The Weaponized Propaganda Machine
Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. – George Orwell, 1984
As we’ve already seen, data gathered by companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter allows them to target adverts based on our every click. They can build detailed profiles about our personality, complex webs of information that allow them insight into what sort of adverts we are more likely to click on, what time of day, or day of the week it is, how many times we have visited a specific page, how long we spend on each page. They can predict whether or not we will react to certain types of adverts and wrap in a nice bow to sell off to the highest bidder. We understand how our data, social media, our deeply divided society, and our loss of trust in traditional media left us open for exploitation. Now it is time to understand just who was behind the campaign of digital misinformation and political psychological warfare that tore British politics to pieces.
Two years ago, almost no one on the planet had ever heard of the SCL Group. Their existence was known only to political insiders and a smattering of journalists. Yet since Brexit and Trump, they have found their work, both past and present, has come under immense scrutiny after they became intertwined in two of the greatest political upsets of our generation. SCL, or Strategic Communications Laboratories, claims to have worked on more than 100 election campaigns around the world. They have been employed by NATO, the Ministry of Defence, and the US State Department. Their purported area of expertise is in ‘psychological operations’, changing peoples’ minds through ‘informational dominance’ rather than simple persuasion and campaign tactics. Their mission statement reads: ‘Our vision is to be the premier provider of data analytics and strategy for behaviour change. Our mission is to create behaviour change through research, data, analytics, and strategy for both domestic and international government clients.’
In other words, they use personal data to map populations and figure out how to target political messaging. Dr Emma Briant wrote about SCL in her book Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategies for Global Change. She claims that the company have been:
Making money out of the propaganda side of the war on terrorism over a long period of time. There are different arms of SCL but it’s all about reach and the ability to shape the discourse. They are trying to amplify particular political narratives. And they are selective in who they go for: they are not doing this for the left.
The company pledges strict confidentiality, assuring clients that ‘absolutely no information concerning any of our past projects will be made available under any circumstances’.23 SCL was founded in 1993 by Nigel Oakes, but his experience in the obscure and shady world of secretive political consulting and campaigning goes back much further. Oakes founded Behavioural Dynamics in the 1980s and quickly acquired a reputation for highly effective political messaging. In 1992, Oakes spoke to a trade journal about his work: ‘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.’
He studied at Eton and claimed on the SCL website to have attended UCL before retracting the statement. At one time he worked for the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency and was involved with work on Margaret Thatcher’s image. In 2000, Oakes had a little trouble whilst allegedly conducting ‘psychological warfare’ operations for the Jakarta government. He complained to the Sunday Times that ‘he was caught up in a dangerous web of intrigue and disinformation following criticism of his media-monitoring centre’ – but we will get to that a little later. By 2005, SCL was expanding its operation. Roger Gabb, Rollo Gabb, and Alexander Nix joined Oakes to form the SCL Group, branching out into military and political consultation and data analytics. Their new mission would be to provide ‘data, analytics and strategy to governments and military organisations worldwide’.
Roger Gabb, the 79-year-old founder of Western Wines Limited (the UK’s largest branded supplier of South African wine), is a member of the board of directors at SCL. He owns a 25 per cent stake in the company through his own holdings and the Glendower Settlement Trust, a fund linked to him and his wife. Rollo Gabb, Roger Gabb’s son, was also a founding member of SCL and remains on the board to this day. Since 2004 the senior Gabb has given over £700,000 to the Conservative Party, both nationally and to his local Ludlow party branch. This included a donation of half a million in 2006, which made him one of the largest political donors in British political history. Unsurprisingly, Gabb was pro-Brexit. During the campaign he was fined £1000 by the Electoral Commission for failing to include his name and address in pro-Brexit adverts he placed as a director of Bibendum Wine.
The main shareholders include Alexander Nix, the Gabbs, as well as Nix’s mother and sister. Baron Jonathan Marland, David Cameron’s pro-Brexit former trade envoy, was also previously a shareholder through a family trust. Marland was the Conservative Party treasurer from 2003-2007 and in 2015 he was awarded the Order of Merit of Malta. Property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz was a 24 per cent shareholder (worth 4 million at the time) via his company Consensus Business Group. Between 2005 and 2013 Tchenguiz donated £21,500 to the Conservatives. [JR1] Other noteworthy members of the SCL Group include a handful of former military personnel on the company’s board of advisers. Rear Admiral John Tolhurst and Colonel Ian Tunnicliffe, a former strategic communications expert at the Ministry of Defence, were both key advisers to SCL. Chris Naler, an ex-commanding officer of the US Marine Corps operations centre, who recently started work at Iota Global, is a partner of the SCL group. IOTA Global worked with SCL and NATO to train almost 100 students from Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in Behavioural Dynamics Institute Target Audience Analysis Methodology and in basic Strategic Communication principles. They were described as acting ‘as a real counter to the insidious Russian propaganda’. Sir Geoffrey Pattie, a former Conservative defence and industry minister, also took a central role in the company for its first 3 years but resigned as a director in 2008. The SCL director and chairman is Julian Wheatland, a chairman of the Oxford Conservative Association.
SCL has become intertwined with both the British and American military establishments. Governments around the world have long been interested in the psychological operations so it is no surprise to see numerous high-ranking military personnel involved in the company. The Brexit campaign attempted to use the psychological warfare techniques that SCL had pioneered on the British electorate. Whether you think it is possible that this had a marked effect on the referendum is a question we will address in the coming chapters, but the reality is that this group was tied up in the biggest electoral earthquake in modern British politics.
Early Days of SCL
Behavioural Dynamics was founded by Nigel Oakes in the late 1980s and exists as a part of the SCL web. He took the experience he had running Behavioural Dynamics and put it to work with the newly-formed SCL. It seems that in the late 1990s and early 2000s they engaged in routine political consulting and PR work. Reports from the WSJ and The Independent explored work that they were carrying out in Thailand and Indonesia. They have always worked in secrecy, favouring ethically questionable campaign techniques. In Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1999, Oakes worked as an image consultant to President Abdurrahman Wahid, who was facing financial misconduct allegations. The company was described in The Independent24 at the time as ‘one of the hidden wonders of Jakarta’, though after some trouble with the government it ‘evaporated as suddenly as it had appeared’.
Their headquarters in Jakarta included a grandiose room brimming with high-tech computers. The Observer described the room as looking like the villain’s computer-filled complex from the 1995 James Bond film Goldeneye (not by accident either as SCL hired the company that built the Goldeneye film set to put together another operations centre). From there they produced a series of TV messages/adverts from the ‘Foundation of Independent Journalists’ and monitored stories about the client, Mr Wahid.
According to the Asian Wall Street Journal: ‘This included the screening of television commercials stressing religious and ethnic harmony that gave implicit backing to the beleaguered president. The centre also held a seminar on journalistic ethics and independence, but shielded from participants the fact that it was being funded by the presidential palace.’25
The Independent, who reported on the story, seemed to believe that it was mainly cosmetic: ‘It was just like a movie set to impress the clients, to calm down the family,’ said one Indonesian who visited it, ‘They are really desperate.’ There were also reports that SCL tried to add a story to an Indonesian paper based on a fake government document and that they operated through a web of shell companies that obscured the source of its funding. They were eventually paid between $300,000 and $2 million for their work. A local Indonesian employee in Oakes’ operations room, dubbed the Jakarta International Media Research Centre, told The Independent: ‘We didn’t know the purpose of it all, we just did what he asked. We called him Mr Bond because he is English, and because he is such a mystery.’26 After the article was released, Oakes flew quickly to Singapore and shut down all operations and contracts in Indonesia.27 In the late 1990s, they also held a $2.1 million contract in Kuala Lumpur, during which they were accused of being involved in voter manipulation that was aimed at keeping young people at home.
Post 9/11, they began to market themselves as experts in anti-terrorism and anti-jihadist messaging. They found governments around the world were willing to invest heavily in anything labelled ‘psych-ops’ and that is exactly what SCL were promising to anyone who might open their cheque books. They were ‘a communications company for a dangerous world’ and boasted that BDI (Behavioural Dynamics Institute), their own in-house research group, kept an office at the Royal Institution; known as one of Britain’s top scientific bodies. According to SCL marketing materials, BDI gave them an edge in ‘psychological warfare’ and ‘influence operations’.
A 2005 Slate article described pitches they were making at the time to governments of the world, espousing their belief that their strategic communications were ‘the most powerful weapon in the world’. That same year, at Defence Systems & Equipment International, the United Kingdom’s largest military trade fair, they pitched their ‘ops centre’ as a central tenant through which they could ‘override all national radio and TV broadcasts in a time of crisis’. This ops centre sounds much like an evolution of their set-up in Indonesia, focusing on the spectacle and theatricality of politics and crisis.
They gave a few examples of how this could work:
Example Scenario #1
There is a smallpox outbreak in London. Rather than mention smallpox, they would use the ops centre to spread the word of an accident at a chemical plant. The news and media are given updates about the path of a chemical gas cloud and people stay indoors awaiting confirmation that it is safe to go outside. The smallpox outbreak can be contained more easily as the population believes almost any trip outside could be fatal.
SCL estimated that by following their advice the death toll would be in the thousands, as opposed to predictions of up to 10 million had other measures been taken.
Example Scenario #2
There is a country that has recently transitioned to a democratic state in South Asia. Struggling with corrupt politicians and rising civil unrest that threatens to bubble over into revolution, the monarchy steps in to temporarily seize power, aided and abetted by SCL steering the media narrative from their ops centre.
These are legitimate examples given by SCL. They have a long history of willingly subverting and distorting the truth to further their clients’ goals. Misinformation and deceit are their bread and butter. Mark Boughton, the SCL spokesperson, said at the time: ‘If your definition of propaganda is framing communications to do something that is going to save lives, that’s fine.’ These aren’t exactly modern tactics; Operation Fortitude saw the allies use this sort of misinformation to hide the true location of the D-Day landings.
The year 2005 was a marked turning point for SCL, they were simultaneously launching themselves on the defence market and the homeland security market. Expanding from being a data analytics firm working to promote political campaigns and products, to one that also worked with a military focus. Whistle-blower and former employee Christopher Wylie provided documents to parliament in which SCL bragged of their use of religious leaders to help suppress the vote in the 2007 Nigerian elections. The brochure he gave to parliament also shows that they considered ‘bribing’ citizens to vote for the incumbent regime. They ultimately decided against this because they feared voters would simply take the money and vote for whom they wanted, not because it is morally or ethically questionable. Instead, they concluded that ‘a more effective strategy might be to persuade opposition voters not to vote at all’. To this end, they organized ‘anti-poll rallies’ in areas with high support for opposition parties replete with spiritual and religious leaders ‘to maximize their appeal especially among the spiritual, rural communities’. Local commentators described the election as the most corrupt, unruly, and violent election in the country’s history, with reports of ballot stuffing, stolen and tampered election materials, and underage voting.
Another SCL brochure discovered by the BBC claimed that during the 2010 elections on Trinidad and Tobago, they painted graffiti across the island to help their candidates message that he was ‘listening to a “united youth”.’ The Great Hack, a Netflix documentary on Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook data scandal, explains how they promoted apathy in an attempt to drive down the Afro-Carribean youth vote. The campaign was called ‘Do So’ which means don’t vote. The turnout for 18-35-year-olds was 40 per cent lower than expected (in an election where a 6 per cent swing was all that was required) according to claims made by Alexander Nix.
In 2010 Prime Minister Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines accused SCL Group of funnelling foreign money into his opponent’s campaign and running a smear campaign against him. The leader of the opposition party denied receiving foreign funds from SCL Group, but said that it did receive other forms of assistance from the company. The Times has since uncovered documents from 2011 in which SCL admitted to working against Gonsalves with a ‘targeted digital attack’. They manipulated the Google search algorithm so that, ‘within three weeks every single reference to him on the first two pages of Google… referred to the candidate’s horrific track record of corruption, coercion, rape allegations and victimisation’.
In 2010, they worked on the re-election campaign of Denzil Douglas, the prime minister of St Kitts and Nevis. According to The Times, they were behind a sting operation in which the opposition leader, Lindsay Grant, was caught on camera agreeing to sell land to a British buyer below market rate in exchange for a $1.7 million donation. A video of the conversation was posted on YouTube by an account that has not been used since and was reportedly run by SCL, called ‘investigativerep1965’. In 2013 they carried out some more work for the Trinidad government, under contracts with the country’s National Security Council. Under the guise of security work, they proposed a scheme to capture citizens’ browsing history, recording phone conversations for a police database and analysing it to produce scores for each citizen on how likely they were to commit a crime. In the same year, they were involved in the Kenyan presidential election, working on the campaign of Uhuru Kenyatta, who was under indictment for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. The charges were later dropped and Kenyatta won the election with 50.1 per cent of the vote. Cambridge Analytica was also involved in the Kenyan presidential election in 2017. The result was challenged in court but their candidate won the second-round election regardless. Brexit Party MEP and former head of media for UKIP Alexandra Philips was first asked by Channel 4 if she worked for them in July 2019 responding: ‘I didn’t work for them at all. That’s libellous…I’m being very serious now. You’re actually propagating a load of misinformation that’s been put online…based on nothing…If you want to talk about the Cambridge Analytica campaign, speak to them, not me. I don’t know them. I really don’t know the people.’
The next week she admitted to Channel 4 that she had worked for Cambridge Analytica, who ran the media operation for the Kenyan president, after Channel 4 released a recording where she discusses being under contract with the firm. Philips later said when questioned by Labour MEP Julie Ward in a European Parliament session discussing foreign electoral interference and disinformation she had worked freelance for a consultancy that worked for another firm which folded into Cambridge Analytica and accused Ward of ‘taking her information from conspiracy theorists on Twitter, FBPE hashtag people who want to stir up misinformation’. It’s a familiar response, threats of legal action and claims of crazy conspiracy theories prior to admissions of truth. [JR2] These people are supposed to be experts in crafting messages and obscuring the truth, so muddying the waters about their own work is second nature to them. In 2015, they were tangled up in the Nigerian elections once again in conjunction with an alleged SCL subsidiary, AggregateIQ. They were part of a team that produced and disseminated ‘incredibly anti-Islamic and threatening’ videos on social media designed to discredit and attack the main rival to the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari. The videos depicted scenes of people being dismembered, decapitated, and their throats being cut, leaving them to bleed out in a ditch.
AggregateIQ worked on this project alongside Black Cube, an Israeli private intelligence firm who were hired by Harvey Weinstein to disrupt reports accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct. Christopher Wylie alleged that Black Cube was tasked ‘to hack the now-president Buhari to get access to his medical records and private emails’. Their work was then handed to Cambridge Analytica by AggregateIQ. This is the perfect illustration of how the SCL group use webs of sub-contractors to obscure who is doing the real work. Cambridge Analytica contracted AggregateIQ, who in turn passed along information supplied by Black Cube, who describe themselves as a ‘private intelligence agency’, were accused of being part of a dirty ops campaign against former Obama administration officials, and were founded by the former SCL shareholder Vincent Tchenguiz. They deny having ever been involved with SCL or working in Nigeria and boasted on camera about having performed covert operations to attempt to sway an election in Malaysia during the Channel 4 undercover investigation into their work. A leaked briefing accused them of igniting old divisions and using old voter suppression techniques on a digital scale:
‘Many of the techniques of social influence and control being used today have their roots in the COUNTER-INSURGENCY doctrines used to suppress the movement for Malaysian independence more than half a century ago. They have since been supercharged with the help of new technologies, big data analysis and social media.’
All Malaysian government officials deny ever working with SCL, but leaked emails show ongoing communication and strategic discussion, as well as joint pitches involving government officials for election messaging and campaigning. They pitched to the supposedly independent but state-owned Oil and Gas firm Petronas to campaign in support of the right-wing Barisan Nasional. As part of the proposal, they pitched political psychographic community profiles, a turnout model, and an emotional model of the electorate. Part of the work focused on ‘inoculating’ opposition ideas by creating a list of simplified policies and dismissing them as ridiculous, to prime opposition voters to reject them out of hand. It’s difficult not to compare it with the way that the press primes the British population to reject ideas that might challenge the status quo. SCL also helped Rodrigo Duerte win the 2016 Philippines presidential race, emphasizing his qualities as a strong leader and rebranding him as a tough crime fighter.
Routine denial of any involvement is a recurring theme of anywhere SCL are uncovered. Secrecy is their game and the ease with which they can traverse the globe, operate through webs of shell companies and sub-contractors, without much, if any, oversight should scare you. SCL is just one of the thousands of private military contractors working around the globe on behalf of governments. Untoward campaign tactics have been their bread and butter around the world, but it is only recently that they have turned their attention to elections in western developed nations. Until the last few years, SCL had found it difficult to break into the campaigns of western nations as they already have a pool of election talent that they will recruit from. Lynton Crosby dominates the Conservative electioneering in the modern age, whilst the Labour Party tends to focus more on local campaigning and grassroots campaigns rather than top-down organization. America was already overflowing with over-priced election consultants, data scientists, and campaign managers. The New York Times claimed that Cambridge Analytica experimented abroad, including in the Caribbean and Africa, so that their modus operandi of secrecy could be maintained. They are far less likely to come under the same level of scrutiny, where ‘privacy rules are lax or non-existent’. Perhaps they were simply perfecting their craft? Regardless, if SCL were to move beyond work in Africa and the Caribbean, they needed to find a way into the inner circles of Anglo-US political campaigning.
This is an excerpt from Brexit: The Establishment Civil War