The law is clear. It’s everything else in this dark and murky business that is not. Three months on from the first appearance by Cambridge Analytica in the Observer, the questions show no sign of going away. Instead, they have become more urgent, more serious, with ever more far-reaching consequences.
Cambridge Analytica, its parent company SCL, and its relationship to the Leave campaign raise questions that cannot be ignored – questions that are vital to the integrity of our democracy and what it means to be a citizen in the digital age. Was the referendum free, fair and legally fought? Were voters covertly manipulated without their consent? And, crucially, what role exactly does Robert Mercer – Donald Trump’s biggest donor and close associate of Steve Bannon – have in all this?
Did a US billionaire play a covert but vital role in the biggest political decision Britain has made in its postwar history?
In December, Cambridge Analytica wrote to the Observer to deny it had worked for the Leave campaign. It said: “It is a US company based in the US. It hasn’t worked in British politics.” This is the starting point for everything that followed. Because evidence after evidence has mounted up that suggests this is simply not true. We know this from words spoken by Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive, filings to the Electoral Commission, statements on Leave.eu’s website, appearances by Cambridge Analytica employees at Leave.eu events. Even as Cambridge Analytica continues to deny it, Arron Banks – co-founder of Leave.eu – tweeted last week: “We made no secret of working with Cambridge.”
He’s right. It is no secret. But to not report a donation of a service that is made at any point in the campaign and relied upon later is against the law. To accept a donation from a non-UK citizen or company is against the law – though a donation from a UK subsidiary would be legal. If illegal, the issue would go beyond the Electoral Commission. If proven, this is a criminal offence that carries a fine or up to six months in prison, Gavin Millar QC, an expert in electoral law, told the Observer.
Will the police investigate?
The law is also clear on how political parties can use your data, Millar says. It’s just like somebody knocking on your door and canvassing you the old-fashioned way, he says. They have to explain who are they are, and if you don’t want to speak to them, you can shut the door. This is how it works online too. The Information Commissioner’s Office has launched a major investigation, but questions remain about what data Cambridge Analytica and Leave.eu have, as well as the bigger question of whether Facebook should be selling your data to political parties without your explicit consent.
Last week, the plot thickened still further. Until now, the attention has been on Leave.eu, but in November, it was reported that Vote Leave – the official campaign group for Leave, led by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson – had made payments to two groups of campaigners totalling £725,000. By law, campaigns can do this if there is no collaboration between them. However, both groups spent the money on social media advertising. Both used AggregateIQ, a small Canadian data analytics company.
AggregateIQ had already done £3.6m of work for Vote Leave. On Thursday last week, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, removed a listing for SCL Canada from its site. The phone number belongs to Zack Massingham, the director of AggregateIQ. A spokesman for SCL said it was an outdated listing of a former contractor who had done no work for Vote Leave.
What is Robert Mercer’s interest in all this?
The Observer revealed that the billionaire hedge-fund owner, and a money man behind Donald Trump, was a key figure operating behind the scenes in Brexit. Andy Wigmore of Leave.eu told us that Mercer is a personal friend of Nigel Farage and it was he who made the introduction between Leave.eu and Cambridge Analytica. He said: “They were happy to help. Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And Mercer introduced them to us.”
Increasingly, it seems Brexit may have been the warm-up for the Trump campaign. And if we were the laboratory rats in an experiment run by a foreign billionaire, what role did we play? How was our data used? And what exactly does Robert Mercer – and his close associate, Steve Bannon – want from us?
Is this our future?
Is it the case that our elections will increasingly be decided by the whims of billionaires, operating in the shadows, behind the scenes, using their fortunes to decide our fate?