Friday, April 20, 2018

Emma Briant: I’ve seen inside the digital propaganda machine. And it’s dark in there

British electoral consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL Group, continue to be dogged by a series of allegations, weeks after a whistleblower told the Observer that data had been harvested from Facebook by an academic research company called Global Science Research, which then licensed SCL to use the data. As an expert in propaganda, I conducted interviews with key figures at SCL, Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU for research projects on the Trump and Brexit campaigns long before the data scandal was made public.

It has been claimed that Cambridge Analytica was involved in the Brexit campaign and that the firm allegedly used unethical methods to help sway international elections. Cambridge Analytica and SCL have denied any wrongdoing. Leave.EU says Cambridge Analytica “has never carried out any work on behalf of Leave.EU”. However, the data scandal continues to engulf the firm. The Conservative MP Damian Collins, who is the chair of the cross-party digital, culture, media and sport committee currently scrutinising “fake news”, has said that the story – which led to Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, recently being grilled by US lawmakers – is “only in the foothills”, and is a broader global issue. Because of my expertise, I was recently asked by the UK’s Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the digital, culture, media and sport committee to submit evidence relating to electoral campaigns by Cambridge Analytica, SCL and others who were involved in the campaigns.

I researched SCL’s war-on-terror work for my book on propaganda and counter-terrorism, for which I conducted numerous in-depth interviews. Over the years I was able to build up enough contacts to place me in a rare position to gain access to interviews on the 2016 US election for another new book about media bias and the rise of Trump, co-authored with professor Robert M Entman of the George Washington University. I have also been working on research and publications about the EU referendum. I was alarmed by what my research uncovered, and it was both a matter of personal conscience and public responsibility as an academic to provide information to the various inquiries and investigations that are now under way.

Statements from my research – which includes interviews with staff at Cambridge Analytica and SCL personnel, and documents they gave me, alongside essays contextualising and discussing what I found – have now been published by the fake news inquiry. My evidence also  includes transcripts
from my interviews with representatives at SCL, Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU... read more: