Morning News Brief: Cambridge Analytica, Trump-Saudi Meeting

Mar 20, 2018
Originally published on March 20, 2018 7:48 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Today, we'll see how shares of Facebook bounced back from their biggest single-day plunge since 2014.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, that drop came after a series of explosive reports about how private information from 50 million Facebook users ended up being used by the British tech firm Cambridge Analytica. That firm is quickly becoming a household name, I think it's safe to say. The company's CEO talks about operating in the shadows in elections around the world, and that includes the 2016 U.S. presidential election. So what are we learning from the latest reports about all of this? And what kind of fallout could be in store for both Cambridge Analytica and also Facebook?

KING: NPR's Joanna Kakissis is on the line with us from London.

Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right, so The Observer and The New York Times published their reports about the misused data late Sunday. And then yesterday comes this undercover story from Britain's Channel 4 on Cambridge Analytica, and it gives us a sense of how this company operates in elections. What did that report tell us?

KAKISSIS: So Channel 4 sent a reporter to meet the firm's executives, and this reporter posed as a representative of a wealthy Sri Lankan family seeking political influence. And this reporter secretly taped Cambridge Analytica executives spilling their secrets. One of those executives is Mark Turnbull. He's the managing director for the firm's political division. And he's filmed saying that winning an election is all about going deep into the well of people's fears.

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MARK TURNBULL: And our job is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else to understand what are those really deep-seated, underlying fears, concerns. There's no good fighting an election campaign on the facts.

KAKISSIS: And, you know, this isn't even the shocking part. Later on, when CEO Alexander Nix showed up - he's the one who talked about operating in the shadows. You know, well, he talked about hiring spies and filming candidates in compromising positions, then posting the footage online. He talked about sending, quote, "Ukrainian girls" to candidates' homes to gather intelligence. I mean, this is, like, straight out of a movie.

KING: Yeah, it's incredible. In the meantime, we should note, Cambridge Analytica denies all the claims in that report. It says it did not misuse Facebook data. Can you remind us how this firm ended up linked to the 2016 U.S. election?

KAKISSIS: So Cambridge Analytica uses consumer data to flesh out psychological profiles, and this concept comes from a young Canadian data scientist. His name is Christopher Wylie. The firm has been bankrolled by Robert Mercer. He's the hedge fund billionaire and Republican donor. And going into the 2016 election, the firm wanted to identify the personalities of American voters in order to influence them, so it used an application developed by a British professor that showed up on Facebook as a personality quiz. Yeah, so - and through this...

KING: Oh, go ahead.

KAKISSIS: The firm was able to harvest, you know, personal data of millions of users.

KING: Millions of users. And tell me, in the meantime, in the last couple seconds, how has the British government responded to all this?

KAKISSIS: So Britain's information office is seeking a warrant today to raid Cambridge Analytica's offices and seize their servers. There's going to be a parliamentary inquiry. And they really want Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to explain to Parliament why and how his company even let this data misuse happen.

KING: Yeah, a lot of people seem to want that. NPR's Joanna Kakissis, thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

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KING: President Trump will meet today with Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The 32-year-old prince is on a two-week cross-country tour.

GREENE: Yeah, and while Prince Mohammed has garnered some attention for the limited social reforms he has promised in Saudi Arabia, the autocrat has drawn international outrage for his role in Yemen's catastrophic civil war, where Saudi-led airstrikes have killed hundreds of civilians. U.N. agencies are describing that civil war as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

KING: NPR's Jackie Northam is here to fill us in on details of the prince's visit to the U.S.

Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. So we know this about Mohammed bin Salman. We know that he's young. He's 32. What else should we know about him?

NORTHAM: Well, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is often referred to as just simply MBS. He's considered to be the favorite son of King Salman, his 82-year-old monarch. Prince Mohammed has also earned a reputation as being brash and a bully as he's consolidated power in the kingdom. You know, he's locked up opposition, and he recently detained hundreds of wealthy Saudis in a pretty high-profile anti-corruption campaign. You know, at the same time, though, it's like you said. He's promising social liberalization in the kingdom and especially when it comes to women. He's allowing them to get behind the wheel and start up their own businesses. And he's allowing all Saudis to attend concerts and movies for the first time in decades. So he just - you know, he's disrupting, really upending a very rigid way of life for many people in Saudi Arabia.

KING: But we're still talking about very incremental social changes here, right? He's not moving toward, like, a democracy.

NORTHAM: Well, there was a meeting yesterday at the Saudi Embassy here in Washington, and the foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said stay tuned. You know, there are more changes on their way. But you're right. This is an autocracy. It's an absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia, so I wouldn't expect any open and free elections anytime soon on the horizon.

KING: The crown prince is set to spend about 90 minutes with President Trump today. Any ideas on what they'll discuss?

NORTHAM: Sure. The two men have a lot of overlapping interests. They're both vehemently anti-Iran, so there's a good chance they'll discuss ways of curbing Iran's influence in the region. There's Qatar. Saudi Arabia is leading a blockade of its Gulf neighbor, and Trump has come out in favor of Saudi Arabia in that dispute. The prince will also have dinner with Jared Kushner - presumably, the prince - President Trump's senior adviser - you know, presumably to talk about Middle East peace, which is kind of interesting considering Kushner's security clearance has just been downgraded. But certainly, the war in Yemen is going to come up during his visit here in Washington. And he may face some very hard questioning over his handling of that war. As you said, it's been devastating in Yemen. And, you know, there are - some protests are expected. And even yesterday I saw, you know, four trucks pulling billboards along calling for the arrest of Prince Mohammed.

KING: And just quickly, after he leaves Washington, he's going to hit the road to meet with U.S. business leaders. What does he want from them?

NORTHAM: Well, really, he wants foreign investment in his country, you know? And he's - what he's trying to do is promote Saudi Arabia as a really welcoming place and ripe for business ventures. But this may be kind of a tough sell, you know? A lot may be spooked by this anti-corruption crackdown just recently ago. Some investors may think the same thing could happen to them. They could be locked up without due process for several months and have to pay huge fines.

KING: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thanks, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

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KING: It has been six months since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.

GREENE: Six months, that's right. And yet the recovery has just been so slow. Now, we should say while most of the island has had its power restored, the government says almost 100,000 customers are still living in the dark, especially in rural communities. Housing has also proved to be another long-term challenge.

KING: NPR's Adrian Florido has been reporting from Puerto Rico.

Hey, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So this storm damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes on the island. How are the rebuilding efforts going?

FLORIDO: I mean, if the electricity restoration was slow, then this is even slower. I mean, one of the big issues right now is that we're hearing about a lot of people who have applied for help from FEMA. They've tried to get grants to repair their homes, but six months on, still have not had those applications approved. You know, and while there are a lot of reasons that someone might be denied, FEMA told me that one of the main reasons that they're denying applications for these repair grants is that a lot of people just can't prove that they own their homes because they either live in a house that they built - say, on, you know, say, a plot of land that also has their parents' home - or a lot of people also live in informal communities here in Puerto Rico and, you know, what some people would call squatter communities and other people call, you know, rescued lands, depending on your perspective.

KING: How much of Puerto Rico lives in this kind of informal housing?

FLORIDO: So the island's Housing secretary told me that more than half of the houses here in Puerto Rico are actually built informally without permits and with no title. So if you consider the fact that, you know, in order to get a FEMA grant to repair your home, you have to prove that you own it, well, you get a sense of the problem, right? It's something that advocates are trying to make a lot of noise about. Listen to what Lyvia Rodriguez Del Valle told me. She worked with one of the island's biggest informal communities here in San Juan.

LYVIA RODRIGUEZ DEL VALLE: There is an issue of informality in Puerto Rico. It's quite widespread, no? It's very important that the policies that are being implemented find ways to make this assistance available to the people who need it.

KING: All right, let's say you're a family and you apply through FEMA. FEMA turns you down. Do you have any recourse? How else can people rebuild?

FLORIDO: Yeah, I mean, it is important to note that FEMA says that if someone does not have a deed, cannot prove that they actually own their home on paper, it will accept a sworn affidavit. You know, it says it's trying to adjust to the Puerto Rican reality, right? Even so, a lot of lawyers are saying that people are, you know, being denied for reasons that are hard to sort out, and sometimes it seems like FEMA's giving inconsistent decisions. So in some cases, you know, nonprofits are stepping in to handle repairs. There are some other programs that people might be eligible for. But then there are also, you know, a lot of situations I'm hearing about where people are just getting denied over and over and giving up because they feel like they're not going to get those requests approved.

KING: Very tough situation for a lot of people. NPR's Adrian Florido. Thanks, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "FLUID DYNAMICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.