Tag Archives: Cambridge Analytica

Brave New World

As the reporting about Cambridge Analytica’s sophisticated propaganda campaign suggests, we humans are far more “manipulatable” than we like to think–and Huxley was wrong to predict that it would require drugs (remember Soma?) to pacify or mislead us.

The linked article by two Harvard University researchers suggests that the discovery of this political operation raises the stakes of our ongoing concerns about the impact of digital technology on democracy.

There was already a debate raging about how targeted digital ads and messages from campaigns, partisan propagandists and even Russian agents were sowing outrage and division in the U.S. electorate. Now it appears that Cambridge Analytica took it one step farther, using highly sensitive personal data taken from Facebook users without their knowledge to manipulate them into supporting Donald Trump. This scandal raises major questions about how this could have happened, how it can be stopped and whether the connection between data-driven ads and democracy is fundamentally toxic.

It also raises concerns about the new ability of political operatives, armed with the results of political psychology research, to identify and prey on voters’ vulnerabilities. Extensive personal data amassed through social media platforms–especially Facebook– can be used  to manipulate voters and distort democratic debate. Cambridge Analytica exploited that ability on behalf of the Trump campaign.

We’ve come a long, long way from the days when we collectively received our news from a mass media. Instead, we now have what a scholar once predicted and dubbed “the daily me,” information (and disinformation) that feeds a personalized reality–Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble”–that isn’t necessarily shared with others.

On the internet, you don’t know much about the political ads you’re shown. You often don’t know who is creating them, since the disclaimers are so small, if they exist at all. You also don’t really know who else is seeing them. Sure, you can share a political ad — thus fulfilling the advertiser’s hopes — and then at least some other people you know will have witnessed the same ad. But you don’t really know if your neighbor has seen it, let alone someone else across the state or the country. In addition, digital advertising companies distribute ads based on how likely you are to interact with them. This most often means that they send you ads they think you are likeliest to engage with. They don’t determine what the nature of that engaging content might be — but they know (just as all advertisers do) that content works well if it makes you very emotional. An ad like that doesn’t make you contemplative or curious, it makes you elated, excited, sad or angry. It could make you so angry, in fact, that you’ll share it and make others angry — which in turn gives the ad free publicity, effectively making the advertiser’s purchase cheaper per viewer, since they pay for the initial outreach and not the shares.

What this can lead to is communities and, eventually, a nation infuriated by things others don’t know about. The information that makes us angriest becomes the information least likely to be questioned. We wind up stewing over things that, by design, few others can correct, engage with or learn from. A Jeffersonian public square where lots of viewpoints go to mingle, debate and compromise, this is not.

As the authors note, none of this means that Facebook and Twitter intentionally undermined Hillary Clinton. It’s much worse, because the technology that powers social media uses the personal data to which they become privy to divide the American population and then feed us “highly personalized messages designed to push our particular buttons so well that we share them and they go viral, thus keeping people on the site longer.”

Social media rewards provocation — again, without repercussion, since we usually only share content with our friends in a way that is largely invisible to the broader public. Morality and integrity count little in online advertising.

The real question here isn’t which campaign got the advantage. The real question is whether this micro-targeted free-for-all should be allowed in the political sphere at all in the way it is currently designed —with very little transparency about who is pulling these strings and how they are doing it.

We truly do inhabit a new world. I don’t know how brave it is.

Playing Fair Is So Last Century…

What we have been learning  the last few days about Cambridge Analytica’s use of purloined Facebook data to assist the Trump campaign reminds me of that famous scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”–the scene where Harrison Ford is engaged in a ferocious sword fight, and Ford suddenly pulls out a gun and shoots the other guy.

It’s unexpected–and effective–because it breaks a norm of “fair fighting” that that has shaped our expectations. In a movie, that norm-breaking is entertaining; in our communal life, it is considerably less so.

Cambridge Analytics acquired extensive data on the habits, personal characteristics and preferences of fifty million Facebook users. It used that data to assist the Trump campaign. Sophisticated algorithms targeted users with messages tailored to their particular opinions and biases–messages that, by their nature, went unseen by users who had different perspectives or who might have information with which to rebut “facts” being conveyed.

The New York Times and the London Observer mounted the joint investigation through which the covert operation was  uncovered, and Britain’s Channel 4 obtained footage of executives boasting to a reporter posing as a potential client about additional “dirty tricks” the company employed on behalf of its customers: sending “very beautiful” Ukranian sex workers to the homes of opposition figures; offering bribes to candidates while secretly filming them; and a variety of other tactics employing fake IDs and bogus websites.

Who or what is Cambridge Analytica?

The Mercer family owns a majority of the stock in Cambridge Analytics.Before joining Trump’s campaign, Steve Bannon was the company’s vice president. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn served as an adviser to the company.

As Michelle Goldberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed,

After days of revelations, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Cambridge Analytica. But we’ve learned that an operation at the heart of Trump’s campaign was ethically nihilistic and quite possibly criminal in ways that even its harshest critics hadn’t suspected. That’s useful information. In weighing the credibility of various accusations made against the president, it’s good to know the depths to which the people around him are willing to sink.

Her concluding paragraph is particularly pointed.

There’s a lesson here for our understanding of the Trump presidency. Trump and his lackeys have been waging their own sort of psychological warfare on the American majority that abhors them. On the one hand, they act like idiots. On the other, they won, which makes it seem as if they must possess some sort of occult genius. With each day, however, it’s clearer that the secret of Trump’s success is cheating. He, and those around him, don’t have to be better than their opponents because they’re willing to be so much worse.

We now know why Trump insisted that Hillary was “crooked” and the election would be “rigged.” It’s called projection.

My friends who are sports fans become outraged when they believe one team or another has cheated and benefitted from that behavior. (“Deflate-gate anyone?) After all, games have rules, and when rules are broken in order to achieve a win, the game is tarnished. We don’t know who the better player really is.

The “game” of electoral politics has a long history of so-called “dirty tricks,” but nothing of this magnitude–and when those tactics have been detected, they’ve led to widespread condemnation. Americans have a right to expect political combatants to “play fair.” When they don’t, cynicism grows. Trust in government is diminished. Citizens’ compliance with the law declines–after all, if government officials can cheat, people reason they can too.

Trump and his consiglieres in the cabinet and Congress have demonstrated their willingness to bring guns to sword fights–to breach the rules of the game and to sneer at those who”fight fair.”

They pose an existential threat to American government and the rule of law.