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Founder of Facebook data harvesting firm praises Nazi propaganda

Parent company of Cambridge Analytica worked for US government on 'deradicalisation' and held UK defence contract that ended in February
A reflection of the logo of US online social media and social networking service Facebook (AFP)

The founder of a controversial data company with links to US and UK counter-extremism campaigns has praised the Nazi propaganda machine, it has been revealed.

The parliamentary committee investigating fake news has published excerpts of interviews on Monday night with Nigel Oakes, the founder of SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica.

The committee said the comments by Oakes raise concerns about how voters were targeted in the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, amid concerns that data analytics could have been used to target voters concerned about immigration in the UK and Muslims in the US.

The interview transcripts were submitted to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) by Emma Briant, an academic who interviewed figures from SCL Group, Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU.

'Trump did exactly what Hitler did'

In the interview, Oakes explained how voters could be motivated to support a particular candidate by attacking minority groups.

He presented Hitler’s attack on the Jews as an example of this strategy, claiming that Hitler “didn’t have a problem with the Jews at all, but the people didn’t like the Jews … So he just leveraged an artificial enemy.

“Well that’s exactly what Trump did," he continued. "He leveraged a Muslim ... I mean, you know, it’s ... it was a real enemy. ISIS is a real, but how big a threat is ISIS really to America?” he said, referring to the Islamic State group. 

Cambridge Analytica lies at the centre of a storm for using data obtained from millions of Facebook users without their permission after it was hired by Donald Trump for his 2016 US presidential election campaign.

The analytics firm is also under scrutiny over campaigning for the 2016 referendum when Britons voted to leave the European Union, a move seen by critics as a colossal mistake but by admirers as a vital reassertion of British sovereignty.

Last year, a subsidiary company, SCL Social, was hired by the UAE's National Media Council to run a social media campaign targeting Qatar, which is currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies.

'If you take away all the hideous horror'

In a separate interview, Andy Wigmore, an official with pro-Brexit group Leave.EU, said: “The propaganda machine of the Nazis, for instance – you take away all the hideous horror and that kind of stuff – it was very clever, the way they managed to do what they did.”

Briant, who interviewed both Wigmore and Oakes, said she was “really shocked” by the comments.

“I don’t bring up the Nazis in my interviews. That was completely off the cuff from them,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday.

Wigmore told the programme that his comments were made in a historical context, and were not an endorsement or statement of fact.

The DCMC chair, Damian Collins MP, said that the “extreme messaging” around immigration during the campaign meant “these statements will raise concerns that data analytics was used to target voters who were concerned about this issue, and to frighten them with messaging designed to create ‘an artificial enemy’ for them to act against.”

The row comes after MEE revealed last month that the SCL Group has run counter-extremism campaigns targeting potential Islamic State recruits for the US and UK government.

Cambridge Analytica also faces accusations of unethical tactics, including hiring former Israeli and British spies, to try to influence elections worldwide, including in the Middle East.

An investigation by MEE has cast light on SCL’s links to a US State Department strategic communications unit responsible for waging a social media war against IS. It also revealed that the UK's Ministry of Defence has had at least four contracts worth $490,000 for data analytics services with SCL and a linked company, SCL Insight. SCL also has business connections to the UAE.

Cambridge Analytica and Brexit

According to transcripts of the interviews published by DCMS, Cambridge Analytica was lined up to do work with Leave.EU in the event that it was designated as the official campaign to leave the European Union.

Oakes said that “there was no contract and no money” but that they did do work to demonstrate their capabilities. A transcript of the interview with Wigmore says the campaign group copied Cambridge Analytica’s methods.

“Leave.EU benefited from their work with Cambridge Analytica before the decision was made on which Leave campaign would receive the official designation for the referendum,” Collins said in a statement.

In the event, “Vote Leave” beat Leave.EU to become the officially designated campaign to leave the EU ahead of Britain’s referendum, though Leave.EU continued to campaign for Brexit.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica said Oakes had never worked for the company and “did not work on the Trump campaign”.

They said: “Mr Oakes was speaking in a personal capacity about the historical use of propaganda to an academic he knew well from her work in the defence sphere. These are comments that have already been reported on in the media in the past few years.

"Like much of the reporting surrounding our company, Dr Briant's 'explanatory essays' contain uncontextualised comments, unsubstantiated assertions and the joining together of dots to establish a picture that suits the authors."

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