Making Sense of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and 'Psychological Warfare'
The farther we get from the 2016 US election, the murkier it looks. Back when "fake news" still had a definition (it is purposely false information masquerading as a news report), we learned that Macedonian teens were spreading it on Facebook to deceive unsuspecting American users. One of the most widely shared fake news "reports" of the election held that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump. In a larger sense, there's the question of to what extent Russian operatives poisoned their information ecosystem, playing on existing divides and animosities with hacked emails and troll farms and fake news to, according to the U.S. intelligence community, damage Hillary Clinton's campaign and boost Trump's.
But none of this has accounted for the behavior of a data firm called Cambridge Analytica, which was contracted by the Trump campaign. Steve Bannon sat on the company's board of directors, and the firm is primarily funded by Robert Mercer, the arch-conservative billionaire backer of Trump's campaign and Breitbart during the Bannon era.
Christopher Wylie, a former data scientist with the firm, has turned whistleblower to make the public aware of the company's conduct in 2016. Wylie contends that Cambridge Analytica harvested the information of at least 50 million Facebook users under false pretenses, then used this intel to construct voter profiles and wage "information warfare" on them.
He also joined the Today show Monday morning, where he tried to get at the stakes of the issue, contending Cambridge "took fake news to another level."
Wylie freely admits he left the firm before it was contracted to work with the Trump campaign, so he cannot say for sure that the tools he designed were put to use. But he also says he knows that Cambridge staffers were in contact with Corey Lewandowski, Trump's first campaign manager, before it launched. Moreover, Wylie contends that the weaponized Facebook data was essentially the reason for the firm's existence. If the Trump campaign contracted the firm, Trump's people—in particular Brad Parscale, then the digital director and now the 2020 campaign manager—more than likely used the tool.
Playing on people's psychological weak points or preexisting biases is part of any advertising strategy, and political advertising in particular. But Cambridge Analytica's work was different, not least because the information they served Facebook users often was not marked as an ad, which is customary on television and radio. It was quintessential fake news: information with an agenda presented as disinterested and objective. There's also the fact that CA's tool had an expressly military methodology to it, according to The Guardian:
In 2014, Steve Bannon—then executive chairman of the “alt-right” news network Breitbart—was Wylie’s boss. And Robert Mercer, the secretive US hedge-fund billionaire and Republican donor, was Cambridge Analytica’s investor. And the idea they bought into was to bring big data and social media to an established military methodology—“information operations”—then turn it on the US electorate.
That was reflected in the firm's early clientele:
By that time, Steve Bannon had become Trump’s chief strategist. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, had won contracts with the US State Department and was pitching to the Pentagon, and Wylie was genuinely freaked out. “It’s insane,” he told me one night. “The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.”
In his Today interview, Wylie drew a picture of a Facebook user's experience if they were to come under Cambridge's spell. Essentially, the firm would attempt to exploit the user's profile—based on past browsing behavior, page likes, friends—to serve them information most likely to sway them a certain way. This information (true or not) would reach users in ads and other content and begin forming an informational bubble around them as they used Facebook and browsed the web.
This notion was reinforced in the Times' coverage, which touched on Bannon and Mercer's view that the information could be a weapon in the culture war:
An examination by The New York Times and The Observer of London reveals how Cambridge Analytica’s drive to bring to market a potentially powerful new weapon put the firm — and wealthy conservative investors seeking to reshape politics—under scrutiny from investigators and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge and worked there until late 2014, said of its leaders: “Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair.”
"They want to fight a culture war in America,” he added. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war."
And here's how Bannon got wind of SCL, the British firm affiliated with Cambridge where the research—and Wylie—started:
When I ask how Bannon even found SCL, Wylie tells me what sounds like a tall tale, though it’s one he can back up with an email about how Mark Block, a veteran Republican strategist, happened to sit next to a cyberwarfare expert for the US air force on a plane. “And the cyberwarfare guy is like, ‘Oh, you should meet SCL. They do cyberwarfare for elections.’”
That Cambridge also allegedly came by the information in sketchy fashion doesn't help matters, either.
Cambridge paid to acquire the personal information through an outside researcher who, Facebook says, claimed to be collecting it for academic purposes.
This has raised questions about Facebook's role in all this. The social media giant has faced intense scrutiny for its role in the election, in which it became a main artery of political information but refused to assume the responsibility of being an informational gatekeeper. Lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify on the data breach, which his company handled thusly according to the Times:
Facebook verified the leak and—without publicly acknowledging it—sought to secure the information, efforts that continued as recently as August 2016. That month, lawyers for the social network reached out to Cambridge Analytica contractors. “This data was obtained and used without permission,” said a letter that was obtained by the Times. “It cannot be used legitimately in the future and must be deleted immediately.”
Mr. Grewal, the Facebook deputy general counsel, said in a statement that both Dr. Kogan and “SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica certified to us that they destroyed the data in question.” But copies of the data still remain beyond Facebook’s control. The Times viewed a set of raw data from the profiles Cambridge Analytica obtained.
Facebook remained silent on the issue until last week, at which point it suspended Cambridge Analytica and some key figures—including Wylie. Facebook's stock is down 5 percent today.
This Orwellian development is perhaps the most grotesque incarnation of the power politics exercised by the Western conservatives. The values that undergird democracy are under attack, as is the very concept that voters are citizens of democracy consciously selecting their own leaders. Now, voters are simply data points, useful pawns featuring baked-in biases that can be weaponized against them. For all we used to hear about the democratising power of the Internet, at the moment it seems to have ushered in a kind of truth-less informational anarchy. Someone will have to be held responsible if America is going to climb out of the muck.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.