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‘Mind benders’ banned from Facebook for alleged illegal activity

‘Mind benders’ banned from Facebook for alleged illegal activity

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A company that worked in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) on at least three political campaigns has been suspended by Facebook for allegedly illegally accessing and sharing user data.

Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) and its offshoot Cambridge Analytica have been accused of using the personal data of millions of Facebook users to sway the outcome of the US 2016 presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum.

SCL and Cambridge Analytica have denied the allegations.

SCL, a London based communications company set up by former advertising executive Nigel Oakes, became a household name in SVG in the lead up to the 2009 Referendum on Constitution reform, which it managed on behalf of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the ‘No Vote’ campaign.

Oakes told SEARCHLIGHT in a 2009 interview that SCL had chosen to support the NDP because it is closely affiliated to Sir James Mitchell, founder of the NDP. He confirmed that Sir James is an advisor to his organization and he had developed “tremendous” respect for Sir James.

Up to 2012, Sir James was listed on the SCL website as a member of the advisory board, but when SEARCHLIGHT spoke with him on Wednesday, the former prime minister said he had not been in contact with SCL, in relation to advice, in a while.

“These people like to use your name to help them to get jobs. They worked for me and they assisted me, certainly,” he said.

SCL first worked for the James Mitchell led NDP on the 1998 general election campaign, which it narrowly won, beating the Vincent Beache led Unity Labour Party (ULP) eight seats to seven. The ULP, however, won the popular vote, taking 54.6 per cent of the vote.

SCL states that it has worked on over 25 election campaigns worldwide, and managed 18 of those in their entirety – and claim to have “never lost an election which [they] have managed.” Oakes is also alleged to have told a trade journal in 1992 that he used “the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler… We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.”

It has been widely claimed that leading up to the 2005 general elections, then NDP leader Arnhim Eustace refused to engage the SCL. The NDP was roundly whipped by the ULP in that election, managing to win only three of the 15 seats. The ULP won 55.4 per cent of the popular vote.

But by 2009, the SCL was back in the NDP’s good graces and worked with the ‘Vote No’ campaign to limit national support of the referendum on Constitution reform to a mere 43.13 per cent, far short of the required two-thirds threshold.

While on the campaign trail in September 2010, just three months before the 2010 general elections, Mitchell praised SCL for their work, both in the 1998 general elections and on the ‘Vote No’ campaign.

“One of the reasons why [Prime Minister Dr Ralph] Gonsalves so annoyed with them is because he thought he had the election in 1998; but we beat him and that is really hurting him, because these people really know dey stuff,” Sir James said.

He also credited SCL with designing the thumbs down symbol of the ‘Vote No’ campaign. “Look at the beautiful design we had in the Referendum; that hands down thing we had kill them!” he declared.

In the wake of last week’s Facebook ban, Cambridge Analytica suspended its CEO, Alexander Nix, who was filmed as part of a British television station’s investigation giving examples of how the firm could swing elections around the world with underhand tactics, such as trying to tape its candidates’ opponents accepting purported bribes or sending “some girls around to the [opposing] candidate’s house.”

Sir James, however, told SEARCHLIGHT on Wednesday that he has never witnessed and is not aware of SCL ever being involved in unethical behaviour.

Prime Minister Gonsalves has consistently expressed his antipathy towards the group, saying in February 2010 that SVG would be “an inhospitable territory” for SCL. He said if members of the group wanted to work here, they would have to apply for work permits.

“They are coming to fight me on my territory, my terrain and I am not going to allow white colonialists to come to St Vincent and the Grenadines and seek to subvert the harmony in this country in the interest of their financiers. I will not allow it,” declared Gonsalves.

Later in 2010, the Prime Minister accused Scherzando Karasu, a journalist working with SCL of tracking him while on a visit to London. He said the journalist had accosted him in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying.

Gonsalves, who had called SCL and its staff “mind benders,” said then that he wanted Vincentians to understand the extent of the intrusion that SCL is having in the local politics of SVG.

“It has now gone past being campaign consultants. They are interfering with me and harassing me as I go about my legitimate business.”

Gonsalves in 2010 also tied SCL’s work here to third parties interested in Citizen by Investment programmes in SVG, a policy advocated by the NDP, but this was vehemently denied by both the NDP and SCL.

Although the NDP did not win the 2010 elections, they made substantial ground, adding four additional seats, to bring their tally to seven seats, losing by a narrow one-seat margin to the ULP, who won 51.1 per cent of the popular vote.

Besides SVG, SCL also worked on political campaigns in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago.

According to a report by Bloomberg in March 2017, SCL has left a “long trail of subterfuge, dubious dealing,” by using its “psychographic data models” to sway undecided voters, by targeting people’s social media profiles and serving up messages and ads based on their perceived biases.

The report also said a close look at past practices of SCL, however, reveals a corporate DNA less predisposed to dazzling technologies to sway voters than to using old-fashioned tricks and political subterfuge.

Since this scandal broke, shares in Facebook have plummeted by almost US$50 billion, prompting some shareholders to sue the social media giant.