- Action comes after comments on U.K. Channel 4 News report
- Firm also under fire for harvesting data from Facebook users
Cambridge Analytica said it suspended Chief Executive Officer Alexander Nix after the executive was caught on camera boasting about the firm’s willingness to use bribes, entrapment with sex workers and other possibly illegal tactics to undermine political candidates.
The U.K.-based political-advertising firm’s board said Tuesday that Nix’s suspension is pending an investigation into his comments — which are airing this week after a four-month-long undercover operation by Channel 4 News — and other allegations surrounding the firm. Cambridge Analytica rose to international fame helping Donald Trump win the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The company has come under fire in recent days following reports that it improperly harvested data from tens of millions of Facebook Inc. users, then failed to destroy the information when confronted to do so.
Cambridge Analytica has a history of dubious election tricks, and the firm has been prolific in securing international elections work – and often felt no need to hide its tactics.
Last year, Nix told Bloomberg News that his company was involved in as many as 10 campaigns for prime minister and president every year, including in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America.
According to documents given to prospective clients, for a campaign in Latvia, the British affiliate of Cambridge Analytica known as SCL Group ran a disinformation operation designed to stoke ethnic tensions between Latvians and ethnic Russians, blaming Russians for unemployment and helping a nationalist candidate to victory. But the firm’s effectiveness has long been in question.
While controversy has swirled around Cambridge Analytica’s role in helping Trump win the American presidency, it wasn’t until this week, when Nix’s latest comments aired, that the firm’s techniques caught up with him. Nix was recorded on camera by Channel 4 News reporters, who posed as potential clients looking to influence elections in Sri Lanka. In one exchange, videos show Nix, whose connection to Trump’s victory minted him and his firm as data wizards, appearing to downplay Cambridge Analytica’s data-mining services and tout more old-school political dirty tricks instead.
One of the firm’s services, Nix said, is facilitating a sting where a politician is approached by someone posing as a wealthy developer and offering a large amount of money in exchange for a kickback. Or the firm could “send some girls around to the candidate’s house,” he said.
“Deep digging is interesting, but equally effective can be just to go and speak to the incumbents and to offer them a deal that’s too good to be true and make sure that’s video-recorded — these sorts of tactics are very effective, instantly having video evidence of corruption and putting it on the internet,” Nix said. “I’m just giving you examples of what can be done, what has been done.”
Cambridge Analytica can also help sway elections by spreading disinformation about candidates. “It doesn’t have to be true,” Nix said in one of the recordings aired this week. “It just has to be believed.”
The executive also said his company used a self-destructing email server to communicate with clients in order to eliminate evidence of their contact.
In the Channel 4 report aired Tuesday, Nix claimed credit for the work done on Trump’s campaign, saying: “We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign and our data informed all the strategy.”
In an interview with the BBC on Monday, Nix denied claims that Cambridge Analytica engaged in improper tactics to sway elections, calling the allegations a coordinated attack by the media. The firm said it doesn’t engage in the actions that Nix described and that Alexander Tayler will serve as acting CEO while the probe is under way. The board said a full investigation into the comments and allegations will be led by U.K. lawyer Julian Malins.
“Mr. Nix’s recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation,” Cambridge Analytica’s board said in a statement.
Nix, known as Bertie, graduated from the elite boarding school Eton College. He set up Cambridge Analytica in 2013 to target the U.S. market, installing himself as CEO after 14 years as a director of SCL. In the past couple of years, Nix, 42, has become a darling in tech and marketing circles, popping up on the international speaking circuit to promote his data-driven approach.