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  • 20 Jan 2017
  • The story behind Nigel Oakes, Trump’s weapon of mass persuasion

    Claudio Gatti
  • “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do […] I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”

    This quote from the bestseller “Trump: the Art of the Deal” effectively summarizes Donald Trump's philosophy and modus operandi.

    In the annals of American history, January 20th 2017 should then be remembered as the day in which “truthful hyperbole” took the White House. It will certainly be the ultimate triumph for its Messiah, President Donald J. Trump, but also a big victory for one of its lesser-known prophets, Nigel Oakes, a British national who calls himself “a pioneer in the field of Influence and Soft Power”. If the New York magnate will sit in the Oval Office, it will also be thanks to Cambridge Analytica, the American subsidiary of Oakes' holding company named by CNN “Donald Trump's secret political weapon.”

    An investigation conducted by Il Sole 24 Ore and published today in Germany by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung shows that for the last three decades Oakes has been a visionary salesman. The products he has been selling through his UK-based SCL Group, are the tools for a guided democracy, one governed by people who can manufacture consent.
    Some think that his techniques are a threat to a fair electoral process. Others downplay them as mostly theatrics. They actually may be both. In a society where a growing number of voters seem unmolested by facts, those who can best manage the impressions of others win. And more often than not, they do it through theatrics.

    Methodologies Mr. Oakes developed over the last quarter of a century are considered to have not only civilian, but also military applications. In the course of the years they have been financed, taught or implemented by the Pentagon, NATO and the defense ministries of Canada, the UK, Norway, the Ukraine and Moldova.

    But nothing Oakes and SCL accomplished in the past has had the impact of Trump's come-from-behind win in the presidential elections. Cambridge Analytica's CEO, another Brit by the name of Alexander Nix, claimed that “our revolutionary approach to data-driven communications [… played] an integral part in President-elect Donald Trump's extraordinary win.”

    Federal Election Commission's records show that, between the Trump and the Cruz campaign (which employed it in the primaries), CA collected a total of $16,843,974 in the 2016 cycle.

    Their role may not end with the electoral victory. The Guardian reported that CA is negotiating “two potentially lucrative new contracts, one to boost the incoming Trump White House's policy messaging and the other to help the Trump Organization expand its sales”.

    CA declined to confirm or deny this, nor did it answer any of our questions or requests of interview, but its influence with the future White House will not be contingent on those contracts.

    Stephen Bannon, the right-wing media firebrand chosen by president-elect Trump as his strategic advisor, reportedly sits on CA's Board, while Robert Mercer, the secretive money manager who emerged as a central figure in the Donald Trump campaign and is expected to remain an influential figure with the new White House, is said to have bought a significant stake in Oakes' US subsidiary.

    Bannon and Mercer declined to confirm their ties to the company, but a number of people who worked with the political campaigns that hired CA attested to their roles.
    “I sat in a room where a CA executive said that Bannon and the Mercers were involved”, confirms a senior republican strategist who asked not to be identified.

    “Bannon handled all the negotiations with us on CA's behalf, and Rebekah Mercer, Robert's daughter, was on every telephone call he had with us,” adds a top advisor to Ted Cruz, who also reveals that the connection with the Mercers gives CA an extra edge over other data companies: “It's not direct, but it's one of those deals where you are made to understand that if you hire CA, there will be donations from Mercer.”

    Cambridge Analytica's overt sale pitch stresses its unique formula: combining micro-targeting of voters with psychological profiling. “We bring together 25 years experience in behavioral change, pioneering data science, and cutting-edge technology to offer unparalleled audience insight and engagement services and products […] We collect up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans, and use [them] to model target audience groups and predict the behavior of like-minded people,” their web site says.

    CA uses this massive data to classify potential voters by personality traits in order to “understand what people care about, why they behave the way they do, and what really drives their decision making”. But the real value of the technique they call “Behavioral Micro-Targeting” is that it doesn't stop at the segmentation of targeted audiences. It is supposedly able “to engage and drive [voters] to action.”

    CA's CEO talked about it in a presentation he made on September 19th in New York. “Were you lucky enough to own a private beach and wanted to stop people from using it, you might put up the sign on the left here. This is largely informational and seeks to inform attitudes,” he said pointing to a black & white sign on the huge screen behind him which read “Public beach ends here – private property.”

    “Conversely, you could use the communication on the right - a behavioral communication that seeks to probe a much more powerful underlying motivation”, he added pointing to a sign that had the word “Warning” written on a orange background above the drawing of a shark with, underneath, the words: “Sharks Sighted – Keep out””. Nix's conclusion: “Clearly, the threat of being eaten by a shark might prevent you from swimming in that sea.”

    The actual sighting of sharks wasn't an issue. For Nix it was just a question of finding a message capable of modifying behavior in the desired direction.

    If paraphrasing Thomas Hardy, an election is to be considered an impression and not an argument, Cambridge Analytica's reasoning is that it isn't simply a question of producing highly persuasive communication, but developing messages that, when properly targeted, can encourage behavioral change.

    Starting at the end of WWI, the science of mass persuasion gained a central role in political life, and in the following decades its techniques were fine-tuned while the reach of its tentacles vastly expanded.

    Not only the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were affected. In 1938, American psychologist John Dewey suggested to replace the notion of truth with that of “warranted assertibility”. In 1953, US political scientist and communications theorist Harold Lasswell theorized that propaganda was essential in a democracy because “men are often poor judges of their interests and must be swayed by propaganda to make choices they would otherwise not make”.

    In the late fifties and early sixties the CIA spent millions in the development of the most effective forms of mind control in a project called MK-Ultra. Along with far-fetched experiments with psychedelic drugs or hypnosis, among the 149 sub-projects the Agency financed there were academic studies on behavioral modification. This effort was conducted by a CIA front, the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology (SIHE). “It was largely set up [...] to fund projects which were psychological, sociological, anthropological in character. We were interested in trying to get together a panel of the most representative high-level behavioral scientists we could, to oversee and help in terms of developing the Society”, John Gittinger, one of the MK-Ultra leading psychologists testified in Congress on August 3rd, 1977.

    CIA documents later released through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that one of the scientists the Agency used to bolster the prestige of SIHE was Hans Eysenck, a famous psychologist who worked at the London University, where he studied the segmentation of personalities according to psychometric scales. During the early 60s Eysenck received $27,000 to conduct experiments on “measurement of motivations”, although he was unaware of the fact that the money came from the CIA. That was subproject 111. A second study, subproject 98, conducted by Queens College sociologist Kurt Lang, was focused on “ideological conversion/mass conversion” and a third, subproject 127, on “voting behavior”.
    Since those days the science of mass persuasion has made giant steps forward, both in effectiveness and targeting precision.

    In this past US presidential campaign, the displacement of facts by “warranted assertibilities” or desirable belief seems to have reached its apex due to the explosive mix of growing social fragmentation and political disillusionment with the widespread use of social media.

    “In 2016 Facebook was a primary destination to reach the American voters with the potential to change the voters minds, both through the targeting and the message itself”, said Zac Moffatt, the top digital strategist for Romney's 2012 campaign and founder of Targeted Victory.

    “Trump's strategy seems to have been: I say whatever I wish and its opposite, my social media expert will then make sure that each potential voter hears what is right for him or her. With tightly integrated and strictly monitored social media pipelines, this approach appears to have worked quite well”, says Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a data protection expert and co-founder of PersonalData.IO.

    Manipulating reality – first and foremost his own – has been Nigel Oakes' knack since the very beginning of his professional life. For this, some may be tempted to dismiss him. But especially now, with post-factuality becoming so dominant, his skills in bending the truth are actually the very reasons why he should be taken seriously. Not only he is being backed by two extremely sharp people who will have the ear of the President of the United States, but his methodology is been sponsored by NATO and many other military institutions.

    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.

    Mr. Wahid is dead, however his daughter still recalls what happened: “Mr. Oakes never helped my father during the election campaign. He was brought to us through a third person close to my father, who tried to get Mr. Oakes to set up some kind of 'operation center' for my father AFTER he was elected President. Mr. Oakes' center never materialized into any support that was substantive to my father”.

    Impressing customers with a hyper-high tech OpCenter has been one of SCL's favorite marketing gimmicks. They did it also in London at a large defense fair in 2005 when their command & control station was built by Vision 360 Ltd, a special effect company that created what it called a 'fake OpCentre' for the James Bond film Goldeneye. Oddly enough Vision 360 Ltd's name appeared as the registrant of the domain name bdinstitute.org, which belonged to the Behavioural Dynamics Institute.

    Questions have also been raised about the impact that behavioral microtargeting had on the last US presidential election.

    In the “Transform GOP Analytics” conference held on December 9th at the Washington DC Microsoft Headquarters, Matthew Oczkowski, Cambridge Analytica's director of product, was asked about their techniques. The conference was closed to the media, but two witnesses recalled what happened.

    “Somebody who worked for Ted Cruz asked Matt a question: ‘You guys worked for the Cruz campaign using your methodology, and you know that we didn't find it effective, so why do you continue to claim credit for things that did not work? Also I wonder if you used it in Donald Trump's campaign'. It was a though spot to be in - answering that question in a room full of people – and Matt essentially replied that there were differences of opinion on how effective the methodology had been for Cruz, but that the Trump Campaign had not used the methodology”, a participant said.

    Brent Seaborn, a managing partner at Target Point who worked on micro-targeting for the Republican National Committee and was also an attendee, gave us a few more details: “Their feeling is that a short term political campaign does not provide enough time for psychographic profiling and communicating on an emotionally level to really have an impact. The point that Matthew made is that it works in a longer term brand-imaging campaign, where you try to affect the emotions of people over a long period of time.”

    The following week, on December 13th, at a post-election review on the use of digital advertising hosted by Google that can be streamed, Mr. Oczkowski was more straightforward: “We didn't really do any psychographics with the Trump Campaign”. Then he explained: “We had to walk before we could run in this campaign […] We had five months to scale extremely fast, and doing sexy psychographics profiles requires a much longer run time”.

    If Cambridge Analytica gets a contract with the new Trump Administration it would certainly have the longer period of time they say is necessary for their techniques to be effective.

    Will it work? “Without a doubt voters can be influenced by emotional appeals and with social media you can engage them with interpersonal communications, which we know are more powerful than mass communications”, Professor Barrie Gunter, one of the two British psychologists Mr. Oakes employed in the early 90s, said.

    In his latest book, “The Psychology of Consumer, Profiling in a Digital Age”, he explains that “understanding how consumers engage psychologically and classifying them accordingly, could help determining the best message and predicting their behavior”. Like consumers, voters could be differentiated in terms of the psychological makeup with which they process information.

    “In the early 1980s Adrian and I found that introverts and extroverts respond to violent pictures in the news differently. Introverts tend to have their memories for news narrative more disrupted. You can use information of that sort to target particular groups in the hope of persuading them to behave in a certain way, and with social media you can track people's behavior in a continuous way. Whether that makes a political campaign more influential in persuading people to ‘buy their product', however, is another matter and we do not have enough normative data yet on that”.

    What we know for sure is that Nigel Oakes has been very good at influencing different subjects, from NATO to Robert Mercer, into buying his techniques. So, the fact that he is an unrepentant braggadocio doesn't justify discounting his “influence operations”. If anything, they should be monitored even more carefully, as Donald Trump just proved what is possible to achieve when you mix unrestrained bragging with a shrewd use of social media.