that was to find five different psychographic groupings of voters and target them with psychographic messaging meant to resonate with your psyche and engage you, depending on whether you’re open, conscientious, extroverted, agreeable or neurotic.

And those videos were targeted over television and YouTube pre-roll in order to convince people, one, that national security was the most important political issue; two, that Ambassador John Bolton was the biggest authority on these topics; and, three, that whoever John Bolton was endorsing — for example, Thom Tillis — would be a better candidate — than Kay Hagan, for example, in that specific race. So, these ads were paid in order to manipulate people into being more interested in his hawkish foreign policies than in their own best interest.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the ad, that is not radio-friendly because it’s mainly music with script over it? But this is an ad for Thom Tillis, right?

BRITTANY KAISER: Yes. And it was an ad targeted at a group of people identified as being highly neurotic, and, therefore, it is black and white. It’s eerie. You get very emotional music, that shows surrender flags on all of America’s most prominent landmarks.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play it, and I’ll read what it says on the screen. So we’ll listen to that music and play the ad, and you can then comment further.

There’s white flags going up, white flag on the Brooklyn Bridge, over the White House — over Congress. And it says, “America’s never surrendered before. What happens if we start now? On November 4, vote Thom Tillis.”

An ad paid for, 2014, by the John Bolton super PAC. The ad was titled “White Flags.” Tillis went on to win his Senate race.

BRITTANY KAISER: Yes, he did, indeed. And they used these tactics in a very successful manner. In fact, the John Bolton super PAC paid for a third party to rate how successful Cambridge Analytica had been. And they saw, on this ad specifically, that there was over a 36% uplift in engagement on these ads versus the communications that they had already been running.

And so, what scares me so much is that I know that these tactics are being used right now. We are being manipulated in order to support going to war with Iran. We are being manipulated in order to believe that this type of violence is acceptable and that we should support candidates that support this violence.

AMY GOODMAN: There are some who have suggested that President Trump did this, possibly in part because he’s so deeply concerned about his impeachment trial, and this specifically could be targeted for John Bolton, the former national security adviser, who almost immediately tweeted, “We have been working on this for a long time,” talking about the assassination, and that Trump is afraid of what he might say, and so this would appease him.

BRITTANY KAISER: Another important tranche of documents that I released are in the Iran folder, which actually shows that Cambridge Analytica and other right-wing organizations, like America Rising, that does all of the opposition research for the GOP, were polling to see how many people in the United States were interested in the Iran deal, to drop sanctions, or if they were against the Iran nuclear deal and more interested in war. So you can see the types of questions that were asked, and that they were using that to model and identify people who could be persuaded to go against Iran, and whether or not that would be favorable for electoral fodder, I should say. And right now that same polling is happening. So, if you are identified as being a persuadable, you are going to see more of this propaganda in order to convince you that war is in our best interest, when it obviously is not.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma Briant, what makes this different from regular polling? Why do you see this as evil?

EMMA BRIANT: It’s not polling I think is evil; it’s what it’s being used for. I’d like to put this in a little bit of a wider context, if I may, and talk a little bit about what I know about SCL and —

AMY GOODMAN: You have 30 seconds, and then we will do Part 2.

EMMA BRIANT: — Iran. Oh, OK, sure. So, basically, they were working also in the Gulf from 2013. And it’s really important to note that the Saudis and the UAE were also very keen to oppose the Iran deal, and Trump’s election was followed by a huge spike in arms sales to the Saudis. And I think that this being a military contractor is extremely important to remember in the light of these recent developments on Iran. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s where we’re going to leave it now, but we’re going to pick it up in Part 2, and we’ll post it at This has been an astounding discussion. I want to thank Emma Briant in Washington, Brittany Kaiser for joining us, and Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. The Great Hack is their film. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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 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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