Cambridge Analytica Files Round 2: latest revelations by Chris Wylie and Shahmir Sanni

More extraordinary revelations were made yesterday in the second round of our discussion on data leaks by political consultancy Cambridge Analytica and its close links with the Vote Leave campaign.

The event, held on Tuesday 26th March, was once again a Frontline / Byline collaboration and bought together Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie and CEO of Peter Jukes.

However, tonight as the story develops Shahmir Sanni also joined them on the panel disclosing how as a young volunteer at Vote Leave, he was asked to set up a new company, BeLeave, which then sponsored billions of ad impressions and may have breached electoral law.

With the press cameras setup in rows inside a packed Events Room, Byline Media co-director Stephen Colegrave welcomed the audience and reiterated the media group’s support for Sanni’s and Wylie’s efforts for bringing evidence of data breaches to light. He also confirmed that they will also be on a panel in the coming Byline Festival in the August Bank holiday.

The conversation started with Jukes giving credit to British Journalist Carol Cadwalladr who initially broke the story and how Byline has a tradition of supporting whistleblowers among them Graham Johnson who revealed the phone hacking scandal in 2014.  He then turned the audience’s attention to the legal and personality attack which Sanni has come under in recent days.

He said: “Shahmir was outrageously and viciously attacked by Number 10 on Friday.” He was referring to Dominic Cummings, a key figure in the Vote Leave campaign and how he outed Sanni as a gay man before he had a chance to speak to his family.

Amid the noise from camera shutters and blinding flash lights Sanni spoke of his panic when he read the statement on Cummings’s blog, he said:

“Part of me expected it, but I thought maybe they wouldn’t stoop so low. Then the New York Times called me to comment on the statement they had been sent by No. 10. I said, ‘what are you talking about’, then they said, ‘your relationship with Stephen Parkinson’. And that’s when my heart dropped. I came out to my mum the day before yesterday. I hate talking about it… .”

Jukes added:

“I personally think it’s the first time this has happened, an official statement from No. 10. I think it’s probably in contravention of discrimination laws and I hope this never happens again. This is the worst way to attack someone, whatever your political motives. It was clearly designed to shut Shahmir up.”

Shahmir questioned why his relationship with Parkinson had any relevance to the revelations he was making about Vote Leave’s tactics in the run-up to Brexit. But he vowed the politics of personal destruction and homophobic vitriol would not shut him up or distract from the main arguments.

The conversation then turned to the wider debate on Britain staying or leaving the EU and Wylie again expressed that he is a Eurosceptic. He said: “I call into question the democratic legitimacy of the European Union.”

Jukes then asked Wylie about his work with Cambridge Analytica and how what he was involved in was  different to what election campaigns have been doing for years. Wylie replied:

“There’s a fundamental difference between targeting a political message online and targeting disinformation. Cambridge Analytica starts rumour campaigns and it spreads fake news and disinformation to warp people’s perception of what’s actually happening in the world and that’s fundamentally different. It’s stupid to compare Cambridge Analytica with the Obama campaign.”

He added:

“When the message came from the Obama campaign it was a common acceptance of what was true and factual, and the messaging was about an ideological perspective, an argument. Cambridge Analytica, as it admits to going undercover, focuses on warping people’s perceptions of what’s real by presenting them with false information to coerce and mislead voters.”

He further explained:

“Cambridge Analytica engages in mental heuristics and programmatically injects information into that person and into that sphere and this means that your target audience is seeing information on blogs or fake news sites that leads them to start thinking that certain things are happening. When they turn on the channel, a mainstream news site they start to distrust that…and once you have established that distrust you have primed that voter, then you can engage with them with an ideology.”

Sanni on the other hand went on to explain how he got involved with Vote Leave and BeLeave campaigns and his outreach work. Chris then added how he worked with him to looked at the workings of the campaigns and saw evidence on computer drives and shared legal documents.

After this the floor was open to questions from the audience. One of them was on the sources of funding, possibly from Russia. Another touched upon possible coordination between DUP and Veterans Group Britain. A point was also raised if Wylie really had a significant role to play in Cambridge Analytica which would mean he had substantiated knowledge of the firm’s inner working. He replied:

“I was the director of research, I can show you evidence, evidence which the New York Times and The Guardian has seen…it was the work that I was doing at SCL which lead to the creation of Cambridge Analytica.”

The discussion ended with a huge round of applause for Wylie and Sanni’s work and some members of the audience joined them in the members room below to further discuss the weight of evidence against Cambridge Analytica and the Vote Leave campaign.