An academic who submitted to a UK parliamentary inquiry interviews with key figures from Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica’s parent company – raising questions about how voters were targeted in the European Union referendum – says that it would have been “unethical” not to do so.
Emma Briant, senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Essex, submitted essays and audio files of interviews to the UK’s Electoral Commission, Information Commissioner’s Office and Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee. The DCMS committee published Dr Briant’s material on 16 April as part of its inquiry into “fake news”.
Dr Briant has since faced suggestions that her decision to hand over the material raises questions about research ethics, particularly in the context of the Economic and Social Research Council's principles of ethical research, given that those interviewed agreed to contribute to an academic research project.
Dr Briant had previously interviewed employees of SCL – Cambridge Analytica’s parent company – on the firm’s defence work as part of research for a book published in 2015.
She later moved on to a project studying political communications in the US presidential election of 2016. “All of a sudden, I realise[d] that Cambridge Analytica [was] contracted to Trump,” Dr Briant told Times Higher Education. “I [knew] the people in the SCL group so I thought I must try to get the interviews. I [found] out that they were also linked to Brexit.”
Dr Briant said that the material that she gathered “was all very much interviews that they knew were going to be used for my academic research”.
During interviews with Dr Briant, Andy Wigmore, former director of communications for Leave.EU, and Nigel Oakes, founder of SCL Group, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, both made comments about the propaganda techniques developed by the Nazis. These comments were described as “particularly concerning” by Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who chairs the DCMS committee.
Mr Wigmore also told Dr Briant about how Leave.EU used data to identify prime campaigning areas and about how the campaign did “copy” techniques from Cambridge Analytica. There is now an intense media spotlight on Cambridge Analytica following revelations about the alleged use of data harvested on Facebook users to target voters during the Trump presidential campaign. The firm, which denies that the data were used in services provided to the Trump campaign, was never formally hired by Leave.EU, or by Vote Leave, the other pro-Brexit campaign. But there is now intense scrutiny from media, and official inquiries over the question of whether there were links with Cambridge Analytica. Mr Wigmore has denied that Leave.EU used Cambridge Analytica “in any way”.
With the Information Commissioner’s Office investigating Cambridge Analytica and how the Facebook data were collected, and the DCMS committee also investigating the question of links between Cambridge Analytica and the Brexit campaigns, Dr Briant said that she “needed to hand over that [material] to the inquiry considering these people were being investigated”.
She added: “I felt that I was sat on something that was so incredibly important. It would have been deeply unethical for me not to hand this stuff to the inquiry.”
Dr Briant continued: “Andy Wigmore told me they [Leave.EU] copied their [Cambridge Analytica’s] strategy – people need to hear that. If it’s relevant to the future of our entire country and the future of Europe, that’s deeply important. I couldn’t not bring this forward."
“These ethical rules of the ESRC are not there to protect powerful people who are committing unethical activities; they do not prevent me from contributing to an inquiry,” said Dr Briant.
She added: “That is part of being an academic: you have a social responsibility.”