If exploiting big data played a role in Trump’s victory, it’s hardly new


Manipulating the “the herd” by telling them what they want to hear is hardly new. In the days of Edward Bernays, the founder of public relations, understanding what the people wanted to hear or how they might behave given certain information took large teams of workers going through piles of hard copy data attained from focus groups, along with a handful of psychologists making some heady judgment calls.

Fast-forward a few decades, and it seems that those with the best software tools rule the day. They can harness all the data in the world and make critical judgments regarding what people want to hear, or how they will behave on hearing something, so a political campaign can run in almost perfect confluence with the majority’s needs and fears. The focus group is now anyone who uses the Internet, and artificial intelligence collates the data and perhaps helps make the heady judgments.

According to some reports, Donald Trump, not known for his tech savvy, may have had not only the best team when it comes to manipulating the public’s data, but also owned a secret weapon so advanced that it could potentially see to it that Peter Griffin could one day be sitting in the White House.

The company responsible for the technology is Cambridge Analytica, which uses psychometrics, essentially a system used to measure how we think. The software company buys data from just about every conceivable place imaginable and then attempts to turn a digital footprint into a set of markers that can be exploited. This is called “behavioral microtargeting,” which apparently is far more effective than the clumsy demographics tables and graphs of the past.

Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, sounds confident about the work his company does. “We were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America,” said Nix. As if to rub salt in the wounds, he added, “Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven.”

Outside of the U.S., Cambridge Analytica was also said to play a big part in the Brexit vote, but it wasn’t alone. In an article in The Guardian, Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings said, “The Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ,” a company that profiles Facebook users. The same article also reminds us that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spent a fair bit of money on behavioral profiling experts and whatever software tools they had at their disposal.

Nonetheless, since the news about Trump’s team using such tools of manipulation, the public has grown more concerned about the psychological assessment and subsequent manipulation going on without their consent. A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica told The Guardian, in an attempt to attenuate those fears, “There’s nothing magical or Pied Piper-ish about it. It doesn’t give us special powers over people. We’re all trying to better use the behavioral sciences to do our work in more effective ways.”

At the same time, nerves might be rattled at the fact that one of the company’s main funders is billionaire Trump supporter, former computer scientist and now hedge fund manager Robert Mercer. He has been described as “the rightwing U.S. computer scientist” who is “at the heart of a multimillion-dollar propaganda network.” Trump Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has also served on the company’s board.

Sound like a conspiracy? Of course it is. But a conspiracy involving political parties wanting to manipulate the public is hardly a novel idea. Whatever data has historically been available has been exploited to the hilt by those that could do it.

Bernays achieved success in coercing a multitude of American women in getting them to join men in smoking cigarettes, using a sly subliminal trick that exploited women’s rights. The method later became a model for advertising and consumerism, and also political populism. In the 1990s, both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair ran successful campaigns running as progressives, using Bernays’ tactics to concentrate not on what was needed, but what people wanted to hear and understanding what they most feared – sometimes irrationally. For Clinton, this was to calibrate his campaign to suit “the innermost desires of the American people,” according to Adam Curtis of the groundbreaking documentary on Bernays, The Century of Self.

However, the story of “manufacturing consent” was darkened considerably in a recent article in Scout.ai called The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine. Now our lack of privacy is exploited as we are firmly embedded in technology. We are somewhat more abused by prying eyes, according to the story, while the tools to mine data are way more advanced than in the days of Edward Bernays. Imagine a machine assessing a wide range of fears across an entire nation and then creating a fake news story to correspond with those fears, in support of one leader, or ideal?

“This is a propaganda machine,” Jonathan Albright, assistant professor and data scientist at Elon University, said in the article. “It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go.”

We are all complicit, said the Scout story, as creators and consumers of technology. “Silicon Valley spent the last ten years building platforms whose natural end state is digital addiction,” said the article. “In 2016, Trump and his allies hijacked them.” Like it or not, they did what everyone else also wanted to do: Get the most out of data and influence the electorate.

It’s a kind of magic?

Following the stories of weaponized AI also came a flurry of counter-articles stating that the role of technology in influencing the election has been greatly exaggerated. MIT wrote, “Last year, we argued that there wasn’t any published data to prove that what Cambridge Analytica is doing would add much weight to Trump’s ability to score votes.” The same story cites a Buzzfeed article in which 13 former employees of Cambridge Analytica admitted they’d never seen anything to prove that their advanced big data profiling works. One staff member compared the company’s marketing of its own abilities to the selling of “snake oil”.

What some critics have said is that we might be too keen to jump to conclusions that Trump’s victory was wrested mostly by technology, and so we may discount genuine social problems that may have led to the victory of a populist leader. Cambridge Analytica is probably doing nothing new, and it is certainly only one of many players in a very competitive marketplace of analyzing the consumer via big data. Let’s face it, all sides of the political spectrum could hardly be left in the dark concerning such technology.

Cambridge Analytica wants the plaudits for Trump’s romp to victory. It needs to mystify its product to make it look different from other countless, similar products out there. As The Washington Times reports, there was likely no secret weapon, no omnipotent “puppet master,” only an old-school public relations outfit with a lot of confusing data. And as happened in the past, that data was analyzed so that fusillades of populist slogans could ring through parts of the media.

That was the winning black box of 2016: an ecosystem that championed Trump in a context that reinforced existing support for the candidate,” wrote the Times, explaining that nothing much had changed, “Cambridge Analytica’s black box is not the skeleton key to electoral victory, any more than Obama’s black boxes were. It’s marketing.”

Image: Marcos Gasparutti via Flickr