Modern Propaganda: Researching Cambridge Analytica

Modern Propaganda: Researching Cambridge Analytica

In this week’s PaCCS blog, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Dr Emma Briant, an Associate Researcher in Human Rights at Bard College, to discuss her research on propaganda and her experience researching Cambridge Analytica.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today, it’s much appreciated. Your work first came to PaCCS’ attention because your PhD project on propaganda and modern conflicts was designated a Global Uncertainties project by the ESRC. Would you mind telling our readers a little bit about your project?

Dr Emma Briant: My work on propaganda started in about 2004 with my master’s degrees, and it carried on through my PhD and beyond. It started when I was based at the University of Glasgow, researching on propaganda and counterterrorism. I was interested in how governments were changing their propaganda strategies over time in adaptation to modern conflicts, and how the modern media environment was rapidly changing after 9/11. My work specifically focused on examining the view of people across governments in the UK and in the US. I travelled over to Washington, DC for my research, and was continually interviewing – including with a lot of people who were working as contractors for firms that worked on the US and British governments counter-terrorism campaigns.

Out of that research, I ended up publishing a book, Propaganda and Counterterrorism: Strategies for Global Change, about the development of UK and US propaganda, Anglo-American relations, and the impact of this relationship upon the development of propaganda strategies.

How did that project lead into the work that you’re doing now?

Throughout the course of that project, because I was interviewing propagandists and government contractors, I was introduced to people in companies like SCL, which is the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. After completing my PhD, I went back to them for further research. I was initially interested in how they were impacting changing practice and policy, as they were relatively small but influential in steering western governments toward greater focus on behavioural change in information operations. Other parts of the company were also, of course, simultaneously doing work in politics and over the last 4-5 years my interviews prompted me to have concerns about data misuse, unethical international political campaigns and the conflicts of interest that come into play when contractors for defence and security projects might also be working in politics.

I’ve researched both security and political campaigns, which gives me a unique perspective for observing how the present set-up poses challenges for policy and governance or regulation. My work over this period was very revealing of things like the misuse of data in 2016 and implications of mass surveillant influence for human rights. So now, I’ve been briefing inquiries from my expertise in this area, and my knowledge of Cambridge Analytica and the parent company SCL, and how we address conflicts of interest posed by this network of companies and others operating across different domains.

What was it like, discovering what you found about Cambridge Analytica? How have these discoveries influenced you and your approach to research?

You are obviously aware that people do bad things, especially if you study something like propaganda, but I tugged a thread and the research snowballed uncovering an endless web that couldn’t be seen by most, which is still being revealed. Sometimes you find things you didn’t expect in social science, which cannot be anticipated fully, that’s what happened to me. You roll with it, the world revealed its horror and complexity around me. With whistleblowers and revelations and a PR front by the company, it was rapidly changing like moving ice, throwing up obstacles in left, right and center, as I was trying to research, requiring constant contingency plans for months. I faced security risks.

I wasn’t particularly an activist, but I believe in engaged research with a public interest dimension. While I wasn’t naive I never expected to discover the extent of the wrongdoing I stumbled across. If you find such knowledge, I think you are ethically compelled to do the right thing with that information, which is why I think it was important to reveal the company through the inquiries rather than simply waiting to publish academic work. Although this was very difficult for me.

Once I broadened my vision beyond a very defined security focus to be able to see what these actors were doing in multiple areas and why they were doing it, I started to realize the importance of the connections between their political work and the work these companies do for governments. Companies want to get more contracts, political campaigns can enable further contracts with the government once that party’s leader is put into power. This throws up worrying implications if that company’s business is war. Understanding the relationship between politics and security is crucial to how we understand international affairs and domestic power dynamics, and in understanding the dynamics and political economy of the influence industry where it works across the two.

In academia, we tend to examine things narrowly – examining specific cases such as Russia Today propaganda or a state department public diplomacy campaign in a specific location (often not considering any companies contracted as actors in their own right). Usually the focus is the content produced not the political economy. Because of this, networks of opaque industries are often overlooked and unseen by researchers. We tend to look at what is superficially visible, such as media content, but often miss the underbelly of stuff that’s being deliberately hidden – including the money that drives it. That hidden world is what I’m most interested in. I feel now that I want to do research that is more applied, and it’s led to me wanting to change policy, to want to try to make a difference, and to make sure that our governments do things better.

What would you want to tell policymakers interested in working on these issues?  

The ‘War on Terror’ gave birth to a multi-billion-dollar industry in data-driven influence, and during this period, defence contractors like SCL have been able to repurpose their techniques for politics. The political communications structures that we have today are really a mass surveillance system for political communication, and the problem is that we’re putting more money into these private companies that are being recruited to respond to counter-terrorism or Russia without tightening up the related processes that gave us SCL and allowed companies to meddle in our elections.

So, we need to look at defence contracting and fix it. There’s been a failure to manage the conflicts of interest posed by these networks of companies that are working on different projects and have access to data and knowledge. For example, SCL was working for NATO at the same time that their subsidiary Cambridge Analytica was pitching contracts to Russian oil company Lukoil. If a hostile foreign power wanted to, they could go to one of these same companies that we use, so if you don’t have very careful data restrictions and transparency, how the hell do we know that we can trust these companies with data?  The oversight of government departments’ contracting processes is absolutely inadequate beyond belief. Thus far, there’s been very little effort to address this both in the US and the UK – they don’t want to talk about it.

I understand that you had an opportunity to share your some of your research concerning Cambridge Analytica and SCL with parliamentarians during the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s investigation into disinformation and fake news. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

I was required to hand over some of my research to the fake news inquiry in 2018 because it was believed that I had gathered evidence regarding SCL’s wrongdoing and unethical activities which was of great immediate public interest and that it would be relevant to the inquiry. After consulting with my university, some of my findings and policy recommendations were published as parliamentary evidence, and the committee also published a three additional explanatory essays I had written.  

What was it like as a researcher, engaging in that parliamentary process?

I can’t even begin to put into words how valuable I felt this outlet was. I’m not a journalist but I had uncovered information with a massive public importance that badly needed to be published rapidly. It is frustrating to find that as an academic I was limited in my options to communicate powerful findings when it was in the public interest to do so. Everything stood in my way. Academic blogs don’t have legal teams the way newspapers do and the blog I hoped to use backed out for this reason, I phoned all around the world and couldn’t find another who would take my explosive Cambridge Analytica findings. If there hadn’t been this Fake News Inquiry and it hadn’t found me, I don’t know how I would have got this information out. The fact that there was an inquiry going on was wonderful, because I’d been worried for quite a long time about these processes, and few people would listen to my concerns about the governance of propaganda in the UK and the US. No journalists were interested until Carole Cadwalladr came knocking. And until a public inquiry puts it on the map, people don’t pay attention to academics.

The committee themselves and their staff were also friendly, trustworthy and reassuring during what was also a scary and difficult process.

All of a sudden I ended up with my research all across the media, and it was research about unethical activities, security and controversial political campaigns like Cambridge Analytica’s work for Trump and on Brexit. It made me very exposed in my security situation and also I realized that the academic apparatus really isn’t designed for discovering what is essentially breaking news about powerful people. You aren’t very well supported as a researcher rather than a journalist.

You’ve also done a lot of work to help make the general public more aware of these issues, ranging from acting as a senior researcher on Netflix’s documentary The Great Hack to writing opinion pieces. What are your key messages for the general public?

We have been talking a lot about regulation of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. We need proper regulation when it comes to data and protection of our data rights, in order to make it work for the public good. Honestly, I think people should come off Facebook and be extremely careful with their data until this is properly regulated because it is hard to know the dangers still at present. Especially in the US.

Another key thing we need to push our legislators for is to – independently – regulate the influence industry. By influence industry I mean a web of contractors and companies embracing everything from lobbying, PR and advertising, data analytics and the strategic communication and intelligence firms. While many of the activities of these sectors may be perfectly legal and not necessarily nefarious, there’s so much we can’t see and it’s hard to know the risks or who to trust. Assemblages of companies work across borders and jurisdictions with shell companies hiding activities.

One of the reasons we have difficulties in the UK is that there is very little regulation of lobbying. It’s possible for companies to manipulate different jurisdictions and perhaps carry out activities that would be forbidden in one place by doing it with a contractor in another country. This isn’t just about foreign countries’ lobbying or foreign money coming in – it also has ramifications for our domestic politics, transparency, and security.

We need to expose the dark money and influence systems, to make the system more transparent for everyone and to develop databases tracking things like beneficial owners of corporate entities. We also need to extend data rights and basically end shell companies, because that’s how a lot of this gets covered up. GDPR isn’t enough, because auditing all of these opaque companies is very difficult. How do you operate GDPR unless someone can figure out who they need to ask for their data back? We need to tackle the lack of transparency to be able to expose, monitor and prevent future wrongdoing.

Do you think that the lines between using data, propaganda, and other forms of messaging have blurred over the course of your career thus far? What risks to you think this might pose?

I would say that what we are now calling digital marketing isn’t what we ever used to call digital marketing, it’s become a hybrid between mass surveillance and marketing practices.

In December, I revealed that universities were hiring Cambridge Analytica to do their digital marketing, which means they were giving the company data about their students in order to try to increase recruitment. This isn’t just about universities. Rather, it demonstrates that these companies are being contracted in all sorts of different areas to gather data. We would be fools to trust them.

I think we’ve normalised something as marketing that isn’t – it’s essentially become an information warfare tool. This isn’t the same as putting a billboard near a community or an ad in the newspaper. We’re now using very targeted advertising in combination with profiling people in every aspect of our lives, while moving into an age which will be dominated by the internet of things. Technologies are moving so rapidly that an ordinary person should not have to try to anticipate how other people are dedicating their lives to creatively imagining new ways to manipulate them.  We don’t really know or understand – and certainly cannot anticipate – the potential threat of having every single aspect of our lives – from our behavioural responses, to our feelings and biological state – monitored and potentially weaponized against us.

Dr Emma Briant has written about Rights, Media and Mass-surveillance in a Digital Age;  the Pentagon’s role in reshaping the field of propaganda, and the role of the press in the war on asylum. She is presently working a book, tentatively entitled Propaganda Machine, which promises to be a shocking exploration of the breadth of Cambridge Analytica and SCL’s work throughout the world. Her research into Cambridge Analytica has resulted in publications including:

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