The Facebook data breach is merely the by-product of unchallenged establishment arrogance.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the details. On the face of it, the Cambridge Analytica scandal currently unfolding is a complex story of political dark arts, third party Facebook apps, lax data protection policies and sophisticated data harvesting techniques.
Watch the Channel 4 undercover videos exposing CA boss Alexander Nix and executive Mark Turnbull, though, and you realise that this story really boils down to power – or rather, the dangerous arrogance bred by elitist power.
Let’s look a bit more closely at one of the key players in this story to illustrate the point. Nix is an Eton-educated former financial analyst who in 2013 became the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm set up with investment from right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer and the involvement of Breitbart editor, and later Trump strategist, Steve Bannon.
In the videos Nix displays the kind of cocksure sense of entitlement synonymous with both his schooling and career path – a self-appointed master of the universe openly boasting about his ability to manipulate global events. Christopher Wiley, the whistleblower who exposed CA’s data practices, told The Observer: “He’s an upper-class Etonian who expects people to follow him wherever he goes.”
Regardless of whether you buy the class angle or not, it’s worth studying Nix’s demeanour in the videos. The man exudes arrogance in a manner befitting his privileged background and the elevated, powerful sphere in which he works.
It’s certainly the case that prior to the scandal, Nix was a feted figure in elite political circles. CA claims to have worked on more than 200 elections around the world, including 44 US congressional, Senate and state-level elections in the 2014 midterms.
It’s unclear whether these campaigns deployed the same kind of nefarious tactics that Nix boasts about in the videos (setting honey traps for political opponents using escort girls, for example), but it’s hard to believe the firm has always been squeaky clean and that Nix was just wildly exaggerating during what he thought was a serious meeting with a potential client.
The fact is that for years, CA’s services have been gleefully accepted by governments around the world. The UK Conservative Party itself has several ties to CA’s parent company SCL Group in the form of donations and former MPs and party workers who have also been shareholders and directors at the business.
The latest revelations in The Observer have also looked at CA’s involvement in the work of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, while an old tweet by SCL chairman Julian Wheatland shows him “out campaigning” with former prime minister David Cameron in 2015.
Nix and CA are pariahs now, but before the recent exposés they were the darlings of the establishment. It’s a useful reminder of how we should view this scandal.
The lesson ultimately is to not just look at how your data is harvested to manipulate the democratic process. Instead, look also at the entrenched power structures and systems that allow it to happen in the first place.