Cambridge Analytica: how big data-assisted behavioural micro-targeting facilitated the Trump & Brexit victories
Speaking at a Sydney event last month, Cathy Vogan, founder of thing2thing.com and author of ‘The Wikileaks Tapes’, offered a comprehensive view of how the use of behavioural micro-targeting, big data and psychometrics by Cambridge Analytica got Donald Trump elected, and led to a vote for Brexit.
I opened by addressing some of the claims made by Hillary Clinton in a recent ABC interview. It was to point to the content of the Podesta emails, as resumed by Julian Assange in an interview with John Pilger. I somewhat ridiculed Clinton’s suggestions that Wikileaks had been involved in the spread of fake news.
There have been subsequent revelations by The Atlantic ; recriminations by Barrett Brown ; and an observation by ‘The Intercept’ ; regarding Assange’s presumed ‘Nazi-Soviet Pact’ moment with the Trump campaign:
“An organization with a sterling reputation for providing the public with accurate information about secret government and corporate activities was used to launder conspiracy theories that helped elect a racist, sexual predator president of the United States.”
My exposé on Cambridge Analytica concluded on a similar note, with an audience member at their show in Germany pointing out to CEO Alexander Nix, that there is no glory in assisting a “misogynist buffoon into power… who is fucking up our lives” [audience cheers]. Since Trump Jr has made public his Twitter communications, it now appears that Wikileaks did communicate with the Trump campaign.
While there was nothing to do with Pizzagate in those DMs, the Intercept has recently amplified the accusation Clinton made on ABC Australia, that Wikileaks’ co-orchestrated the spread of “these preposterous conspiracy theories”. Not buying that one yet Hillary… but it’s clear the leak about Assange and Trump Jr’s communications is looking even more effective than the Russian scenario, in deflecting attention away from the content of Podesta’s emails – and Clinton’s disastrous foreign policy.
That, times Pizzagate, is hammering the credibility of the organisation that published them.
He said no, he forgets and I'm saying nothing...
The Intercept notes, by way of remarkable omission:
“the hacked emails were used to reverse-engineer preposterous conspiracy theories, like the imaginary pedophilia scandal called Pizzagate”
We need a fact check here – firstly, with the inappropriate use of the word “hacked”. Former NSA technical director, William Binney, has interpreted the forensic evidence available, and said that the rate of transfer of that data could only have been to a USB stick. That means the files were copied in-house, not hacked. So despite conflicting evidence, The Intercept is still pushing the DNC’s hacking scenario. That’s strange.
Secondly, the Intercept is not saying the Podesta emails revealed nothing more than this. They are just high-lighting some harmless emails that were “used” to refute preposterous interpretations of them. Clinton’s Pizzagate accusation remains as groundless and offensive as when I cross-cut between it in my talk, and the ISIS links discussed by Pilger and Assange.
What I didn’t get time to mention was the death of tens of thousands of Lybians at Hillary’s hands; and the disgusting pay-for play that was revealed in the Podesta emails. The Intercept has also backed Clinton in suggesting there was nothing incriminating there. This has unsurprisingly aroused suspicion of participation in a hit piece – with a strong message to suspect ulterior motive behind everything Wikileaks releases – and value allegiance over fact? I don’t think so.
Still, hearing that Assange had communicated with Trump was understandably too much for some to assimilate with their values; and those of the Wikileaks-inspired transparency “movement”. Given, that the idea of the “Truth Man” in league with a serial liar would do many a head in… in the eyes of many Wikileaks supporters, political chicanery and opportunism is evidenced by the machiavellian tactics employed by Assange in his support for Trump’s ascendency to the White House. It is sadly reminiscent for them of the cynical act of betrayal in Stalin’s signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact (“The Devil’s Alliance”) in 1939, which had a demoralising effect and also broke up the “movement” of anti-fascist Popular Fronts.
Barrett Brown, one of Wikileaks most heroic and prominent allies, who went to jail for 4 years for co-ordinating the supply of material to Wikileaks, has compared their communications with the Trump campaign advisor, to those that preceded the taking over of Poland… Oh dear.
Barrett Brown and The Intercept are done, it would seem, with “the movement”; but there are still people who say: “Why Everyone Should Do What WikiLeaks Did”, who are well worth reading for a broader perspective on the organisation’s activities, and a different angle on the Trump Jr DMs. One would hope for Assange’s comments quite soon, on why he did it – although one suspects it might be better to take the Fifth in relation to the thin-skinned…
The Intercept do have a point, about how Wikileaks (and the Wikileaks Party) tend to ‘sleep with dogs’, and damage their support base. Such folly indeed… but none of this points to Russia, or towards the real problem of ‘What Happened’ to two democracies. I’ve discovered that recent Oxford university studies do; Tim Berners Lee does; and so do pending legal proceedings against Cambridge Analytica.
In the longer term, I think it’s not going to be about who’s supporting whom; or financial corruption; or excess spending – as the current thrusts of Transatlantic political and legal enquiry would suggest. Money issues are simply the most viable way in at the moment. But the freshly-launched British Electoral Commission enquiry, into excessive Leave EU campaign spending and collaboration between multiple campaigns, can at best, only point to everyone spending their money in the same shop.
They are not tackling the more serious problem of what that shop is selling.
The case of Professor David Caroll vs Cambridge Analytica takes us much closer to the heart of the problem that ‘we the people’ now have. It concerns an individual’s privacy, and promises to be a landmark case, if sufficiently funded…
Professor David Carroll vs Cambridge Analytica (via SCL parent company)
Sir Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the world wide web, is worried that the democratic platform he gifted humanity with, is failing. He lashes out at Facebook & Twitter, for facilitating the spread of misinformation, and condemns the trafficking of “weaponised AI propaganda”. The quote in that article comes from Berit Anderson’s “The Rise of Weaponised AI Propaganda’. I cited Berit in my exposé of Cambridge Analytica:
“By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.”
The use of armies of bots has now been proven (by Oxford University researchers into computational propaganda) to have had a profound effect in setting the agenda for political debate during the 2016 US Presidential campaign. In fact it “throttled out” the voice of humans and gave such a false sense of source diversity and consensus, they largely followed its lead. Of particular interest in that study, is that the technology is open to anyone. There was a chain reaction to the bots among ordinary citizens.
“… democratization of online propaganda is also an especially salient issue. While government departments, academics, and journalists continue to search for evidence that campaigns used these means to manipulate public opinion, they tend to ignore the fact that anyone can launch a bot or spread fake news online. It was these citizen-built bots that probably accounted for the largest spread of propaganda, false information, and political attacks during the 2016 election.”
Indeed the ‘hive-mind’ has become the “Wild West’, and “The Law” has not yet ridden into town. The Oxford study revealed more inter-connectedness between the Trump campaign and its citizen-generated bot networks, than with those associated with the Clinton campaign. Maybe that was because so many DNC supporters preferred to “Feel the Bern”, and the party was divided – or maybe they were more scrupulous. I think the study shows, in any case, that citizen recruitment in the spread of false information and propaganda is the principle catalyst for political chaos in the UK and the US.
A foreign power, and Wikileaks, may have influenced the outcomes of the US elections, but domestic armies of bots and bot-meisters did much more so. To focus so much on foreign influence, we risk to assume that anything local is fair dos, even when technology is used by everyman, to disinform and persuade. Theoretically, we can all play, but it is no longer an even playing field when humans are being driven or drowned out by armies of propaganda bots. Tim Berners Lee also believes that highly-funded dark political messaging threatens democracy and net neutrality:
“We have these dark ads that target and manipulate me and then vanish because I can’t bookmark them. This is not democracy – this is putting who gets selected into the hands of the most manipulative companies out there,”
Cambridge Analytica boasts the use of ‘dark strategy’ for the Trump campaign – that practice of dividing the political offer on the basis of information obtained about the target’s personality type. On their advice, the Leave EU campaigns did the same, sending a billion psychologically tailored messages to the British public. Both were were focusing on those who were undecided about their vote, and thus ‘persuadable’.
The Russian troll influence has been exposed in the US, via targeted social media advertising – for a very nominal sum of money. Their targeting techniques are being exposed as shocking, but as if they apply uniquely within the Russian context. The elephant in the room is that the Trump and Brexit campaigns spent millions using the same techniques! Figure it out. Is it not our own back yards that been occupied, and that are sorely in need weeding?
Dark Strategy on Facebook - the dividing of the political offer
Considering that the company who persuaded impressionable people to vote Trump and Leave EU, themselves claim to have a 25 year record of performing similar psychological operations on populations for governments around the world, I suggest that ‘What Happened’ in the US and UK is more akin to a military coup, primarily funded by the playful and principled western oligarch – Robert Mercer, and that his ‘MI6 for Hire’ people at SCL need to be stopped, before they break any more democracies.
What we should be examining is the abuse of power, in locating and propagandising impressionable people, and those who could be identified as ignorant of politics. This would have made targets of the BeLeave campaign, who were very young, especially vulnerable to manipulation.
One is suddenly reminded of Assange’s words in 2013, during his Australian Wikileaks Party campaign speech:
“When all of the communications – heart-felt – the inner core of our life – communications between boyfriends and girlfriends – between husbands and wives, sons and daughters – between business partners – even between bureaucracies and states – when all of those communications are swept up, hoovered up, into a vast collection apparatus – indexed and stored for all time – available only to a select few – then we are in a situation where we have a tank on the street of the inner core of our lives – a soldier under the bed, listening…”
I’m not sure Assange anticipated back then, what the “select few” would say back to the masses, after the indexing of that vast collection was complete. He knows now.