REVEALED: Facebook data harvester's links to US and UK counter-extremism campaigns
The parent company of Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy firm accused of harvesting the data of tens of millions of Facebook users without authorisation, has run counter-extremism campaigns targeting potential Islamic State (IS) recruits for the US and UK governments.
Officials in Washington and London are facing growing pressure to reveal their links to SCL Ltd's controversial work, which is the subject of investigations in both countries.
Cambridge Analytica, which was set up by UK-based SCL in 2013, has claimed credit for swaying voters during US President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and during the UK’s "Brexit" referendum in the same year.
It was bankrolled by Robert Mercer, an American hedge fund billionaire who donated substantial sums to Trump's campaign, and Steve Bannon, Trump's former strategist, served as the company's vice-president.
Cambridge Analytica also faces accusations of unethical tactics, including hiring former Israeli and British spies, to try to influence elections worldwide.
Waging a social media war
However, an investigation by Middle East Eye has also cast light on SCL’s links to a US State Department strategic communications unit responsible for waging a social media war against the Islamic State (IS) group.
MEE can also reveal that the Ministry of Defence has had at least four contracts worth £347,000 ($490,000) for data analytics services with SCL and a linked company, SCL Insight. One of the contracts ended just last month.
On Tuesday, Heather Nauert, a State Department spokesperson confirmed that SCL held a recent contract worth almost $500,000 with the State Department's Global Engagement Center (GEC), which was set up in 2016 in order to "counter propaganda and disinformation from international terrorist organisations and foreign countries".
The GEC's work has included advising scholars on condensing fatwas into tweets, and using Facebook to target counter-extremist content at millions of Muslims in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
"The portfolio that they have handled for us is the deradicalisation, essentially, of people who would be interested in joining ISIS," said Nauert.
The company, she said, had undertaken similar work previously for the State Department, as well as for other governments.
"I know that many other governments work with them as well. It's not just the United States government. I believe the Brits work with them and other countries," she said.
Using Facebook ads, I can go within Facebook, I can go grab an audience, I can pick Country X, I need age group 13 to 34, I need people who have liked - whether it's Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi or any other set - I can shoot and hit them directly with messaging
- Michael Lumpkin, GEC
However, Nauert said SCL's contract with the State Department, which was agreed in November 2016 and signed in early 2017, did not involve social media work.
A State Department spokesperson told Middle East Eye on Thursday: "The GEC did not fund any work by SCL conducted in the United States or using personal data from social media platforms."
SCL, the spokesperson said, had been employed because its research methods addressed "a key information gap for the US government in our understanding of terrorist recruitment and radicalisation to violence" and confirmed the company's past track record of work with the British government and the US Department of Defense.
The contract involved conducting audience analysis and research to "better understand ISIS recruitment and radicalisation to violence" and involved "a hundred qualitative in-depth, in-person interviews with potential terrorist recruits, returned foreign terrorists, and terrorist recruiters," the spokesperson said.
"SCL has a proven track record of performance on previous Department of Defense and UK Government contracts," he said.
But a former head of the GEC has previously described how the unit uses Facebook in a strikingly similar way to SCL to target audiences in Middle Eastern and European countries with anti-IS messaging.
Speaking at a military industry conference in November 2016, Michael Lumpkin said: "Using Facebook ads, I can go within Facebook, I can go grab an audience, I can pick Country X, I need age group 13 to 34, I need people who have liked - whether it's [Islamic State group leader] Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi or any other set - I can shoot and hit them directly with messaging."
A report in the Washington Post in February 2017 said that the GEC was "using Facebook profile data to find young Muslims who show an interest in jihadist causes. Then they bombard them with anti-terrorism messages that show up whenever the youths go online."
The campaign, the paper reported, targeted young men in countries including Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and France, while other targeted countries "remain secret to protect partnerships with their governments".
Other aspects of the GEC's counter-extremism work, including details of its support for governments in the UAE and Egypt, were revealed when Richard Stengel, then under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the State Department, appeared in front of a foreign affairs committee hearing about "Countering the Virtual Caliphate" in July 2016.
Stengel told the committee that the GEC was working with Cairo's Al-Azhar University "to try to help get the message that ISIL is anti-Islamic, that it is a perversion of Islam out in a way on platforms that they traditionally don't use".
Founded in the 10th century, Al-Azhar is one of the most important seats of learning in Sunni Islam. Its authority has been thrown into question more recently by its alignment with Egypt's political establishment.
Elaborating on the GEC's work with religious scholars in the region, Stengel said: "We can help give them greater capability, help streamline their message. I have talked to the people at different Islamic universities in saying here is how you shorten a 68-page fatwa to three different tweets. That is more effective."
Stengel also talked about how the State Department had created the Abu Dhabi-based Sawab Center in collaboration with the Emirati government as a regional counter-extremism hub.
“I mean, the UAE has been very, very forward-leaning in getting into this space but yet we have had conversations and relationships with the Jordanians, with the Egyptians," he said.
The UAE connection
SCL also has business connections to the UAE. 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.
Documents submitted by SCL Social to the Department of Justice's Foreign Agents Registration Unit, to which organisations working for foreign powers are required to report, show that campaign material included a Boycott Qatar Twitter account, display ads and targeted Facebook and YouTube videos.
The documents state: "The foreign agent served as the principal strategist to the registrant for purposes of developing and executing a global social media campaign on behalf of the foreign principal.
"Part of that campaign included social media activity focused on NGO's, foreign diplomats, and certain reporters in New York City during the 72nd Regular Session of the, United Nations General Assembly/specifically during the dates of September 19-22."
Meanwhile in July 2017, Nigel Oakes, founder and CEO of SCL, changed his usual country of residence from England to the UAE, according to UK company records.
Stengel also confirmed to the committee that the GEC was working with Facebook, describing a visit to Silicon Valley two weeks earlier in which he had met the founder and CEO of the social network.
"We met with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook about what they are doing," Stengel said.
"They have dozens and dozens of people, Arabic speakers, 24/7, taking down content ... the tech companies are really aggressive in this space in ways that people don’t always realise."
However Stengel, speaking in mid-2016, complained that strategic communications in the US were still under-funded by comparison with equivalent work in the UK. The GEC had asked for a budget of $21mn in 2017 and $60m for 2018, he said.
"I mean as a comparison, in the UK for example the agency that deals with online counter messaging and anti-terrorist activities is funded at $8mn. So that is just a relative comparison. It seems like we are seriously under funding this effort," he said.
A current job advert for the UK government's Research, Communications and Information Unit (RICU), which is responsible for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism messaging, revealed that it now has a budget of £40mn ($56mn) and employs about 70 staff. That compares with £4.25mn and 22 staff in 2011.
The UK government describes itself as "leading international efforts to counter Daesh's propaganda and damage its brand,", and it works closely with the US as part of the global coalition against IS.
The US, the UK and the UAE serve as co-chairs on the Counter-Daesh Coalition Communications Cell, which is funded by and based in the British foreign office in London.
A UK government website says: "Through the UK's leadership, the Cell has changed the international narrative around Daesh – from one that highlights their atrocities to one which emphasises their failures. This has been vital in damaging the perception of Daesh and reducing their ability to recruit."
According to the coalition's website, the communication cell's work has included sharing "best practices in online anti-Daesh engagement with partner governments, including consultations with Facebook about extremists' use of social media".
It will come as no surprise that a significant aspect of [SCL's] work was within the burgeoning field of counter-extremism, where surveillance, deception and propaganda have been considered acceptable techniques over the last decade and funded with multi-million dollar budgets
- Arun Kundnani
The Ministry of Defence told MEE on Friday that it had signed four past contracts for data analyics with SCL and an SCL subsidiary since 2009.
They consisted of two contracts worth £125,000 (now $177,000) and £30,000 ($43,000) in 2009-10, and a contract worth £150,000 ($212,000) signed in 2014-15. The Ministry of Defence also signed a contract with SCL Insight worth £42,000 ($60,000) in December 2017 for a project which finished last month.
A Freedom of Information request, published by the UK's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), appears to show that SCL was also contracted by the Ministry of Defence in 2013 to carry out a pilot study codenamed Project DUCO.
The goal was to test the use of Target Audience Analysis, a research methodology promoted by SCL, to "identify emerging groups, the motivations behind their formation and their likely behaviours in a given context," according to a heavily redacted evaluation carried out by DSTL.
The study focused on "Young Unmarried Males" (YUMs), who were seen as a critical target audience. The field work was carried out in a country in which the security situation was so bad that preparatory work for the study was done using Google Earth imagery.
'Big data tools'
A senior figure at SCL is also linked to an infamous counter-insurgency communications campaign run for the US Army by British PR firm Bell Pottinger during the occupation of Iraq, which included the production of fake al-Qaeda videos.
Between 2004 and 2012, Mark Turnbull, the current managing director of SCL Elections, managed Bell Pottinger's Specialist Unit in Conflict Transformation, according to his LinkedIn page.
His work included "a three year campaign of popular resistance to violent extremism through an indigenous 'grass roots' social movement, deploying multi-media and activist networks," and a "four year multi-media regional counter-radicalisation campaign across 22 countries addressing the psycho-social drivers of violent extremism," the profile said.
Turnbull last year spoke at a Foreign Office conference on "Diplomacy in the Information Age," advising officials on lessons to be learnt from Donald Trump's election campaign.
A report of the event said that the key points discussed included "exploring the benefits of big data tools" and "thinking through the ethical, legal and presentational questions around big data and social media exploitation".
SCL has also worked closely with Steve Tatham, a former commander of a British military psychological operations brigade who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Tatham, who runs a military and security consultancy firm, said in a statement posted earlier this week: "We have previously worked, as contractors, for the defence division of SCL. We are utterly appalled at the actions of senior Cambridge Analytica staff. These are not our values and standards and we condemn them unreservedly."
Arun Kundnani, the co-author of a report published this week on the globalisation of counter-extremism policies, told MEE that counter-extremism work based on the manipulation of data and subterfuge posed a threat to human rights and democracy.
"It will come as no surprise that a significant aspect of [SCL’s] work was within the burgeoning field of counter-extremism, where surveillance, deception and propaganda have been considered acceptable techniques over the last decade and funded with multi-million-dollar budgets.
"The UK government considers itself a world leader in this field and has trumpeted its approach across the world, inspiring similar counter-extremism programmes across the EU, at the US State Department, and in the Gulf states.
"These kinds of government manipulation of data, carried out in the name of countering extremism, represent a substantial, and often overlooked, threat to the human rights of Muslims. In the end, they damage democracy itself and therefore should be alarming to all of us."
The UK government on Wednesday disclosed three past contracts with SCL: a training project for the Home Office in 2009, a communications project for the Foreign Office, and the data project with the Ministry of Defence in 2014-15.
A Home Office spokesperson told MEE: "The Home Office holds no current contracts with SCL Group, Cambridge Analytica or any of its parent companies.
"The department made a one-off payment of £500 to the SCL Group in 2009 for a training course. This was many years before the recent revelations and before the formal investigation into the use of personal data."
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: "We have no current contracts with SCL Group, which includes Cambridge Analytica. As such, the company has no access to any classified information."
The spokesperson said that past MOD contracts with SCL had not involved the use of Facebook data.
The Foreign Office had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.David Miller, a professor of sociology at Bath University and the editor of Powerbase, a website that describes itself as "a guide to networks of power, lobbying and deceptive PR," told MEE it was hard to get a true picture of the extent of SCL's activities because of its use of shell companies, some of them based in offshore locations.
"They clearly have become connected with people with a considerable amount of resources. Both the military and the government on one side and elements of the alt-right on the other," said Miller.
MEE contacted SCL for comment with queries related to this story but was sent a statement issued by Alexander Tayler, Cambridge Analytica's acting chief executive.
Tayler said: "As a data scientist I deeply believe in fairness and transparency in the way data is collected and processed. I am sorry that in 2014 SCL Elections (an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica) licensed Facebook data and derivatives from a research company that had not received consent from most respondents. The company believed that the data had been obtained in line with Facebook’s terms of service and data protection laws."
Tayler also said the company had deleted all the Facebook data and had not used it during the 2016 US presidential election.
Investigators working for the Information Commissioner's Office, the UK's data watchdog that has focused on Cambridge Analytica's work as part of an inquiry into data analytics for political purposes, on Friday searched the company's London headquarters after obtaining a court order to examine databases and servers.
"As anyone who is familiar with our staff and work can testify, we in no way resemble the politically motivated and unethical company that some have sought to portray."
On its website SCL highlights its expertise in "counter radicalisation and recruitment".
"SCL employs social science models to understand how radical messages are appealing and uses powerful counter narrative strategies to neutralise misinformation," it says.
"SCL has an impressive history of reducing radical recruitment over the last decade and is currently supporting this effort for elements of the US government."