The consultancy, already in hot water over its misuse of Facebook data, unknowingly told UK's Channel 4 it would go beyond using data to hurt a candidate.
Consultants who worked on Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and exploited the personal Facebook data of millions were caught on camera offering to entrap politicians in compromising positions in order to influence the outcome of elections.
An undercover report broadcast in the UK by Channel 4 on Monday showed senior executives from data consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica offering to film politicians being bribed and circulate the videos on the internet in exchange for cash. They also offered to use Ukrainian sex workers and companies employing ex-spies to help dig dirt on political candidates.
Cambridge Analytica, for its part, denies the allegations made in the report, calling it "edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent the nature of those conversations and how the company conducts its business."
A Channel 4 reporter posing as a fixer for a wealthy client who wanted to get candidates elected in Sri Lanka met with senior executives from Cambridge Analytica in London on four occasions between November 2017 and January 2018.
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix attended one meeting, and the company's chief data officer Alex Tayler attended two meetings. On all occasions Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica and its affiliate, SCL Elections, was present. The reporter also recorded one phone call between himself, Nix and Turnbull.
The report aired following a weekend of revelations about the company and its exploitation of Facebook data to try and manipulate the behavior of millions of voters. Reports by The New York Times and Guardian revealed that Cambridge Analytica misused data harvested by University of Cambridge researcher Aleksandr Kogan, allowing the firm to better target around 50 million Facebook users with political ads.
But according to the Channel 4 report, Cambridge Analytica is prepared to go beyond data analysis, psychometric profiling and serving targeted ads to help political candidates into office.
In one meeting, Nix offered to "send some girls around to the candidate's house," adding that Ukrainian girls "are very beautiful, I find that works very well." Nix implied this was a tactic Cambridge Analytica has used in the past, saying, "we have lots of history of things," and, "I'm just giving you examples of what can be done and what, what has been done."
In another meeting, he explained to the reporter how he would create video evidence of corruption and put it online. "We'll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land, for instance, we'll have the whole thing recorded, we'll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the Internet."
Nix described to the reporter in one exchange how his company finds what matters to the voter group it's targeting and uses it to influence them. In Sri Lanka, said the reporter, it would matter to people if they found out a minister was homosexual. "These are things that, I mean, it sounds a dreadful thing to say but these are things that don't necessarily need to be true, as long as they're believed," Nix said.
Both Nix and Turnbull detailed the ways in which Cambridge Analytica goes incognito and disguises its footsteps so that it won't be linked to the spread of propaganda or specific campaigns. The company sometimes uses subcontractors, including British and Israeli companies, or sets up locally under the guise of university research or tourism to dig up dirt on political candidates and circulate it online, they said.
"We have many clients who never wish to have our relationship with them made public," Nix told the reporter. "We're used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows, and I look forward to building a very long-term and secretive relationship with you."
Cambridge Analytica, which also refutes the claims made by the Times and the Guardian, told Channel 4, in a statement: "We entirely refute any allegation that Cambridge Analytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes, or so-called 'honey-traps' for any purpose whatsoever. ... Cambridge Analytica does not use untrue material for any purpose."
The firm later emailed a statement saying that "after several meetings discussing ostensibly legitimate projects, the reporter unexpectedly and suddenly turned the conversation towards practices such as corruption and the entrapment of political figures. ... The two Cambridge Analytica executives at the meeting humoured these questions and actively encouraged the prospective client to disclose his intentions. They left with grave concerns and did not meet with him again."
The statement goes on to say that Nix, however, "acknowledges that on this occasion he misjudged the situation."
"In playing along with this line of conversation, and partly to spare our 'client' from embarrassment, we entertained a series of ludicrous hypothetical scenarios. I am aware how this looks, but it is simply not the case, " he said, according to the statement. "I deeply regret my role in the meeting and I have already apologised to staff. I should have recognised where the prospective client was taking our conversations and ended the relationship sooner."
The Channel 4 News report is available online for viewers in the UK and abroad. Channel 4 is due to broadcast another report regarding Cambridge Analytica's work in the US at 7 p.m. GMT on Tuesday evening.
First published March 19 at noon PT.
Update at 2:23 p.m. PT: Adds statement from Cambridge Analytica.
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