(Economic Times India) – One man has managed to lie low amid the big scandal that broke out after a few newspapers reported Cambridge Analytica had harvested personal data about Facebook users for election messaging. His name is Nigel Oakes, the founder of Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), the parent company of Cambridge Analytica.
SCL and its off-shoot Cambridge Analytica, which was set up to tap the lucrative US market with its unique brand of big data-led political consultancy have been at the centre of a raging discussion over its involvement in Trump’s win in the US presidential elections and the referendum in the UK in favour of EU. While Alexander Nix, the head of Cambridge Analytica, has made it to the headlines, few have heard of Oakes.
Called Donald Trump’s “weapon of mass persuasion”, Oakes was once an adman at Saatchi & Saatchi in London. He became an international psych-ops agent whose job was to influence groups of people and communities to help politicians win elections or tide over images crises.
SCL, the company Oakes founded, has been active in the developing world, in markets as far-flung as South Africa, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nepal, and India, among others.
Its contracts, as listed on the company’s website that’s often rather obtuse and limited in its descriptions, include a “voter-suppression” project in Nigeria.
What Oakes once told an interviewer in 1992 sums up his job: “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler. We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.”
SCL and CA, whose board until recently had Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon on it, are backed by the enigmatic American billionaire, Republican mega-donor and model train enthusiast, Robert Mercer. The consultancies deploy “military-grade data firepower” and expertise in behavioural.
In a lecture in 2012, Oakes lucidly described what he and his companies do: “They (ad agencies) specialise in convincing the individual of what it is that the individual wants. It’s individual communication and it’s ‘because you’re worth it’. What we do is group communication.
And group communication requires convincing the entire or at least a very large part of the group. We’ve got to convince entire communities to come along side us. You’ve got to influence them. We’ve got to get their agreement. The entire group has to believe it’s worth it for them.”
In India, SCL’s partner Ovleno Business Intelligence claimed on its website that SCL India has permanent offices in ten states across the country together with a further 30 branch offices, some 300 permanent employees and over 1,400 consulting staff. The website was been suspended after the ruling BJP and the Congress accused each other of availing of its services for electoral campaigns.
Though his companies depend on social media to construct “psychographic” profiles of users, Oakes himself has little digital footprint. He does not interact much with also media. Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix is the face of the scandal but the root is Oakes.
n August 2000, Oakes had to flee Indonesia post-haste after a botched attempt to save the image of then-President Abdurrahman Wahid who was embroiled in a web of scandal over financial misconduct. He had built a media war-room for the purpose.
It was dismantled as soon as a storm around SCL’s operations erupted. On his sudden departure, he told a newspaper, “I do not want to be the centre of attention. I shall come back when I’m no longer of interest.”
Even in full media and public glare, Oakes likes a true PR man has managed to remain lie low.