The head of a British parliamentary inquiry says the two Canadians in charge of Victoria-based AggregateIQ were “completely disingenuous” when they claimed to be co-operating with investigators looking into the misuse of Facebook data for political campaigns.
In a show of co-operation between members of Parliament in Ottawa and Britain, Canada’s access to information, privacy and ethics committee heard video testimony Thursday from Damian Collins, the British Conservative Party MP who chairs a parliamentary committee that is also studying issues related to Facebook data and misinformation campaigns on the social-media platform.
Both committees are specifically looking at how the improperly obtained Facebook data of an estimated 87 million customers were used by the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which is a division of the SCL Group of companies.
Victoria’s AggregateIQ is referenced in SCL records as “SCL Canada.” The firm performed advertising work for the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum. AggregateIQ officials say they performed contract work for SCL, but that they are a completely separate company and never worked with the Facebook data in question.
The web of interconnected companies was further complicated this week with the news that SCL Elections Ltd. and its subsidiary – Cambridge Analytica – are closing all operations and filing for bankruptcy.
That development was discussed during Thursday’s hearings, including the fact that several former SCL and Cambridge Analytica executives have since formed a new company called Emerdata that is registered at the same London address as SCL.
Mr. Collins told Canadian MPs that it appears SCL and its affiliates are designed in a way that makes it difficult to track their activities and sources of funding.
“It’s like the hydra of Greek mythology, a sort of multiheaded beast, and when you cut one head off, another one springs up,” he said.
Canadian MPs were left frustrated last month after hearing for the first time from AggregateIQ’s top two officials – chief executive Zackary Massingham and chief operating officer Jeff Silvester. Mr. Massingham appeared reluctant to talk, leaving Mr. Silvester to answer most of the questions from MPs. Mr. Silvester then held a news conference following the April 24 meeting, but Mr. Massingham did not attend.
On that day, Mr. Silvester suggested he was confused by allegations AggregateIQ was not co-operating with an investigation by Britain’s Information Commissioner, noting that he had sent a reply to written questions.
Mr. Collins said he watched that Canadian hearing and said AggregateIQ’s testimony was “completely disingenuous.” He agreed with the idea that Mr. Massingham should be called back before the Canadian committee. AggregateIQ officials are also expected to testify before the British House of Commons committee on digital, culture, media and sport, which Mr. Collins chairs.
“It’s quite clear from the [British] Information Commissioner that they may have responded to letters, but they’re not co-operating with her investigation and are still not, and I think it was misleading of them to try to insinuate to your committee that they were,” he said.
Mr. Collins said the investigations in Britain by the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission will produce findings on the actions of individuals involved in specific activities, but lawmakers around the world must also focus on the broader question of protecting elections from fake news and misinformation from countries such as Russia.
“For the Russian state, it seems their modus operandi is to create discord,” he told MPs. “I think they’ve recognized that you can use these tools, particularly on social media, to support these campaigns and also to polarize political debate and opinion as well. And the consequence of that, really, has been in many countries – particularly in Europe – the collapse of the centre in politics. People have been pushed increasingly to the margins and political debate and discourse [is] increasingly aggressive. And I think we have to recognize this as a major threat to democracy.”