TODAY:

Cambridge Analytica & Vote Leave. The whistleblowers’ revelations.


Last night, I reported live on the two whistleblowers revealing how Cambridge Analytica was involved in Vote Leave’s alleged illegal activity around Brexit. Worth reading to get up to speed ahead of today’s emergency debate in Parliament...


[This piece was originally written in the format of a Twitter thread and has been minorly edited and corrected.] 


Once again the Frontline Club is packed with journalists, Byline Media folk, and TV cameras for the latest revelations in the Cambridge Analytica / Trump / Brexit saga from two whistleblowers.

First thing to note is that security has been increased a level or two since last week’s gathering. Two checkpoints against the guest list, and a minder scanning the room.



Twitter/@steveparks

We’re about to kick off.

The focus of attention tonight is Shahmir Sanni, joined again by Christopher Wylie who was the focus last week. Carole Cadwalladr will be joining later when she’s filed at the Guardian.

Chris is carrying a large ring binder of documents.



Shahmir Sanni & Christopher Wylie (Twitter/@steveparks)

Boris Johnson’s father is in the audience.

Peter Jukes, the host, starts by asking Shahmir about being outed by Number 10 over the weekend.

(Lots of camera shutters going off as he talks — a lot of press photographers here.)

He found out about it when the New York Times forwarded his lawyer an official statement from No 10, that outed him.



Official statement from Number 10 (Twitter/@carolecadwalla)

Shahmir has had to come out to his family under pressure.

He is crying as he talks about this. “It’s okay, I’m just being a drama queen.” Warm applause for him.

He first saw how ‘they’ act when he saw how Darren Grimes was treated — “They want you to be scared, to shut up.”

His mum said “Don’t let them shut you up.”

His family now need security in Pakistan. He doesn’t want to think about what it will be like to visit them.

Both whistleblowers were actually pro-Brexit — hence their work with the campaign.

Peter Jukes raises that some of the coverage has taken the line ‘all political campaigns are like this, Obama did this on Facebook.’

Chris says “campaigning is different from disinformation. When Obama campaign messages were put on Facebook, they were clearly from him, with the campaign’s message. Cambridge Analytica was all about getting false info out in hidden ways, to mislead people. They look for mental heuristics and programmatically inject info into your feed.”

Why was Britain important to Steve Bannon? “Britain is still seen as a cultural leader in the English speaking world. Educated, sophisticated. If you can show these ideas as popular there, it helps makes them popular in the US, e.g. Farage becoming popular there.”

“Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon cared deeply about UKIP and installing a populist movement in the UK, creating a culture war, and using this to tip America. Politics flows from culture. Britain is a cultural leader.”

Chris explains that he would often be on conference calls, while at Cambridge Analytica, with people from UKIP.

Cambridge Analytica were at the launch of Leave.EU — then claimed they had nothing to do with each other. Now they admit it.

They apparently panicked because “This was the first campaign they had worked on where they couldn’t leave the country immediately afterwards” and as they hadn’t been legally on campaign, they had to deny.

Chris says he has seen invoices from Cambridge Analytica to UKIP and to the Leave campaign. But the key is that US Billionaire Rober Mercer, and Steve Bannon, were pulling the strings for Brexit.

40% of Vote Leave’s campaign expenditure went to Aggregate IQ. Chris says “I helped set up AIQ. It was set up by Cambridge Analytica to be the Development Team. They built the platform.”

“Aggregate IQ had an IP deal with SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica that anything it built belonged to them. The only clients they had were Cambridge Analytica and Cambridge Analytica’s clients. The idea they are separate companies is laughable.
They did not silo any of the work between the web of Leave affiliated campaigns.”

“There are spending limits for political campaigns, and to protect that the campaigns aren’t allowed to collide and coordinate. But SCL/CA/AIQ worked for them as one and just distributed out the invoices as the campaigns could pay. Aggregate IQ was called SCL Canada until recently.”

Gizmodo has today revealed the details of the platform built by Aggregate IQ for Cambridge Analytica — that could manage the programmatic advertising, matching imagery and narratives programmatically using the Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms to target specific users.

Shahmir is speaking now. “Chris was the only person I knew in politics. I was pro-Leave, I wanted to get involved.” Chris introduced him to Stephen Parkinson (now Theresa May’s political secretary). Stephen was excited about getting him involved because of his minority ethnic background.

He met Darren Grimes (a student who was given £675k by Vote Leave) and they clicked. He wasn’t voting Leave because he hated immigrants, but because of what he saw as a potential afterwards. Darren was designing content and ads. His ads said things like ‘African farmers will benefit’.

Shahmir says he was Pro-Leave because “it never sat well with me that people would be better off just because of where they are from. As someone not from the EU that spoke to me.”

Shahmir was a volunteer, crashing at friends, paying his own way. He was 22, idealistic. As a Conservative leaning voter he was excited to be meeting Boris Johnson, Michael Gove...



Twitter/@SteveParks

Darren and Shahmir set up BeLeave as a Vote Leave sub-campaign. They had a big donor approaching them and saying they wanted to make a big donation. A Vote Leave lawyer set them up as a ‘separate’ campaign. The documentation made 22-year-old Darren the Chairman and 22-year-old Shahmir the Treasurer.

They carried on as before, still coming into the Vote Leave Office. The original donor pulled out, but the Vote Leave treasurers then found “a way of getting us some money. They gave us almost £700k!!” Darren and Shahmir wanted to spend it on their campaigns, but they were told they had to send the money straight to Aggregate IQ...

The money, in the end, was £625k — and never even touched their bank account. It went straight to Aggregate IQ. The actual campaign activity Aggregate IQ did for BeLeave will have made this worth £600 an email sent... unlikely that this is what was paid for.

When they won the referendum, Shahmir was over the moon, having succeeded. But then, in August 2016, the Buzzfeed article came out, investigating the weird spend of £625k to two students. Darren panicked. Senior members of Vote Leave advised them on how to respond to the Electoral Commission.

Shahmir had been working in Top Man, but Vote Leave backers now offered him and Darren well paid jobs. Was this just to keep him on-side? “I don’t want to think that for every successful job I had I was just being used,” Shahmir says.

Chris felt bad that he had introduced Shahmir to this. Especially that he had been put into a position of legal liability as Treasurer. He listened to Shahmir, and realised that the activity had been against UK election law. When he was next at Aggregate IQ, he asked to see the BeLeave work and saw that the work hadn’t been silo’d — it was done together with Vote Leave, the DUP and other Brexit work.

Back in the UK, he talked to colleagues about whether they should report it to the Electoral Commission. People were scared to. He realised they needed good legal advice...



Twitter/@SteveParks

Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ had set up a shared drive for BeLeave with all strategy documents, legal documents, ads, etc. — all managed by Vote Leave staff. Chris saw it all and saw they had specifically tried to cover up that Vote Leave people had access to it, 10 days after the investigation was notified.

“The Press is trying to make this a bizarre lovers’ quarrel, rather than an expose of illegal activity. That’s what they should be reporting,” Chris explains.

“I’m a eurosceptic. I’m not trying to rehash a remainer argument. Whatever side you are on, you have to be for democracy. This is an irreversible change to our constitution. I don’t believe in breaking British law. This is too important to screw up.”

“There now needs to be a parliamentary inquiry. We need to be sure that this is genuinely what the British people want, not just a result that was bought with money.”


Time for some questions.

Boris Johnson’s Dad, Stanley, stands up — “Where did this money come from? Did any of it come from Russia?”

Chris answers: “I don’t know specifics on money. What I do know is that several researchers at Cambridge Analytica had projects funded by Russia, travelled there. The company regularly worked with companies linked to the FSB. Cambridge Analytica pitched their work for the Russians to clients in various countries.”



Stanley Johnson (Twitter/@SteveParks)

Next question: “Did you have evidence of Vote Leave working with the DUP or Veterans for Britain?”

Chris explains that he saw the evidence of this at Aggregate IQ. “As well as these two, there are several confidential whistleblowers who have provided evidence to the Electoral Commission.”


“Did you see evidence of the ‘disinformation’ campaigns talked about with the Trump campaign also happening with Brexit?”

BeLeave’s purpose was to present a progressive outlook so they would lose less middle ground voters. So, Shahmir didn’t see the negative campaigns.


“Cambridge Analytica claim Chris was only part time, very junior, had no access to anything. Is that true?”

“I was the Director of Research. I helped set up Cambridge Analytica based on my research, I negotiated with Mercer’s lawyer about it. I have provided all the evidence of status to The Guardian and the New York Time.”


“But can you actually quantify that there was any impact on the EU referendum from the cheating?”

“Well, it’s like in sport. If an athlete is caught doping, you don’t start a debate about how much the drug helped. You cheated, we take the gold medal off you and you’re banned. It’s the only clear and fair way...


“How did the Facebook data help with Brexit?”

Chris met Dominic Cummings in autumn 2015. Then, Vote Leave had no data. Cummings asked “How can we create the Palantir of politics?” Chris then couldn’t see how they could build that in time for the campaign. But then, suddenly, a lot of data appeared. For some of that, it seems, Aggregate IQ were contracted to provide data “by whatever means it takes.” But Aggregate IQ is out of reach of British investigators, in Canada.


“What’s the aim of targeted Facebook ads?”

Chris says you don’t waste money targeting people who are already going to vote for you, you target the others who need to push or pull in some way. Put opponents off voting, etc.


“Why have you blown the whistle, and why now?”

Chris says: “First thing is we should encourage people who know about wrongdoing to come forward.” He didn’t for a while because, after leaving Cambridge Analytica, they sued him and he had to sign an Non-disclosure agreements. It was scary to be up against a billionaires’ lawyers. Then, he says that although he is only public now, the process has taken a year. He reported to the authorities, before going to The Guardian. He also worked at convincing others to come forward with evidence. This is the end of that process. He wanted to take time and do it right.


“Shahmir, why did you decide to come forward?”

There’s no one moment. It was gradual. At first, he was just being told the claims of illegal activity were just ‘remonaing’ and people trying to stop Brexit. He was being given official line by the staff of cabinet ministers... As a 22-year-old, it took him a long time to get past this from authority figures and realise something bigger was wrong. He realised it was illegal, and the things being submitted on his behalf to the Electoral Commission weren’t true. Then, he saw Vote Leave starting to do some cover up. Shahmir says he voted Leave, but he doesn’t care about that now. It’s about a democratic system.

“This country values queuing! Coming from Pakistan, this country taught me about a system that is right and just. I’ve seen everything about this country I believed in being stripped away.”

“And now I see the lies and the vitriol - from journalists, from our foreign secretary! Even from Downing Street! I’ve thrown away everything I’ve been doing for two years. They were using me.”



Twitter/@SteveParks

And that’s the end. Long and rousing round of applause for Chris and Shahmir.🔷


  • To watch the video of the entire event, click here.
  • To read more about Cambridge Analytica’s activities in India, click here.
  • To watch the testimony by Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie to a parliamentary committee click here.
  • To keep following this story follow Carole Cadwalladr and Byline Media.




Embed from Getty Images


(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)


(Cover: Pixabay/PMP.)


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A writer & entrepreneur based in London, UK. He has written a series of entrepreneurship books for Pearson. Steve runs digital agency Convivio by day.
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