BY DELSHAD IRANI MUMBAI
In 1985 Nigel Oakes, who was the ex-boyfriend of a member of the British royal family, gatecrashed a royal soiree and left the building with a police escort. Oakes, according to reports from that year, was “booked on an old charge of failing to produce his driving documents“. He told the press the charge was dancing without a licence. Today the mysterious “Etoniansmoothie“ hailed as Donald Trump’s “weapon of mass persuasion“, who was once an adman at Saatchi & Saatchi, is an international psych-ops agent with a licence to influence public opinion whether for the purpose of winning elec tions or getting people to use condoms more often.The company Oakes founded, SCL Group (St rategic Communications L ab or at or ie s), a nd its of f-shoot Cambridge Analytica (CA) to tap the lucrative US market with its unique brand of big data-led political consultancy, are 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 favor of Leave.EU. In the former case, CA is taking credit for playing an “instrumental“ role in the campaign and influencing voters. However, many of its claims have been called out by political insiders who, it must be noted, refused to come on record in a recent Buzzfeed exposé.
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 are deploying “mil itary-grade data firepower“ and expertise in behavioral analytics to find strategic communications solutions for clients in governments, militaries and humanitarian and commercial organisations across the world. The endgame is to mould public opinion to suit the client’s end. Oakes himself had once described what they do as “mindbending“.
SCL has been especially 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, includes a “voter-suppression“ project in Nigeria.
In August 2000, Oakes had to f lee 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. Witnesses had described the media war-room Oakes built for the purpose, and dismantled as soon as a storm around SCL’s operations erupted, like something out of a Tom Clancy novel. People who worked there even referred to Oakes as `Mr Bond’ be cause, well, he’s English a n d “ m y s t e r i o u s “.
According to reports though Oakes seemed neit her sh a ken nor stirred by his untimely departure. He told The Times back then, “I do not want to be the cen tre of attention,“ which defeats the purpose of a PR-fixer, “I shall come back when I’m no longer of interest.“
L’s projects include the In India, SCL’s projects include the 2010 Bihar Assembly Elections and between 2009 and 2010 it assessed the phenomenon of honour killings in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Emails to SCL about its past and on-going work in India and a request for comments from Oakes were unanswered and a couple even bounced back. But SCL’s partner in India, Ovleno Business Intelligence’s website states 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“. Ovleno was started by socialist Indian politician K.C. Tyagi’s son Amrish Tyagi, who flew to the US last year to help Trump’s campaigners better understand and then target Asian-Americans. Tyagi wrote in a piece for The Economic Times that it was on Cambridge Analytica’s recommendations that Team Trump ran an ad in Hindi and Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Yunaska celebrated Diwali at a Hindu temple in Virginia, a key swing state. Requests for comments to Ovleno were unanswered as well.Incoming calls to the numbers have apparently been barred.
SCL’s role in two of the most historic events last year has suddenly raised questions about the little-known company’s projects and its use of personal data to build psychographic profiles.And, indeed, it has stirred up a lot of intrigue about Oakes. Is he big data’s very own Agent 007?
In 2015, well before Brexit and Trump, Bloomberg’s Sasha Issenberg described in his in-depth piece about SCL that the general attire at its office on a dead-end lane behind the Japanese Embassy in London was “somewhere between ad agency and hackathon“. Oakes though looks like he wouldn’t fit in either bucket. A middleaged suited figure, who, if this were a version of a social media quiz, would be voted least-likely to gatecrash Her Majesty’s party. Speaking of social media, which is the source of much of SCL and CA’s power, Oakes though has barely any digital footprint. As one observer on Twitter noticed after another user pointed to Oakes rather sparse existence on the platform: “Guess he has some insight into the damage it can do“. He’s also rather quiet on the public and press speaking fronts, jobs that it seems are handled solely by Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix, a former financial analyst.
In fact, as The Guardian pointed out recently, in a rare occurrence Oakes, who “likes to cultivate an air of mystery“, reached out to David Miller, a professor of sociology at Bath University. Miller also runs a website called Powerbase.The issue that made Oakes reveal himself was an anonymous Russian man’s claim that the information in Oakes’ profile on the site was “fake“.
It led to an investigation which resulted in the deletion of the claim that he studied Psycholog y a t U n i v e r s i t y College London.
Oakes’ jump from TV-man to adman to psychw a r s p e ci a l i s t could perhaps be pinned down to his thoughts on what big data and behavioral analytics can do and what advertising can’t. We get some insight into the thinking of this international ex-adman of mystery in his January 2012 lecture at the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC). Excerpts; “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.“
While Oakes’ argument was directed at a crowd specialising in counterterrorism communication, if CA’s CEO Nix is to be believed the job is really not that much different in politics. In 2015 he told Isenberg, “Persuading somebody to vote in a certain way, is really very similar to persuading 14 to 25-year-old boys in Indonesia to not join Al Qaeda.“ But perhaps the most startling yet effec tive summary of Oakes’ brand of mass persuasion was provided by him in a 1992 interview with British trade magazine Marketing where he said that in order to get people’s agreement on a functional level you’ve got to appeal to them on an emotional level. He began with, “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler.“
Techniques he’s perhaps also ef fectively used to sell his methods of manufacturing consent to defence ministries from Canada to Moldova, clients like Wahid, Trump and NATO, alt-right prophets and billionaire backers.http://epaperbeta.timesofindia.com/index.aspx?eid=31818&dt=20170329#