the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

The Cambridge Analytica Hobby-Horse, part 1: manipulating elections

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Recently while travelling in Northern Europe, I found myself, against my better judgment, inside a ‘street food’ market. There I witnessed and then joined in with a debate between the chef at one of the stalls and a cleaner. The cleaner maintained that he did not watch the news because ‘none of it is real’. ‘America, Russia,’ he said, ‘it’s all lies.’ This, evidently was his hobby-horse. The chef, however, thought that you should follow the news because you needed to know things. If you did not know things, he argued, you might think, for example, that Africa is a terrible place full of poverty and war but if you ask someone who has been there then you would know that it’s not like that at all. The hobby-horse he was riding was also quite evident.

I am, with Lawrence Sterne, a great admirer of a hobby-horse. ‘So long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway,’ he writes in his rambling genius of an 18th century novel, Tristram Shandy, ‘and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, —- pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?’title piece tristram shandy

Indeed, Sterne says he is partial to one himself, for ‘Be it known to you, that I keep a couple of pads myself, upon  which, in their turns, (nor do I care who knows it) I frequently ride out and take the air ; — tho’ sometimes, to my shame be it spoken, I take somewhat longer journies than what a wise man would think altogether right. —- But the truth is, — I am not a wise man; —- and besides am a mortal of so little consequence in the world, it is not much matter what I do; so I seldom fret or fume at all about it’[1]

Some of these wooden quadrupeds we have very little choice but to saddle up and ride. If you are an African living in Northern Europe, for instance, the prevailing prejudices and ill-informed judgments about the continent of your birth near enough compel you to ride yours into battle against them. Sadly, following the news is not enough to counter such ignorance; you have to be also very selective in what news you follow and critical of what you are watching. Sadder still, though, is the impossibility of not following the news at all, as our cleaner claimed he was doing. How else would he ‘know’ that USA and Russia are protagonists in world affairs without the ‘news’ of their rivalry (and the ‘news’ that it is itself ‘fake news’) filtering down through his tin-foil helmet and into his unguarded grey matter? The ‘news’, and opinions about the ‘news’ (if those things are indeed separable entities), are unavoidable. The ‘apolitical’ sands in which you might wish to bury your head, are in fact thickly layered with politics.

Thus, when it comes to influencing ideas, it may be a free market, but it is not a level playing field. Social media, sometimes heralded as the great democratising development in the dissemination of opinions, is (as well as this) an excellent infrastructure for vested interests to influence public thinking. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was an alarming indication of how deliberately this can be exploited. The scandal erupted 5 months ago and has been known about for longer. In social media time, this is old news. Already we are forgetting that it happened. I believe it is worth remembering, especially because I think we have not fully comprehended the import of the whistle-blowers’ stories. The ‘news’ of it became a ‘Facebook’ scandal rather than a political one. i.e. we saw it as a problem of this moment, and not in the historical course of politics.

Robert MercerWhat we learned was that some of Robert Mercer’s billions were diverted to the task of, firstly, pushing a ‘leave’ vote in the Brexit referendum and then, after that, to promoting a pro-Trump vote in the US presidential election. We discovered that Cambridge Analytica had been employed to meddle in elections all over the world, including (and these are just the countries I’ve found named in different articles on the internet) Lithuania, Benin, Ethiopia and Libya,[2] Nigeria[3], Australia, Brazil, Kenya, Malaysia and Mexico[4]. Mercer, a former IBM computer scientist, then hedge-fund algorithmic trader was, in 2017, reckoned to have donated $95 million to right-wing causes in just 7 years, including $13.5million to Trump’s election campaign. His Media Research Centre claims to pursue an “unwavering commitment to neutralising leftwing bias in the news, media and popular culture”, and this means Breitbart News (the biggest political site  on Facebook and Twitter) and the climate change denying Heartland Institute[5]. When the results of the Brexit/Trump votes came in, the company’s social media people, no doubt having watched the ‘surprise’ results with their colleagues amidst exuberant celebrations, boasted about their part in securing these once unlikely outcomes. However, it was the whistle-blower techies who really brought to light their company’s role in these two painful developments for Capitalist ‘democracy’.

All this broke in March. The scandal whirled around our news sphere for a while until finally it settled on the real culprit. ‘The Problem,’ as the headline to Kalev Leetaru’s Forbes March 19th article ran, ‘Isn’t Cambridge Analytica: It’s Facebook’. The problem with this analysis was that the news that Facebook sells the data of its users without them knowing was hardly news. Fun as it might have been to watch Mark Zuckerberg and other executives being quizzed by various parliaments and senates across Europe and North America, this fun was tempered by the nagging feeling that all these ‘Facebook is stealing your data and allowing “fake news” on your timeline’ stories were somehow missing the point.

Cambridge Analytica, to recount the facts for those who have forgotten, was an offspring Chris Wylieof SCL Group, a British company specialising in ‘election management strategies’ and military psyops set up by Nigel Oakes, ex Saatchi & Saatchi. From his early days spinning Thatcher’s image in the 1980’s, his new company went on to work for ‘Nato, the MoD, the US state department and others’. Before Robert Mercer, it was already a tool of the State. Now in 2015, AggregrateIQ, a Canadian firm, that was apparently a separate entity, became the 40% funder of Vote Leave’s campaign budget. According to whistleblower, CA research director Chris Wylie, AIQ were in effect just a ‘department’ of Cambridge Analytica, so the money was probably Mercer’s. “Essentially it was set up as a Canadian entity for people who wanted to work on SCL projects who didn’t want to move to London. That’s how AIQ got started: originally to service SCL and Cambridge Analytica projects”[6]. As Cambridge Analytica was already working for the Leave.EU campaign, we realise, not to anyone’s great surprise, that the two apparently separate Leave campaigns were in fact two prongs on the same fork, with different target audiences, and, in combination, twice the campaign budget of the Remain campaign. (There were also of course some financial irregularities that allowed them to spend even more than this double budget[7]). CA acquired the data and built the algorithms, said Wylie, and “AIQ built a lot of the tech that would connect the algorithms to social and online advertising networks.”

SCL / Cambridge Analytica poached Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge Academic who replicated work done by myPersonality which had established some data analysis on people’s likes and behaviours. MyPersonality founders wouldn’t give their research away (not for ethical reasons, it seems, but because they wanted more money for it). Instead, Kogan copied what they did. He managed to get 320,000 people to sign up to his research programme and willingly gave his team access to not only their own Facebook profiles but some of their friends’ profiles too, who were unwilling, or at least unwitting, participants in this research. From Kogan’s findings, Cambridge Analytica used tech to scale up the operation: ‘it extracted psychological insights from the “seeders” and then built an algorithm to profile millions more.’

Alexander NixAfter the revelations of 28 year old Wylie and then 30 year old business development director Brittany Kaiser, a Channel 4 documentary[8] had an undercover reporter pose as a prospective client and secretly film a meeting with CA’s CEO, Alexander Nix and Chief Data Officer, Alex Taylor. From this we learned that CA could do the dirty tactics for election campaigns from positions that were apparently independent of the campaign itself, but which were actually coming from ‘affiliated groups’. ‘Make America Number 1’ was one such (in hindsight not very well disguised) group in Trump’s election. Or they would ‘use activists’ by feeding them ‘the material’ and letting them do the work. In Taylor’s metaphor (so mixed it almost reads as appropriately mutant), ‘we put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow, give it a push every now and again and watch it take shape’.

So CA were garnering huge quantities of data, buying academic research, and AIQ were using the insights of their analysis to work out ways to send personalised posts to social media users that they reckoned would swing opinion the way they wanted. Liking or not liking Trump, Wylie explained, was for them just a fashion and, like any fashion, could be changed: ‘Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking “Ugh. Totally ugly” to the moment when everyone is wearing them?’[9]

They discovered all kinds of interesting if frankly pointless correlations in people’s tastes. One piece of research showed apparently that if you liked ‘I hate Israel’ on Facebook, you also tended to like Nike shoes and KitKats. We could speculate on the reasons for this. Perhaps a love for obvious chocolate bars sits well with a lack of nuance in your political opinions. Perhaps the kind of people who dutifully like corporation FB pages are also inclined to follow hate campaigns. Perhaps Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence have struck a secret deal with Nestlé to put Israel-hating chemicals in their chocolate-covered wafers. Who knows? Perhaps it is totally random, and another round of data-combing in five years’ time will tell whoever wants to know that militant Zionists are all wearing Air Force Ones and have regular cravings for KitKats.

But regardless, from this analysis they reckoned they could effectively build up profiles on people and work out what could change the ‘fashion’ on the topics they were interested in by hacking into networks and gaming the outcomes of the ‘debate’. If our chef had been a British citizen and thus eligible to vote in the Brexit referendum, perhaps they could have flooded his FB feed with stories of EU-backed wars in Mali and DRC. Or how EU corporation law and European Central Bank loan conditions force African states to privatise their resources, paying off the kleptocractic class at the top and directing the profits to EU companies. Or a story about how once Boris Johnson had said something positive and non-interventionist about Africa without reference to piccaninnies and watermelon smiles[10]. (The last one might be harder to find). Thus they could have led him by his hobby horse down to the polling booth, determined to tilt his lance at the neo-colonialist EU windmill.

Facing allegations of manipulation, the Right has been gleefully eager to point out that social democrat parties have used it too, that e.g. Barack Obama had used an earlier version of this software in his election, so yah boo snubs, you lot do it too. If you’re up in arms about the Trump campaign, as Piers Morgan might say, why are you silent about what Obama did?

Like Ash Sarker told Morgan recently, Obama is not my political hero. However, even if he were I hope I would not have defended such electoral strategies. Its prevalence is the very reason I am so alarmed by it. The state has been using such tactics for years, practised in more or less covert interventions abroad. Wylie’s comment that ‘It’s like dirty MI6 because you’re not constrained. There’s no having to go to a judge to apply for permission’ is very worrying, given how light-touch the judiciary seem to be in regulating secret services. State bodies already do it and now private individuals, with fortunes the size of lower-ranking states, are using it. An investigative journalist can do the work to tell you what motive Mercer or others like him have in funding Trump and Brexit, or why Robert Shillman’s Rebel Media or Daniel Pipe’s Middle East Forum are funding far-right figures like Geert Wilders and Tommy Robinson, or what Steve Bannon is doing setting up The Movement as a right wing alternative to ‘evil’ George Soros’s Open Society.[11] All I can say is that this scandal for me is not about data theft (although I don’t think that is a particularly ethical way of generating profit). It is about what Michel Foucault calls biopower.

Part 2 to follow…


[1] The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Vol I, 1759











Written by angrysampoetry

August 24, 2018 at 4:51 pm

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