'Everyone thought we could ride this out': Inside the final months of Cambridge Analytica

Cambridge Analytica

  • Cambridge Analytica staffers did not believe the allegations about the company until almost the very end.
  • Two Cambridge Analytica insiders that Business Insider spoke to describe the final months at the firm before it filed for bankruptcy.
  • The company’s management held a constant stream of “town hall” meetings with staffers to wave off the news reports and allegations, and staffers took the  leaders at their word.

When Cambridge Analytica’s London offices were first raided by government authorities, the mood among employees was surprisingly cheerful.

Cambridge Analytica had become publicly embroiled in a media firestorm days earlier as news reports revealed how it sought to manipulate American and British voters by using the personal data of more than 87 million Facebook users.

But there was a sense of relief among Cambridge Analytica staffers when they realized the official visitors who’d swarmed their workplace belonged to the Information Commissioner’s Office — the agency tasked with protecting data privacy in the UK — rather than being “real” investigators. Staffers made jokes about the seemingly unthreatening and bumbling nature of their visitors, taking great pleasure in pointing out various “ICO fails.”

“It was quite fun because we went through the office and saw all the fails the ICO had,” one former Cambridge Analytica employee recalls. “Like, they took our servers but couldn’t get into them, because we used full disk encryption.”

The attitude was not so much temerity, as simple naiveté.

Business Insider spoke to two Cambridge Analytica employees who were at the company during the final days before it declared bankruptcy and shut down. Both employees, who wished to remain anonymous, described a culture in which rank-and-file staffers remained surprisingly loyal through the end, accepting the word of their managers as gospel and dismissing unwelcome media reports.

“Everyone thought we could ride this out,” the other employee said

Internal ‘town hall’ meetings dismissing the news reports became an almost daily occurrence

Facebook Zuckerberg Privacy Hearing Day 2 GettyThe week before the initial story broke, executives gathered employees for an “emergency town hall meeting.” In the meeting, Cambridge Analytica’s leadership warned that a “disgruntled former employee” had talked to the media. But they told everyone not to worry; the story wasn’t going to be a big deal, according to an employee at the meeting.

As the controversy around Cambridge Analytica grew, internal town hall meetings became the norm, both employees said. After each new story about the company was published — which at some points was daily — executives would gather everyone to explain what the latest accusations were and how Cambridge Analytica was going to defend itself. 

The narrative executives told employees was a version of the company’s public defense: the media was out to get them, Cambridge Analytica did nothing wrong.

The company’s ties to the Trump campaign and to high profile conservatives like Steve Bannon provided plenty of reason for a political motive. Many employees even identified as left-wing or progressive, one employee said, and rationalized the political work they were doing as part of the job. Especially those who didn’t work with political clients, the firm’s links to Bannon, Republican mega-donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the Trump and Cruz campaigns, and the Leave EU campaign seemed distant to them.

Indeed, even as a series of emails, witnesses, and other documents surfaced that seemed to corroborate the initial news reports, most rank and file employees believed what their superiors were telling them. There were some rumblings about quitting, but most of the insiders, in words and actions, remained faithful. 

Employees felt especially confident following Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Congress and British Parliament. Employees clung to the fact that several politicians seemed to have a limited understanding of the technology behind Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

The undercover videos were the turning point

(L R) Turnbull and Nix Cambridge AnalyticaThe mood changed quickly after British broadcaster Channel 4 released a series of undercover videos featuring CEO Alexander Nix. The video appeared to show Nix describing controversial tactics for landing potential clients and manipulating elections, including entrapping political opponents with sex workers.  

While the Facebook user data scandal was seen as smoke and mirrors by Cambridge staffers, the Channel 4 videos gave employees physical evidence of the data firm’s alleged improprieties. The day the videos were released, some employees were watching them in the office and discussions of leaving ramped up. 

“No one wanted to work for him anymore,” one employee said, referring to Nix.

The fallout from the videos toppled Nix, who told employees himself during a town hall meeting that he had been removed by the company’s board of directors. Since the meeting took place at the end of the day in London, dejected employees went straight home.

Still, employees hoped that the media storm would eventually die down with Nix out of the picture, even as the firm’s business was evaporating quickly. 

Trying to save the business

Almost immediately after the scandal became public, nearly all of the firm’s commercial clients — which included New York University’s Langone hospital, The Economist, and The Financial Times, according to NBC News — left immediately.

About a dozen clients stayed with Cambridge Analytica and employees continued working for them as best they could. But their ability was hampered because Facebook had cut off the company’s access to its platform, so no one was able to place targeted Facebook ads. The company tried to contact Facebook about the issue, but no one at the social media giant was returning any phone calls.

“Facebook and Google practically have a duopoly on digital advertising right now. If one of them won’t let you advertise for your clients, you got both arms tied behind you back. There’s no way you can function,” an employee said.

Cambridge Analytica office

Engineers couldn’t perform basic tasks because data management tools like Liveramp and Lotame also cut off the company’s access to their services.

The firm briefly considered spinning off its commercial business and ditching political work altogether, but the idea never took.

Ultimately, though, “very few” people left Cambridge Analytica before it shut down and declared bankruptcy in May. But the exit that had the most impact was Alexander Tayler, Cambridge Analytica’s chief data officer. After Nix was forced to resign, Tayler stepped in as acting CEO. But to everyone’s shock, he stepped down weeks later and eventually left Cambridge Analytica altogether. Employees trusted Tayler, and they thought if anyone could save Cambridge Analytica, it would be him.

Tayler, who is now seeking work as a consultant about issues related to data privacy, has not responded to requests for comment from Business Insider.

The end of Cambridge Analytica was announced to employees in a town hall meeting, which had been rescheduled and pushed back several times. By that point, employees were either unmotivated to work or found that working was nearly impossible with all the distractions. Some were already looking for new jobs.

One of the former employees at the meeting recalled that Julian Wheatland, the company’s latest acting CEO, began the meeting by talking about the history of the company.  At that point, the employee said, it was obvious what was coming next.

SEE ALSO: Net neutrality rules are now dead. Here’s what that means for you, and what happens next

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