Free and fair elections are under threat from data mining

Netflix’s The Great Hack, 2019: “Nobody wants to admit that propaganda works because to do so is to admit our own susceptibility to it.”

March 17 2018 was the day the mask finally slipped off the face of Silicon Valley.

On this day, UK newspaper The Observer and its USA counter-part The New York Times first broke the story of what would become known as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Scandal, where millions of Facebook profiles were harvested for data in order to provide highly personalised adverts for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Until now, tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon were seen in a mostly benign light.

Sure there were suspicions and even occasional murmurings but for the most part, these companies were mostly considered bastions of corporate benevolence and their leaders as idealist do-gooders.

Now, we can see just how wrong we were for trusting them as much as we did.

For those who don’t know, Cambridge Analytica (CA) was a political consulting firm founded by far-right media pundit Steve Bannon and hedge fund manager Robert Mercer in 2013.

Former Cambridge Analyitica CEO Andrew Nix
Picture: SAM BARNES

While the 2016 election scandal is what made it a household name, it had been running similar campaigns for years before, which we’ll get to in a bit.

I won’t talk about how CA ran its mass-disinformation campaign. Those details have already been discussed at great length by many and can be easily found on the dedicated Wikipedia page.

Instead, I want to look at why CA was so terrifyingly successful.

You see, a common misconception about the CA debacle (and similar campaigns in general) is that they were trying to convince as many people on the “other side” as possible.

This mindset makes it easy to downplay the significance of their actions since to convince such a large number of people to completely flip-flop on their ideals, through Facebook no less, would certainly be next to impossible.

Except that’s not what CA did.

Instead of targeting their carefully curated adverts at anyone who identified as a Democrat supporter on Facebook, they went after what then-CA CEO Andrew Nix called “the persuadables”.

These were people who had no strong opinions one way or the other and only required a push to either side. CA gladly provided that push, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This wasn’t the first time CA had meddled in an election either.

During the 2010 elections in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), CA was hired by the United National Congress (UNC), a T&T political party whose base was mostly of Indian descent.

They were running against the incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM), made up of mostly Afro-Trinbagonian voters.

CA’s actions were chilling in their cynical brilliance – using, you guessed it, data harvested from Facebook, CA began pushing the “Do So” campaign to PNM voters online.

A screenshot from “The Great Hack” discussing the T&T 2010 elections

The campaign called on voters (mostly Afro-Trinbagonian, i.e PNM supporters) to not take part in the elections in protest against political corruption.

The campaign was dressed up as a grass-roots movement (a process known as astro-turfing), which lent it a much-needed air of legitimacy.

UNC went on to win the elections.

CA was also heavily involved in the Brexit campaign, having been hired by UKIP to encourage people to vote against remaining in the European Union. We all know how that went.

Granted, they are not the only company that has used social media to launch large-scale disinformation campaigns.

We had our own CA moment when it was revealed that PR firm Bell Pottinger (BP) had been hired by the Guptas to help distract public attention from the ongoing State Capture revelations.

Using an army of Twitter bots, Facebook ads and sock-puppet accounts, BP tried to convince everyone that charges against the Guptas were nothing more than an attempt to stifle economic “transformation” and were racially motivated.

It was Bell Pottinger that came up with the now famous faux-revolutionary buzzword “white monopoly capital”.

Now from the beginning, it was obvious to most that there was something fishy, but like CA, it was never about fooling the majority. All BP needed to do was convince that small-but-crucial group of “persuadables” that their lies were in fact truth and it would be enough to tip the balance.

Even after BP’s actions were exposed, their campaign was so effective that many ordinary people still hold fast to the belief that the Guptas and Zuma are merely victims of a smear campaign organised by “white monopoly capital”.

It’s this ability to rapidly disseminate false information and reach millions of people in mere days that make groups like CA and BP so dangerous.

Whether you support Trump and Brexit or not, there’s no denying that a big factor of their respective successes is attributed to a well-orchestrated and incredibly precise propaganda campaign made possible by the illegal harvesting of Facebook data.

Near the end of The Great Hack, Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr presents a TED talk where she describes her experience covering the Facebook-CA scandal.

Given how easy it was for groups like CA to manipulate key voters and swing the results, she asks her audience: “Is it possible to ever have a free and fair election again?”

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