A history of hype behind Cambridge Analytica

Nigel Oakes, the founder of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, once described his work in this way: “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler. We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.”

As an Old Etonian, his ties to royalty, the aristocracy, and the rich and famous, seemed to foster (at least in his own mind) the notion that he had the skills and connections required for shaping global events.

But as Claudio Gatti noted while Donald Trump took office, Oakes’ primary business skill seems to have been identical to Trump’s: the art of self-promotion.

Oakes’ bio in the SCL webpage says that he “was educated at Eton College and UCL, where he studied Psychology”, although according to a 2008 letter the University College London sent to David Miller, a UK sociologist who studies propaganda, there were no records of him ever studying there.

Mr. Oakes official bio continues saying that, “in 1989, he established the Behavioural Dynamics Working Group at University College London and in 1990 the Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDi) was formed as a centre of excellence and a research facility for strategic communication”. Mr. Oakes also claims that he “began working with Professor Adrian Furnham (UCL) and Professor Barrie Gunter (University of Leicester) to establish a methodology that could integrate social science into the marketing process more effectively”.

Furnham and Gunter are established names in psychometrics, the field of psychological measurements (ironically, Furnham was a follower of Eysenck, the London University psychologist who unwittingly worked for the CIA front SIHE), and their involvement with the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, the body that according to SCL provided the academic backbones for Mr. Oakes’ methodology, clearly injects credibility to his companies and techniques.

But in a parallel with the Project MK-Ultra, the two psychologists say that they were exploited by Nigel Oakes to build credibility for his project. “I believe he is inappropriately using my name and reputation to further his career. He was unreliable and Prof. Gunter and I severed links with him”, Professor Furnham wrote us in an email.

Barrie Gunter was more explicit: “Adrian and I were running our own small company providing consultancy services. Nigel made contact with us while he was working for the corporate event division of Saatchi & Saatchi. As far as we were concerned Behavioural Dynamics was simply the name of a company he founded”, now retired professor Gunter said. “Nigel didn’t have any qualifications in psychology. To have credibility he needed an association with bona fide psychologists, which is part of the reason he brought us on board. But we found that no matter how much we tried to reign him in, he would make all kinds of claims that we felt we could not substantiate, and that is why we stopped working for him”.

Still, years later the BDi methodology has been adopted by NATO and a number of its members and, according to the SCL website, “verified and validated by the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency”.

In the summer of 2015 SCL Group was in fact paid over $750,000 by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, a research center based in Riga, Latvia, which provides NATO with “StratCom training and research”. The assignment was to design and deliver a 9-week intensive course in Target Audience Analysis, or TAA, a technique that assesses potential target audiences for susceptibility to propaganda that SCL Group traces back to the BDi.

Il Sole 24 Ore was also able to confirm that, as reported in Oakes’ bio, in an official NATO event he “was awarded the ‘RH Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement to Influence’ by Mark Laity, Head of Strategic Communication NATO”. Although Mr. Laity was unable to explain to us what the RH Foundation exactly did or was.

As it for DARPA, we were told that, “it is inconsistent with Agency policy for the company to claim their technology ‘has been verified and validated’ by DARPA. Such language implies endorsement by the federal government, which we wouldn’t extend to a commercial entity”.

Oakes’ propensity to make exaggerated claims is not confined to the origin of his methodology. Among the “Projects” listed in the SCL webpages, there is one in Indonesia, which states: “SCL was contracted to manage the election campaign of one of Indonesia’s major political parties following the restoration of democracy in 1999. The campaign was extremely complex and needed to appeal to over 200 million people across 40 languages in the Indonesian archipelago”. Above this claim, there is a quote from former President Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of the National Awakening Party, saying, “I am indebted to SCL for their strategic management of my election success”.

But in the June 1999, Wahid’s party did not win the election, managing to get only 12% of the votes, and Wahid was elected President by a parliamentary vote after gaining the support of a majority of representatives from other parties.

Having on various occasions worked with people like Oakes, I would add that Brits of this type who are intent on maximizing the commercial value of their connections, are exceptionally well positioned to dupe Americans — especially those whose craving for the appearance of inherited status leads them to contrive their own fake coat of arms.

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