[Editor’s note: A year before whistleblower Chris Wylie created a scandal by revealing how a U.K.-based company had acquired information on millions of Facebook users for its work influencing the 2016 U.S. election, The Tyee’s Andrew MacLeod reported on the Victoria company which is now at the heart of that same international scandal. His original story revealed AggregateIQ’s deep connections with Cambridge Analytica/SCL and its work, worth millions of dollars, on behalf of the Leave campaign in the Brexit vote. We’re reposting it today to give readers additional context in a complex and troubling story. —March 29, 2018]
The “tiny” and “secretive” British Columbia technology company that played a key role in the Brexit referendum was until recently listed as the Canadian office of a much larger firm that has 25 years of experience using behavioural research to shape public opinion around the world.
The larger firm, SCL Group, says it has worked to influence election outcomes in 19 countries. Its associated company in the U.S., Cambridge Analytica, has worked on a wide range of campaigns, including Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
In late February, the Telegraph reported that campaign disclosures showed that Vote Leave campaigners had spent £3.5 million — about C$5.75 million — with a company called AggregateIQ, run by CEO Zack Massingham in downtown Victoria.
That was more than the Leave side paid any other company or individual during the campaign and about 40 per cent of its spending ahead of the June referendum that saw Britons narrowly vote to exit the European Union.
Buzzfeed’s U.K. political editor also reported in November that the Leave side had transferred money to two allied groups that also spent money on AggregateIQ’s services.
According to media reports, Aggregate develops advertising to be used on sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, then targets messages to audiences who are likely to be receptive.
Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings is quoted praising the firm on AggregateIQ’s website. “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ,” he wrote. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”
The Telegraph story described Victoria as “provincial” and “picturesque” and AggregateIQ as “secretive” and “low-profile.”
Canadian media also expressed surprise at AggregateIQ’s outsized role in the Brexit vote.
The Globe and Mail’s Paul Waldie wrote “It’s quite a coup for Mr. Massingham, who has only been involved in politics for six years and started AggregateIQ in 2013.”
Victoria Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox wrote “If you have never heard of AIQ, join the club.”
The Victoria company, however, appears to be connected to the much larger SCL Group, which describes itself on its website as “the global leader in data-driven communications.”
The private firm is based in London, England, and was founded by Nigel Oakes, its CEO. It specializes in data mining and data analysis, using the results to target key audiences in hopes of modifying their behaviours.
According to its website it has done work for governments and military organizations around the world and has worked to influence elections in 19 countries, including Italy, India, South Africa, Colombia, Indonesia, Thailand and the United Kingdom.
In the United States it works through related company Cambridge Analytica and has been involved in elections since 2012. Politico reported in 2015 that the firm was working on Ted Cruz’s presidential primary campaign.
And NBC and other media outlets reported that the Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica millions to crunch data on 230 million U.S. adults, using information from loyalty cards, club and gym memberships and charity donations to predict how an individual might vote and to shape targeted political messages.
SCL Group’s website lists 19 offices in cities around the world, including London, Geneva, Washington, New York, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Madrid, Kuala Lumpur, Mexico and Accra.
And as recently as late February, SCL also listed a Canadian office in Victoria. The listing has since disappeared from the company’s website, but the archived version of the page included a phone number.
When The Tyee called that number, the phone was answered by Massingham, AggregateIQ’s CEO. Massingham declined to be interviewed, saying the recent media attention had made for a busy week and that he had to get some work done.
He asked for questions to be sent by email, and responded to them promptly.
“We did some work for SCL in the past,” he wrote. “We do not have a current relationship with them. I don’t know why they recently had us listed as one of their worldwide offices, but other than the work we had done in the past, we do not have any current business with them.”
An SCL spokesman also said in a statement that it had partnered with AggregateIQ in the past.
“We sub-contracted work to them, such as software development and digital marketing (before we built up our own in-house capacity in these areas),” the spokesman said. “They also acted as a local point-of-contact in Canada for SCL. That business relationship ended and we haven’t worked with them for quite a while.”
“It was recently brought to our attention that their contact details were still on the website so we updated the page by removing them,” the spokesman said. “SCL/Cambridge Analytica had no involvement whatsoever with their reported work with the Vote Leave campaign.”
Massingham said in his statement that AggregateIQ was started in Victoria in 2013 with Jeff Silvester.
“I have a background in business and IT, while Jeff’s background is in IT and politics,” he said. “We felt that working together we could assist campaigns, candidates and organizations to get their message out most effectively to the people they want to talk to — and ultimately to achieve their goals.”
We have a great team of software engineers and computer scientists who create many of the tools we use to help our clients,” he added.
In a followup email The Tyee asked for more detail about the company’s work for SCL Group and where the tools AggregateIQ uses that aren’t created in house come from.
“I cannot go into details about any of the work we do for our clients, current or otherwise,” Massingham said. “The specifics of our tools, what we use and how, are part of our competitive advantage.”
He said the Vote Leave work came to AggregateIQ directly and he does not believe SCL was doing any work on that campaign. “We are not an office of SCL, nor do we have any current business relationship with SCL.”
Massingham was reported to have worked as a volunteer on Mike de Jong’s losing BC Liberal leadership campaign in 2011. Silvester, AggregateIQ’s chief operating officer, was executive assistant to former Liberal and Reform Party MP Keith Martin.
Elections BC records show Massingham gave the BC Liberal Party $1,250 in 2015.
A spokesperson for the BC Liberal Party said via email that it is not using AggregateIQ ahead of the 2017 election, nor did it use the company in the 2013 election.
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