Britain’s Channel 4 details the dirty tricks that Cambridge Analytica, the data-mining company owned by billionaire Robert Mercer, uses to sway elections around the world. If the story is true, it would mean the company is not only sleazy, but also blatantly criminal, says white-collar criminologist Bill Black
GREG WILPERT: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.
The data mining company Cambridge Analytica, which is owned by the billionaire Robert Mercer, made headlines for a second time in less than a week. On Monday Britain’s Channel 4 News broadcast the results of a four month long investigation into the company. The explosive report shows the company’s CEO Alexander Nix bragging about using dirty tricks to entrap politicians. Here’s a short clip from the program.
NEWS REPORT: After a four-month undercover investigation, tonight a glimpse into how they really operate. Prepared, it seems, to ruin their clients’ opponents through handouts and honey traps. Through sex, secrets, and spies.
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GREG WILPERT: This report comes on the heels of another report published last week in The New York Times and in the Guardian which revealed how Cambridge Analytica used data from 50 million Facebook users to build psychological profiles and generate targeted social media campaigns in support of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Joining me now to discuss the Channel 4 report on Cambridge Analytica and related matters is Bill Black. Bill is a white collar criminologist and former financial regulator and Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri Kansas City. He is the author also of “The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One.” Thanks for joining us again, Bill.
BILL BLACK: Thank you.
GREG WILPERT: Bill, What is your initial reaction to these latest revelations about Cambridge Analytica dirty tricks?
BILL BLACK: So, Americans understand the Koch brothers. But if you distilled the Koch brothers down to the absolute essence of evil then you’d have the Mercer father-daughter team. They want to produce a world that’s authoritarian and they want to produce a world that is nationalistic, along the lines of, basically, pure blood and those types of things. And they’ve taken over this entity Cambridge Analytica that used to be just sort of a regular company. They purged all of the moderates. So it’s deeply, deeply right wing.
But it’s more than that. It’s, basically, you have to think of these people as mercenaries, as in mercenaries in the old days that would go in and take over a country by force of arms. Now they do it in a more sophisticated fashion. They have no country that they believe in. Former spies type such, but they are entirely out for power and money in these areas.
So the first thing, as you said, was the Facebook. Now, what people have to understand is every time you do something like like something on Facebook you are giving them valuable information that they sell to use to manipulate you. Or to meet your needs. You know, some combination of those things. And Cambridge Analytica used a front man, a Russian front man, who was a professor. Researcher was his official title in the U.K. And he got grants, supposedly, from Cambridge Analytica to do this work. And that gave them access to Facebook in a way that they would normally not have gotten access. And then they deliberately misused that for purely non-academic purposes.
By the way, all of that took enormous amounts of money to do the research, and they gifted that to the Trump administration as part of this campaign effort that the Mercers paid for. So that means it’s not the charge that they, you know, made public, that they had charged the Trump admin group, the campaign, four million dollars, which is a lie. They’ve actually done six million through another cut out front. But on top of that maybe 100, maybe even 200 million worth of research according to some estimates was done and gifted to the Trump administration. That would quite possibly be a violation of the campaign finance laws as well.
OK. So all of that we know is sleaze and we all know about crony capitalism how it creates a criminogenic environment and how you expect sleazy people to use sleazy people to do things. But rarely do you see it on videotape, and done with such British, not coolness, but just boasting by some dweeby guys about how they use Ukrainians, you know, presumably blondess to seduce people, that’s called the honey trap. And then you take the embarrassing pictures and you blackmail them. Now that means, by the way, this is not a dirty trick. That’s a crime. That’s called extortion. That’s a crime everywhere. They talked about how they used bribes. That’s a crime. That violates the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the United States, and the UK has its own version of that. And then they extort people for taking the bribe because they filmed the person taking the bribe. That too is a crime.
So it is just a mass of criminal operations from front to back, and they brought it up. They bragged about this, and such. And their defense is the best in the world. Their defense is, oh, we deliberately say outrageous things and promise to do terrible outrageous things because we’re testing the client, because we don’t want immoral clients. So if the client says no, yes to these things, then we would never, you know, associate. But of course, this investigation was done over months. And when that supposed client, the undercover person indicated quite some interest that this they didn’t walk away and say oh no, we don’t want to deal with sleazy. They said yes, yes. Here’s more and more things we could do.
So this is, again, the modern way of the modern mercenary, and they’re every bit as disgusting as the folks that used to stage coups all over Africa and such. It’s just that now they don’t, they do it in Africa, they do it in the Middle East, but now they do what the United States and France, and they did it in the United Kingdom. And the Brexit vote was probably affected by this as well. So this is the face of what the Mercers and the Trump administration are bringing. It’s not just criminality, but blatant criminality, where there’s not really even much of a facade of public interest, it’s just we take pride in the fact that we’re sleazy and willing to do awful things. And we will find some human weakness in our opponents, and then we’ll exploit that and blackmail them in order to drive them from the public sphere, or to corrupt them to do the things we want, and we’re really quite proud of how we do this.
GREG WILPERT: Just aside from the issue of the blatant criminality that you mentioned there seems to be also a bit of a grey area. I just want to ask you about that, that is in that video in that short clip. I don’t know if it was very clear, but it also provides subtitles where the executive is talking, the Cambridge Analytica executive is also talking about releasing information. That is, that they found out, or dirt, basically, that they have on particular opponents in releasing that information into the bloodstream of the Internet. In other words, to put it out in social media. And so I’m just wondering, what can you say about the legality of that kind of thing? I mean, if it’s not a direct bribe or extortion, but rather a way to influence public opinion by setting people up and then releasing it into into the public sphere.
BILL BLACK: Please note that these are the same folks who are attacking the Steele so-called dossier on the grounds that it did some allegedly smidgen of this, whereas this is the entire purpose they boast about. And suddenly Trump has no problem with it. In fact, he says hire those guys.
Yes, opposition research is something that can be done if someone really does have something bad in their record and you find it out and you make it public. And of course, the voters may turn against the folk. That is not illegal. What Cambridge Analytica did, and as the tapes show in multiple places, it doesn’t, you know, wait and see whether we can find something they’ve done that’s sleazy. We will create sleaze.
We will go and bribe people. We will go and seduce people. We will go even make false claims. Even if they say no to our attempts to extort them, to suborn them, we will claim that they did the wrong thing. We’ll show a picture of us handing the money over to them, not the picture of them saying no and refusing the money. So even in the grey area they often they quickly move back to where they’re most comfortable, which is as felons.
That’s what their business plan is. The strategic plan of Cambridge Analytica is we have a competitive advantage over any rival because we have no moral constraints.
GREG WILPERT: But assuming that it does get into the social media platforms and it isn’t blatant blatantly illegal, I mean, clearly the illegal stuff you have to deal with through law enforcement, but I’m wondering about the stuff that’s in this gray area, particularly in terms of what, what do you think does this say about the power of social media, and maybe what might need to be done in order to get this power under public control. What do you think?
BILL BLACK: Well, obviously it shows the destructive nature of it. And again, back to what Facebook does, Facebook, through all those things that you choose to buy, to not buy, the things you choose to watch and such, they look for associations with policy, personality types, those types of things.
In order to send, they don’t just put it indiscriminately into the bloodstream of the Web. They look for the people most susceptible. Think of it as people that have a genetic susceptibility to a disease, and they make sure they spread that toxin directly to though that target those people.
So yes, it is much more destructive than in the old days where, you know, what you hoped to do with opposition research was to get a negative story in the media. You know, the newspaper. And then the people who read the newspaper, maybe if it was really embarrassing that would make the television shows. Obviously, anybody that deals with social media knows we’re in a very different world.
And we also have significant pockets of people, not a few percentages, large percentages that really lap this stuff up and have very few other sources of news. And they don’t seem to even try to discriminate what’s real, what’s false, and what, your point more subtly, is real but, you know, deliberately ginned up. The way you take some normal human weakness and you make it into the most embarrassing thing in the world. Or even something that wasn’t a weakness where someone simply had a phrase and in context it’s clear that they were saying X and you make it look like they were saying negative X. Right? And where negative X would be very unpopular. All of those things are being done.
If you want it in terms of economics, Austrian economics, one of the big things of von Hayek and such is this concept of spontaneous order. Left to its own devices, markets will simply, no one has to plan, they will simply rise to profit opportunities. Von Hayek saw only the positive parts of that. But of course, you can make lots of money by doing terrible, terrible things to people, and Austrian economics ignored those things.
So you need to regulate. And if you have a monopolist, or close to a monopolist, you know, like which is Facebook and some aspects of its operations, that you have even under neoclassical economic theory a legitimate basis for regulating them.
By the way, as we are speaking today the security chief of Facebook has just resigned, apparently in protest at Facebook’s refusal to take security and privacy of its customers sufficiently seriously. So I don’t believe the reform is going to come from Facebook.
GREG WILPERT: Well, we’ll definitely come back to this as this is not an issue that’s going to go away. I’m speaking to Bill Black, Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri Kansas City. Thanks again for having joined us today, Bill.
BILL BLACK: Thank you.
GREG WILPERT: And I’m Greg Wilpert for the Real News Network.