Data consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, announced Tuesday that it has suspended its chief executive officer, Alexander Nix, pending an internal investigation. The news comes as Cambridge and its British counterpart, SCL, face a barrage of questions over how their companies managed 50 million Facebook users’ data, and also whether Nix and other executives use dirty tricks like extortion and fake news on behalf of their clients, as they appear to discuss freely in a recent undercover video filmed by British news network Channel 4 News.
Cambridge Analytica’s board of directors announced the suspension on the company website, writing, “In the view of the Board, Mr. Nix’s recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation.”
According to the statement, Cambridge has appointed British barrister Julian Malins to conduct an independent investigation. In the meantime, the company has appointed its chief of data, Alexander Tayler, to act as CEO as it investigates the allegations against the company. Tayler was also present at some of the meetings recorded by Channel 4.
Over the weekend The Guardian and The Observer, alongside The New York Times, published simultaneous reports alleging Cambridge and SCL had harvested 50 million Facebook users’ data and held onto it despite promises to Facebook that it would delete the data in 2015. Multiple sources also told WIRED this data was visible to Cambridge employees as recently as early 2017.
Both companies say they deleted the data as soon as Facebook alerted them in 2015, but on Friday night, Facebook suspended Cambridge and SCL from the platform. Regulators in both the UK and the US are now investigating what happened, and yet, it seemed that Nix, SCL, and Cambridge were prepared to face the controversy surrounding the company’s data-mining work head on.
Nix’s board of directors appears to have had second thoughts.
The Channel 4 News undercover sting, released Monday, appears to have derailed that plan. The videos show a series of meetings between Nix and Tayler, as well as SCL Elections managing director Mark Turnbull and a Channel 4 reporter posing as a fixer for a wealthy client in Sri Lanka looking to influence local elections. In the video, Nix discusses filming political opponents accepting bribes and sending “some girls around to the candidate’s house.” The Channel 4 video also shows Nix expressing an apparent willingness to spread fake news, saying, “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they’re believed.” In a statement shortly following the broadcast, SCL said the video was selectively edited to mislead, though Nix did acknowledge that he said those things.
“In playing along with this line of conversation, and partly to spare our ‘client’ from embarrassment, we entertained a series of ludicrous hypothetical scenarios,” Nix said in Monday’s statement in response to the video. “I am aware how this looks, but it is simply not the case. I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honeytraps,’ and nor does it use untrue material for any purpose.”
Less than a day later, however, Nix’s board of directors appears to have had second thoughts.
One source close to the company suggested that Nix shouldn’t be the only executive shown the door. “Anyone who was involved in these types of actions should be removed immediately,” said the source, referring to the other Cambridge Analytica executives shown in the Channel 4 video. “It is deeply troubling that these things would go on at the top of the company, because it is not representative of the people and the work that was done by the employees that worked there.”
That Tayler would be elevated to the role of CEO is noteworthy. He was among the first data scientists at the company and has long been considered one of the most powerful people within Cambridge Analytica, along with Nix and SCL chairman Julian Wheatland. Tayler was one of just three executives to sit in on some of the meetings filmed by Channel 4, though he appears not to have been present for some of the more salacious suggestions.
It’s also a curious choice given that Tayler is Cambridge’s chief of data, at a time when both Cambridge and SCL are also being investigated for allegedly retaining Facebook data they were supposed to have deleted. “That is like the wolf watching the hen house,” said one former employee. “He owns the Facebook nonsense.”