So, now we know.
We’ve all been giving away valuable data about our most personal thoughts and habits to GoogleBook, all for the right to share cat videos. We used to talk about selling our souls to the devil, but now we give them away, for nothing.
Data mining began harmlessly enough, developing those dumb algorithms that plaster our web pages with adverts for stuff we’ve already bought. Facebook sells our data to private companies, or allows them to harvest, for use in targeted advertising, the vast treasury of information that we voluntarily post on these sites. As the saying goes, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.
But Politicians, always on the lookout for clever marketing techniques, soon realised that this was a way of targeting political messages more accurately than had ever been achieved by conventional TV advertising or mailshots. Even Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2012 used data mining not unlike that deployed by Cambridge Analytica. When people signed on as Obama supporters via Facebook they allowed access to information about their friends. Unlike the Cambridge Analytica breach, this was in accordance with Facebook’s rules, and did not breach data protection laws, but it is a moot point whether everyone who signed on realised how much data they were giving away.
However, then something genuinely sinister happened. All this data mining for advertising and promotion purposes somehow collided with mercenary “psyops”. These are psychological operations conducted by shadowy companies trying to influence political behaviour in countries like Nigeria and Ukraine. Firms like Strategic Communications Laboratories have been advising the British and American defence departments on how do this since 2004. You wonder why the Russians started trying to manipulate opinion in US Presidential elections and Brexit by digital means? It’s because they think we started it by supplying tech support to the “colour” revolutions in former states of the Soviet Union in the noughties.
But then something much worse happened. American psyops mercenary outfits started applying the dark arts of behaviour modification to elections back in the West. We don’t know when or exactly why this started, or how effective it was. No one really does, and there’s no way of checking anyway. The Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower, Chris Wylie, said in his devastating testimony in Westminster last week that, in his view it was extensive and that the “conversion rate” was very high. Few of us really understands the processes at work here or how many political preferences were really changed.
But here’s a paranoid thought. What if the Cambridge Analytica-style psyops algorithms hadn’t just been dicking about with Trump, Brexit and Nigerian elections? What if it they’ve been quietly interfereing in a range of legitimate controversies which are non-party but influence how people vote? We know that Russian trolls tried to manipulate racial opinion in America by creating and then promoting phoney Blaktivist and white Patriot websites on social media. That’s a very primitive way to go about behaviour modification – at least a decade out of date. Today, the that manipulators need leave no visible trace
Here’s Alexander Nix , former boss of Cambridge Analytica, talking to undercover reporters for Channel 4 News: “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again…this stuff infiltrates the online community, but with no branding, so it’s unattributable, untrackable.” That was probably braggadocio – sales talk. But what if it wasn’t?
Steve Bannon, former Trump strategist, was also involved with Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, Strategic Communications Laboratories, SCL, along with Robert Mercer, the secretive US hedge-fund billionaire and Republican donor, who was Cambridge Analytica’s investor. Their big idea, according to Chris Wylie, was to take big data and social media “information operations” derived from military psyops, and apply it to electorates. Perhaps this extended to more diffuse ideological manipulation.
Steve Bannon famously said of the American left: “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day.” This was because it divided liberal opinion and left the field open for the Trump’s campaign on economic nationalism. What if he really meant it? Chris Wylie said he created “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool”- what if this had been used much more widely than anyone imagined. It’s really not that difficult.
You set up a flotilla of bots on Twitter and get them to intensively retweet extreme versions of legitimate controversies. Say, “#White Lives Matter” or “#White Tears” – there are countless versions of these hashtags to choose from on Twitter. It is a relatively simple matter to inflate and amplify these themes on social media. And once the retweeting and Facebook-liking reaches critical mass, you just watch it grow, as both sides start spontaneously filling social media with increasingly intemperate versions of racial memes and tropes.
There have been credible suggestions that Russian trolls might have been involved in the “cybernats” versus “Yoons” culture wars in the Scottish independence referendum and during Brexit. I don’t know if this is true, but we certainly can’t rule it out. What if companies like SCL had been quietly interfering as well, just to see what happens? What if Cambridge Analytica and its affiliates had been quitely giving a “push” now and again to some other raging controversies unique to the social media age like: Trans v. Terf?
Trans people had been happily using women’s toilets for decades before it became a “thing” about four years ago in the USA. It’s only very recently that people called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists have been raging about this on social media. I am not suggesting that this is an invention of digital agent provocateurs, but the paranoid thought occurs that Mr Bannon might have been equally happy to see the left arguing amongst themselves over transgender toilets because he knows that this alienates potential Trump voters. Many Americans voted for Trump because they loathe political correctness and dislike transgender people.
This is pure speculation on my part. I have no evidence that this kind of behavioural manipulation has been taking place. I’m certainly not suggesting that transphobia doesn’t exist, or that homophobic, misogyny and antisemitism are not serious, real world issues. Minority groups quite rightly complain when they are being targeted by transphobes, misogynists, homophobics, racists and other abusers. In this, they very often cite attacks made on social media, not face to face interactions. Journalists spend far too much time on social media, and tend to regard whatever is trending on Twitter as genuine news. It is when the mainstream media picks up these controversies as news that they become, as it were, weaponised. At the very least, media practitioners need to be constantly aware that not everything we see on social media is genuine. Indeed, these days, nothing is what it appears.
And all because we started giving away our data indiscriminately. There is so much more to all this than intrusive targeted advertising using Facebook. The tech behemoths have launched us into a new digital age propelled by seductive applications that consume our time and are ripe for manipulation. As before the financial crash, giant companies like Facebook and Google have been dabbling in processes even they don’t fully understand. We know that Facebook’s secret algorithms have been spreading fake news, creating filter bubbles, promoting prejudice and facilitating abusive behaviour. Nation states, political parties, assisted by malign organisations like SCL and the Russian Fancy Bears, have been manipulating Twitter and Facebook in ways which Mark Zuckerberg never imagined.
Google has been spreading sick video parodies of Peppa Pig to children through YouTube’s video autoplay feature. Its owners clearly never imagined that their video-sharing website could be used in this way. Google was also discovered selling advertising around hate preacher videos and Islamic State recruitment sites. Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s original Google mission statement said: “do no evil”, but their algorithms don’t understand moral philosophy, and see no problem promoting videos claiming that the Florida school shootings were staged by actors as part of a conspiracy by the deep state and Jewish bankers. Give the people what they want, is the algorithmic code. Or what some darker interests want them to want.
We live in a sea of manipulated information. Facebook and Google have become two of the most valuable companies on the planet by discovering that data is the crude oil of the 21st century. Following the Facebook motto of “move fast and break things” they didn’t stop to think how others might seek to use their digital toys. They assumed that getting people to sign away their rights by appending lengthy and largely incomprehensible legal documents to every digital portal would make them immune from the law or regulation.
The masters of the digital universe have done serious damage to our public sphere, made a nonsense of privacy and created a series of devastating feedback loops. They’ve been too clever by half. They have blinded us by science and fooled themselves with their own hype.This can’t go on. Social media is about to meet its regulatory nemesis. Or to extend Mr Zuckerberg’s metaphor, if you break it you pay for it.