As citizens all over the world confront a daunting number of challenges–climate change, the rise of populism and white nationalism, the decay of social and physical infrastructure, the wealth gap, endless wars, terrorism, and on and on–we find ourselves deprived of an essential tool with which to address them: reliable information.
Such information exists, but it is increasingly countered by seductive propaganda.
I say “seductive” because–thanks to technology– disinformation can be crafted and aimed with precision at people whose profiles suggest the nature of their vulnerabilities.
Remember Cambridge Analytica? It turns out that its influence was far greater than we originally understood.
An explosive leak of tens of thousands of documents from the defunct data firm Cambridge Analytica is set to expose the inner workings of the company that collapsed after the Observer revealed it had misappropriated 87 million Facebook profiles.
More than 100,000 documents relating to work in 68 countries that will lay bare the global infrastructure of an operation used to manipulate voters on “an industrial scale” are set to be released over the next months.
It comes as Christopher Steele, the ex-head of MI6’s Russia desk and the intelligence expert behind the so-called “Steele dossier” into Trump’s relationship with Russia, said that while the company had closed down, the failure to properly punish bad actors meant that the prospects for manipulation of the US election this year were even worse.
The documents were released by a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, who became a whistleblower. She starred in the Oscar-shortlisted Netflix documentary The Great Hack, and says she decided to go public after last month’s election in Britain.
“It’s so abundantly clear our electoral systems are wide open to abuse,” she said. “I’m very fearful about what is going to happen in the US election later this year, and I think one of the few ways of protecting ourselves is to get as much information out there as possible.”
Kaiser had shared some material with the British parliament in April 2018, but she has since said that there were thousands of additional pages, showing a “breadth and depth of the work” that went “way beyond what people think they know about ‘the Cambridge Analytica scandal.”
Kaiser said the Facebook data scandal was part of a much bigger global operation that worked with governments, intelligence agencies, commercial companies and political campaigns to manipulate and influence people, and that raised huge national security implications.
The firm helped develop what Kaiser describes as a “sophisticated infrastructure of shell companies that were designed to funnel dark money into politics.”
Among the documents are exchanges between Trump donors discussing how to disguise the source of the contributions, and others disclosing tactics used in the election in Great Britain. The most chilling aspect of the new disclosures, however, wasn’t the fact that the organization’s operations were much more far-reaching than previously known, but the description of what it did, and how.
Emma Briant, an academic at Bard College, New York, who specialises in investigating propaganda and has had access to some of the documents for research, said that what had been revealed was “the tip of the iceberg”…
“There’s evidence of really quite disturbing experiments on American voters, manipulating them with fear-based messaging, targeting the most vulnerable, that seems to be continuing. This is an entire global industry that’s out of control but what this does is lay out what was happening with this one company.”
Politics in 2020 are almost guaranteed to be uglier and more misleading than any in the recent past. If we can get past November without self-destructing, however, the growing effort to teach media literacy may make a longterm difference.
Ad Fontes Media has created a very useful media bias chart. Media Literacy Now has a state report on the status of media literacy education,as well as model legislation for states that currently don’t require such education. There are other, similar efforts underway.
For a long time, it has been popular to claim that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” but we live in an era that disproves the saying. The technical ability to create what the White House celebrates as “alternate reality” is new; we need to respond by creating tools that separate fact from fiction.