INVESTIGATIVE TEAM

Unionism sounded out Cambridge Analytica about meddling in 21-D election

Talks were held with the consultancy firm to run a web campaign, but they were unfruitful

For few months now, at some dinners and business meetings in Barcelona, the story is being told about how a member of Catalan high society had assembled a team of 30 people —computer hackers— to run a campaign on social networks to interfere with the 21-D elections. At the beginning of last fall, when the Catalan elections called by Mariano Rajoy were on the horizon, there was an attempt to get the Cambridge Analytica —the company which manipulated information from more than 87 million Facebook users to favor Donald Trump in the 2016 US elections— to run a campaign to influence the Catalan election result. It was to be a campaign on social networks to generate a climate of opinion favorable to unionist parties.

Businessman Luis Conde, a prestigious Catalan headhunter, received the call from Cambridge Analytica in which this possibility was proposed. Conde denies the initial version: that it was he who contacted Mark Turnbull, the global policy manager for the British company, as noted by a source from the same consultant, who claimed that there was a group of Catalan businessmen worried about the independence movement who were willing to foot the bill of the campaign. The headhunter claims that he doesn’t know why they contacted him and would not confirm that Turnbull was on the call with him: he does not remember the name of the person who approached him. According to Conde, someone from the United States acted as intermediary so that Cambridge Analytica called and offered its services to tip the electoral balance. Official sources of the British company deny that they were the ones who approached the Catalan headhunter: "We never contact or select clients. Meetings are always at the request of parties/clients. "

Conde maintains that he didn't concern himself at all with this issue and that he handed off the proposal to a group of politicians and businessmen for their consideration. He did not want to confirm the name of the person who continued with the contacts, although the name of Juan Arza, then secretary of political studies for the Catalan branch of the PP, a former member of the Catalan Civil Society, and currently a member of the board of trustees with the Joan Boscà Foundation —an organization with links to the unionist cause—. When questioned by this newspaper, Arza did not confirm or deny these conversations with Cambridge Analytica, contacts in which he is said to have indicated to the consultant that there were several Ibex 35 companies ready to support the campaign. Arza merely said that “ARA is just sheer propaganda” and was very annoyed by this information, which he did not deny.

Catalan Civil Society claims that these contacts were not made on their behalf. Sources within the group warned that Arza is no longer part of the organisation and that he would not have been "authorized" nor would he receive "consent" to hold such talks. In any case, they admit that they knew about the existence of these contacts, since they shared meetings and discussion groups with various people from the unionist spectrum and that was a topic that had arisen in more than one conversation. Additionally, Josep Ramon Bosch, president of the Joan Boscà Foundation, also denies any involvement by the foundation in the matter.

At any rate, time ran out and the initiative did not bear fruit. At the time the New York Times and The Observer’s investigative efforts had not yet exposed the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica, which was part of the SCL Group, fiddled with data from users around the world, first to interfere in the US elections between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump and then also in the case of the Brexit campaign, tipping the balance in favor of supporters of leaving the European Union —two scandals that brought the company down last spring.

Effects in Spain

About 137,000 Spanish citizens could have been affected by the leak of Facebook data which Cambridge Analytica had access to. It was achieved through the Thisisyourdigitallife application, which allowed access to the personal details and the contact information of users who downloaded it. Cambridge Analytica used this information to develop software aimed at predicting voter decisions and influencing their vote with customized propaganda and even by creating fake news.

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