But if the Mercers had paid closer attention to a test run of Nix’s venture in the 2013 Virginia governor’s race, they might have reconsidered going into business with SCL. A PAC, the Middle Resolution, had paid Nix’s company several hundred thousand dollars that year for a list of persuadable voters to help elect Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who was running for governor. Months passed, and the list never arrived. When the group’s founder, Bob Bailie, demanded the list, Nix asked for more money and Bailie cut bait. Another Virginia-based group, Americans for Limited Government, then paid SCL $100,000 to create a list of suburban female voters who traditionally supported Democrats but might be swayed to vote for Cuccinelli if shown the right message. Late in the race, the group’s canvassers took Nix’s list into the field and returned with a perplexing result: The people on it were already Cuccinelli supporters. The higher-ups at Americans for Limited Government asked another firm to analyze the list. It turned out SCL had handed them a roster of die-hard Republicans.

Despite these early missteps, Cambridge Analytica quickly signed on a host of new clients thanks to the Mercers, who leveraged their position as megadonors to effectively strong-arm politicians into using their new firm. “It was the Mercers that made people work with us,” an early Cambridge employee told me. Cambridge boasted eight clients at the federal level in 2013 and 2014, and members of the Mercer family have supplied financial backing to each of them, including to five during that election cycle. One was former Ambassador John Bolton’s super-PAC, a potential vehicle for a presidential run. During the 2014 midterms, Robert Mercer gave $1 million to the group, which soon paid Cambridge more than $340,000 to develop Cambridge’s personality-based targeting on the issue of national security. It was an odd arrangement: Recipients of Mercer money would turn around and pay a vendor partly owned by the Mercers. (Rebekah Mercer did not respond to requests for comment.)

Cambridge Analytica’s work in the 2014 midterms received mixed reviews. A consultant for Thom Tillis’ US Senate race in North Carolina singled out for praise a Cambridge contractor who had embedded with the campaign. But in other instances, the firm’s seemingly weak grasp of American politics turned off operatives. Once, a Cambridge employee appeared unaware what a precinct was. In another case, according to a prominent Republican consultant, Cambridge proposed influencing Republican voters living overseas by creating a model that targeted all absentee voters, suggesting that the firm didn’t realize that people who live in the United States can also vote absentee.

The most common criticism I heard about Nix was that he habitually overpromised and underdelivered. According to a person who worked with him, Nix had a saying: “Marketing materials aren’t given under oath.” (Nix, Cambridge, and SCL did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this story.)

But Nix and his company used their work helping to elect Tillis and another Mercer-backed candidate, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, as a steppingstone. Cambridge explored new corporate clients, pitching the Colorado-based DISH Network. (“DISH does not have, nor has it ever had, a business relationship with Cambridge Analytica,” a spokesman said.)

Perhaps inspired by Bannon, whom Wylie described to the Washington Post as “Nix’s boss,” the company began testing messages designed to tap into immigration fears, anti-government sentiment, and an affinity for strongmen—“build the wall,” “drain the swamp,” “race realism” (a euphemism for rolling back civil rights protections). It also surveyed opinions about Russian President Vladimir Putin. It seemed as if they were getting ready for a presidential campaign—but which one?

4. “They’ve gotten the wool pulled over their eyes”

At 8:05 p.m. on March 22, 2015, Ted Cruz’s personal Twitter account posted a message: “Tonight around midnight there will be some news you won’t want to miss. Stay tuned…” There wasn’t much suspense—Cruz had effectively launched his presidential bid the day he arrived in the Senate two years earlier, but now he would make it official.

At midnight, the senator’s team in Houston would turn on the campaign website built by Cambridge Analytica. Then, at 12:01 a.m.…nothing. “We couldn’t even get the website up,” one former Cruz staffer told me. Eight excruciating minutes passed before Cruz simply sent another tweet: “I’m running for President and I hope to earn your support!”

It was a harbinger of things to come. Interviews with eight people who worked on the Cruz campaign reveal a litany of disputes with Nix. As the campaign’s frustrations mounted, it winnowed the number of Cambridge staffers in Houston from 12 to 3.

Cruz’s campaign did, however, employ Cambridge’s psychographic models, especially in the run-up to Iowa. According to internal Cambridge memos, the firm devised four personality types of possible Cruz voters—“timid traditionalists,” “stoic traditionalists,” “temperamental” people, and “relaxed leaders.” The memos laid out how the campaign should talk to each group about Cruz’s marquee issues, such as abolishing the IRS or stopping the Iran nuclear deal. A timid traditionalist, the memo said, was someone who was “highly emotional” but valued “order and structure in their lives.” For this kind of person, an “Abolish the IRS” message should be presented as something that “will bring more/restore order to the system.” Recommended images included “a family having a nice moment together, with a smaller image representing Washington off to the side—representing that a small state makes for better private moments.” But for a temperamental type, the suggested image was a “young man tossing away a tax return and taking the key of his motorbike to head out for a ride.”

Almost two months before the Iowa caucus, the Guardian reported that Cambridge and the Cruz campaign were using unauthorized Facebook data—an early indication of what Chris Wylie would later reveal in full. In response, Facebook told Cambridge to delete any Facebook data it held. Wylie says that while he deleted the data in his possession, he merely filled out a form and sent it back to Facebook certifying that he’d deleted the information. Facebook, he adds, never verified whether he actually had. A former Cruz staffer told me that well after the Guardian report, he could still use Cambridge’s Facebook data to build voter models.

The Cruz campaign eked out a victory in Iowa, and Nix was quick to take credit during an interview on Fox News. Whether Cambridge’s psychographics played any part in Cruz’s win is debatable: When the firm began using these techniques on December 1, two months before the caucus, Cruz was polling at 28 percentage points in Iowa. From there to caucus day, his numbers fluctuated in the range between 23 and 32 percent. Contrary to Nix’s claim that Cruz was languishing in the single digits until Cambridge came along, the candidate was already well on his way to winning when Cambridge’s secret sauce kicked in. “If we weren’t using the personality stuff until that point in time,” a former Cruz official says, “then Nix can’t credibly make the argument that it mattered, right?”

Adding to suspicions about whether Cambridge’s personality profiling worked as claimed was the fact that the company refused to share any of its underlying models. Cambridge advised the campaign on how best to deliver Cruz’s message to “stoic traditionalists” and “relaxed leaders,” but it wouldn’t divulge how it came up with those personality types in the first place. “They’re the least transparent company in the business,” a former Cruz staffer told me. Nor did Cambridge seem to understand the fundamentals of how a presidential campaign operated: Two weeks out from the South Carolina primary, Cruz’s data team discovered that the company hadn’t updated the voter database feeding its models in seven months. The result: In a primary where the victory margin could be in the low thousands, there were 70,000 people Cruz wasn’t targeting because his data was stale. “How fucked up is that?” the former Cruz staffer told me. “That’s political malpractice.” Cruz finished third in South Carolina. After the opening four states, he stopped using Cambridge’s personality-profiling models.

The company’s lackluster performance on the Cruz campaign didn’t stop Nix from walking onstage at the Concordia Summit and taking credit for Cruz’s second-place finish in the nomination fight. Word of his speech spread in Cruz circles, and campaign alums watched the video of Nix and scoffed. “Most of that’s bullshit or things we designed on the campaign,” one senior Cruz staffer told me. “Everybody has respect for the Mercers. But they’ve gotten the wool pulled over their eyes.”

5. “The phenomenon Donald Trump”

The Cruz campaign was still in the process of unwinding when Cambridge, following the lead of its investors, the Mercers, offered its services to the Trump campaign. Cambridge had previously reached out to Trump’s team, but his advisers didn’t want to hire the firm if it was also working for his rivals. Now, this was no longer an issue. Nix sent three employees to Texas to meet with Brad Parscale, Trump’s head of digital operations, who had no political experience and had gotten to know the Trump family while building websites for their company. (Parscale was recently named Trump’s 2020 campaign manager.)

As Nix courted the Trump campaign, he came up with an idea to boost the GOP nominee-in-waiting—one that was more in line with the political dirty tricks he and his colleagues would later discuss with Channel 4’s undercover reporter. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange had recently told a British TV station that he had come into possession of internal emails belonging to senior Clinton campaign officials—the result of a cyberattack later revealed to be the work of Russian hackers. Nix reached out to Assange via his speaking agency, seeking a meeting. Nix reportedly hoped to get access to the emails and help Assange share them with the public—that is, he wanted to weaponize the information. According to both Nix and Assange, the WikiLeaks founder passed on his offer.

Nevertheless, by late June Nix had landed a contract with the Trump team. At first, a handful of Cambridge employees set up shop in San Antonio, where Parscale was running Trump’s digital operation out of his marketing firm’s offices. But Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge’s head of product, was eventually put in charge of the San Antonio office after Parscale relocated to campaign headquarters in Trump Tower.

What exactly Cambridge Analytica did for Trump remains murky, though in the days after the election, Nix’s firm blasted out one press release after another touting the “integral” and “pivotal” role it played in Trump’s shocking upset. Nix later told Channel 4’s undercover reporter that Cambridge deserved much of the credit for Trump’s win. “We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting. We ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy,” he said. Another Cambridge executive suggested the firm had delivered Trump victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—states crucial to his ultimate win. “When you think about the fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million votes but won the Electoral College vote, that’s down to the data and the research.”

Cambridge helped run an anti-Hillary Clinton online ad campaign for a Mercer-funded super-PAC that paid the company $1.2 million. The ads stated that Clinton “might be the first president to go to jail” and echoed conspiracy theories about her health. But according to multiple Republican sources familiar with Cambridge’s work for Trump, the firm played at best a minor role in Trump’s victory. Parscale has said that $5 million of the $5.9 million the Trump campaign paid Cambridge was for a large TV ad buy. When Cambridge bungled that—some of the ads wound up running in the District of Columbia, a total waste of money—the firm was not used for future ad buys. During an interview with 60 Minutes last fall, Parscale dismissed the company’s psychographic methods: “I just don’t think it works.” Trump’s secret strategy, he said, wasn’t secret at all: The campaign went all-in on Facebook, making full use of the platform’s advertising tools. “Donald Trump won,” Parscale said, “but I think Facebook was the method.”

Nix, however, seemed determined to capitalize on Trump’s victory. Cambridge opened a new office a few blocks from the White House, where Bannon would soon take on his new role as Trump’s chief political strategist. (Bannon retained his stake in the firm, valued between $1 million and $5 million, until April 2017, months after Trump took office.) SCL, its UK-based affiliate, eventually relocated its global headquarters from London to Arlington, Virginia, and began chasing government work, quickly landing a $500,000 State Department contract to monitor the impact of foreign propaganda. scl briefly signed on Lt. General Michael Flynn as an adviser and later hired a former Flynn associate to run its DC office.

But even as Nix jetted around the globe and Cambridge opened new offices in Brazil and Malaysia, the company found itself with few allies in the United States. Trump campaign alums and Republican Party staffers distanced themselves from the company—especially after news broke last October that Nix had communicated with Assange. “We were proud to have worked with the RNC and its data experts and relied on them as our main source for data analytics,” Michael Glassner, the Trump campaign’s executive director, said in a statement released in response to these reports. “Any claims that voter data from any other source played a key role in the victory are false.”

By late 2017, after giving every indication that Cambridge Analytica intended to be a major player in American politics, Nix told Forbes the firm was no longer “chasing any US political business,” a decision he framed as a strategic move. “There’s going to be literally dozens and dozens of political firms [working in 2018], and we thought that’s a lot of mouths to feed and very little food on the table.” This seemed dubious—working on a winning presidential race is a golden ticket that most consultants would dine out on for years. In reality, Cambridge Analytica’s reputation for spotty work had circulated widely among Democratic and Republican operatives, who were also put off by Nix’s grandstanding and self-promotion. Mark Jablonowski, a partner at the firm DSPolitical, told me that there was “basically a de facto blacklist” of the firm and “a consensus Cambridge Analytica had overhyped their supposed accomplishments.” Perhaps even worse for a company that had relied on its billionaire patrons to open doors to new clients, the Mercers ceased “flogging for” Cambridge, according to Doug Watts, the former Ben Carson staffer.

For any upstart company, this would have constituted a crisis. But being shunned from the American political scene, it turned out, was just the start of Cambridge’s problems.

6. “I am aware how this looks”

Nix was near his London office when a Channel 4 correspondent confronted him. “Have you ever used entrapment in the past?” the reporter asked, thrusting a microphone in Nix’s face. “Is it time for you to abandon your political work?”

Captured on tape musing about entrapment and spreading untraceable propaganda, accused of misappropriating Facebook data to meddle with the minds of American voters—by March 20, scandal had reached Nix’s doorstep. He brushed past the reporter and into his building.

“I am aware how this looks,” Nix said in a statement. He explained that the explosive comments he and his colleagues had made to an undercover reporter were untrue. They were just “playing along” with “ludicrous hypothetical scenarios” proposed by a prospective client. His company, meanwhile, claimed that it did not “use or hold data from Facebook profiles.” By the end of the day, Cambridge Analytica had suspended Nix pending an investigation, and he had offered to resign if it would spare the company. “Alexander was always entertaining,” a former colleague told me. “In the end, he will always hang himself.”

The revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s alleged political tricks and shady data mining added to a growing list of problems the company was already facing. A few months earlier, in December, Nix had appeared before the House Intelligence Committee—though not in person. The panel’s Republicans, who ran the committee’s Russia probe with an eye toward minimizing any political damage to the president, arranged for Nix to beam in by video link. One topic of discussion was Nix’s outreach to WikiLeaks. His testimony remains secret, though he subsequently acknowledged approaching Assange in an effort to get his hands on “information that could be incredibly relevant to the outcome of the US election.” (In the Channel 4 undercover footage, Nix mocked the Intelligence Committee and said the Republican members asked him only three questions. “Five minutes—done,” he said, adding, “They’re politicians; they’re not technical. They don’t understand how it works.”)

The committee’s Democrats had taken a keen interest in Trump’s data operation and Cambridge Analytica’s role in particular. Michael Bahar, a former general counsel on the committee who worked on the investigation before entering private practice, told me that one line of inquiry explored whether Cambridge Analytica had deployed its targeting tactics to more effectively spread Russian disinformation, and whether it had been enlisted to use data and analytics stolen from the Democratic National Committee by Russian-directed hackers. “Maybe [hacked information] was actually given to a campaign to help with the microtargeting,” Bahar says. “That’s why I think the role of Cambridge Analytica…needs to be looked at very carefully.”

Scrutiny will likely intensify given revelations that Cambridge’s Russian connections predated the 2016 election. Wylie, the former Cambridge employee, provided documents to the Observer revealing that the firm briefed Lukoil, the Russian oil company, on its behavioral microtargeting strategies. In a recent interview with CNN, Wylie drew a startling connection between the firm’s work and the Russian cyberattacks during the election. “I am concerned that we made Russia aware of the programs that we were working on,” he said, “and that might have sparked an idea that eventually led to some of the disinformation programs that we have seen.”

In addition to Nix, Democrats, according to a House Intelligence Committee memo, had hoped to call as witnesses Alex Tayler, Cambridge Analytica’s chief data officer; Julian Wheatland, the chairman of SCL; and Rebekah Mercer. Instead, in early March, committee Republicans hastily shut down the probe, though Democrats have vowed to continue investigating on their own, although without subpoena power. On March 21, the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), wrote to Aleksandr Kogan seeking an interview and requesting documents about his interactions with SCL and Cambridge Analytica. Chris Wylie has agreed to meet with committee Democrats.

The firm also remains a subject of interest to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mueller last fall requested the emails of any Cambridge employee who worked on the Trump campaign. Nix’s unguarded comments to Channel 4 may be of interest. He said the firm relied on an encrypted email system that deleted messages two hours after they were read. “So then there’s no evidence, there’s no paper trail, there’s nothing.”

Yet another avenue of interest for investigators is Cambridge’s possible role in a second 2016 election that featured covert Russian meddling—the British referendum to leave the European Union, known as Brexit. In 2016, Cambridge seemed to break its informal rule of forgoing UK political work when it unveiled a partnership with Leave.EU, the more extreme of the pro-Brexit campaigns, only to backtrack and deny any involvement in Brexit.

In February, as part of a broader inquiry into fake news, members of the British Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee grilled Nix for more than two hours. He unconvincingly blamed the announcement of the Leave.EU partnership on “a slightly overzealous PR consultant.” He claimed that he and his staff had “never worked with a Russian organization in Russia or any other country.” And he denied that his firm used Facebook data. After the latest round of revelations, Damian Collins, a conservative member of Parliament who chairs the committee, said Nix had “deliberately misled” his panel “by giving false statements” and vowed to further investigate.

The blowback from the Cambridge Analytica scandals also hit Facebook, which faced a torrent of criticism for its lax handling of users’ data. The company’s stock price tumbled by 7 percent, losing more than $50 billion in value, and the Federal Trade Commission reportedly launched an investigation into its data practices. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook trended on Twitter. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally broke his silence, issuing a statement admitting to a “breach of trust” between Facebook and its users.

Yet, critics wondered, just how many times had their trust been breached? Cambridge Analytica was hardly alone in hoovering up user data. And how exactly were Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic techniques different from Facebook’s core business model—tapping into the vast amounts of data it collects on its users to guide hypertargeted advertising, be it for shoe companies or political campaigns or dubious fake news sites.

By most accounts, Cambridge Analytica’s main feat of political persuasion was convincing a group of Republican donors, candidates, and organizations to hand over millions of dollars. (A company called Emerdata that lists Nix as a director recently added Rebekah Mercer and another Mercer daughter to its board, suggesting that Nix hasn’t fallen out with all his GOP patrons.) But Cambridge’s controversial foray into US politics spawned larger questions about how our social-media habits can be turned against us, and how companies such as Facebook hold more power over our lives—the ability to shape public conversation, even political outcomes—than many people are comfortable with. Whether or not Cambridge Analytica survives, data about our personality types, our predilections, our hopes and fears—information we unwittingly divulge via status updates, tweets, likes, and photos—will increasingly be used to target us as voters and consumers, for good and ill, and often without our knowledge. These tactics will facilitate the spread of fake news and disinformation and make it easier for foreign interests to intervene in our elections—whether they are Russian trolls or British chancers.

***Andy Kroll is an investigative reporter at Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here. Follow him on Twitter here. Send tips, scoops, and documents to akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com.




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