Cambridge Analytica: A Note on Bribes and Stings

From Channel 4 News:

An undercover investigation by Channel 4 News reveals how Cambridge Analytica secretly campaigns in elections across the world. Bosses were filmed talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.

…Senior executives at Cambridge Analytica – the data company that credits itself with Donald Trump’s presidential victory – have been secretly filmed saying they could entrap politicians in compromising situations with bribes and Ukrainian sex workers.

…The company’s chief executive Alexander Nix… when asked about digging up material on political opponents… said they could “send some girls around to the candidate’s house”, adding that Ukrainian girls “are very beautiful, I find that works very well”.

In another he said: “We’ll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance, we’ll have the whole thing recorded, we’ll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the Internet.”

Offering bribes to public officials is an offence under both the UK Bribery Act and the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Cambridge Analytica operates in the UK and is registered in the United States.

Channel 4’s coverage of Cambridge Analytica – researched in partnership with the Observer and the New York Times – has been justly celebrated as an urgently needed exposé of the machinations and manipulations of a sophisticated political consultancy in the digital age. The existence of the “dark arts” in political campaigning is hardly new, but tracing CA’s specific interventions around the world is important for the historical record, and an advance in the perennial battle between those who want the public to be informed and those who would prefer us to be misinformed. Nix’s statement that “there are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed” is not a great surprise, but such a candid admission ought to mean that the reputational risk of involvement with CA will now outstrip the benefits it promises (or has previously provided) to clients.

And that’s before we even get onto possible breaches of the law in data-gathering and in how anti-Clinton attack adverts were funded.

However, the above point about bribery seems to me to be questionable. The lead-in’s reference to “using bribes” gives the false impression that politicians are actually being bribed, rather than being stung, and it would be ironic if laws against “offering bribes to public officials” made it more difficult for politicians to be put to the test. The motive for a bribery sting may be hidden or dishonourable, but politicians ought to be capable of rebuffing corrupt overtures, and at least have the sense to properly scrutinise who they might be dealing with. In some countries, there may be mitigating reasons for accepting a bribe – for example, if otherwise it would simply be accepted by a rival, who would then enjoy extra resources – but politicians feeling that they have to adapt to a corrupt system won’t change unless the risks of exposure outweigh the benefits of acquiescence.

CA of course is not interested in cleaning up politics, and its use of bribery scandals is selective and manipulative. However, attempting to show whether politicians are corruptable through stings is a normal part of journalism – and it is something that Channel 4 News has itself done in the past. (1) Why should it be illegitimate for other interested parties to create news in the same way?

I draw a distinction here with Nix’s unattractive admission about using “Ukrainian girls”. Sex stings are always tawdry, and if the “honeytraps” are supposed to go all the way then Nix is effectively a pimp. The fact that someone may be induced to behave foolishly in such matters is rarely in the public interest – although again, politicians ought to bear in mind the old adage that if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. (2)

Footnotes

1. In 2013, a BBC Panorama journalist posing as a lobbyist for Fiji successfully stung the then-MP Patrick Mercer. Mercer’s subsequent departure from public life was very welcome, but I did wonder why it was that he had been targeted in the first place. Perhaps his various antics (briefing against an ex-lover in newspapers; promoting fake terror threats; drunkenly railing against David Cameron) made him certain enemies who then used media links.

2. The nadir was probably the Brooks Newmark sting.

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