Cambridge Analytica are a big data marketing firm who, according to numerous media commentators, were the critical factor in the election of Donald Trump. They are the subject of many officially-endorsed, fully-mainstreamed conspiracy theories proposed by different segments of the political-media spectrum. This week we take a critical look at these theories and ask whether those who believe in them are confusing technological sophistication with real-world effectiveness. We also examine an alternative conspiracy theory about the company and their associations.
I am sure most (if not all) of you have heard about Cambridge Analytica, the big data marketing firm who won the presidential election for el Trumpo. While calling this a ‘conspiracy theory’ isn’t strictly accurate, since we’re talking about a private firm being hired to provide a service, it has been treated as such by the media that have covered it. What makes it particularly interesting to me is that it is an officially-endorsed conspiracy theory – certain parts of the mainstream media, senior political figures and large sections of the public believe in this. It is a socially-acceptable, politically-correct conspiracy theory.
But is it true? I am not convinced. I’ve had friends and relatives talk to me about Cambridge Analytica, including one who – somewhat ironically – claims they are secretly ruling the world. But I want to offer a different perspective on this, and explain why it is that I’m not as fearful about this as many of the people who’ve read or watched the various media on this topic.
Before we get into that, we should get everyone on the same page, in case there are people listening who either don’t know or have forgotten who Cambridge Analytica are and what they do. So I’m going to play for you this quite widely-used and well-known presentation by Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, on The Power of Big Data and Psychographics.
Now, I understand why this makes people nervous. Nix himself comes across like a Bond villain, and has a hairstyle that is reminiscent of the Joker from Batman. He is talking about big data analysis and marketing techniques that he is portraying in a way that makes them sound revolutionary, a paradigm shift in political and psychological manipulation.
The first bone of contention is whether psychographics is more effective than demographics. Cambridge Analytica and those who want to accuse them of politically-motivated black magic want you to believe it is. In his presentation Nix pulls a fast one, asking ‘why should all women receive the same messaging just because of their gender? Or all African Americans, all old people’ and so on. But for decades the use of demographics has been more complex than that, for example they’ll give a different message to a 25 year old African American woman from a poor part of Detroit than they’ll give to a better-off 50 year African American man from California. Nix is simplifying demographics to make it sound like psychographics is more sophisticated and more effective.
He goes on to say that psychographics is better because it is concerned with personality, and personality drives behaviour, and behaviour determines how you vote. Let’s take a look at this iron-clad logical syllogism for a second: personality drives behaviour in terms of intent, but economics and geographics limit behaviour in practical ways. This in turn has an influence on personality – a poor person or someone who lives in the wrong part of the country to do something they want to do might become frustrated. So, to take a relatively cliched example, you might have someone growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Utah whose family is deeply Republican, but due to media exposure or whatever the person is more liberal minded. But they live in a place where they cannot explore that side of themselves, and might become resentful of that. In turn this could go one of several ways – their frustrations might lead to them changing their political views to fit in with those around them. It might result in them upping sticks and moving to San Francisco, where they might become a card-carrying liberal or they might find the local culture very alien and not what they expected, turning them into a California Republican, like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
So I’m not convinced – I think people are far more complex and unpredictable than Nix makes out, and that there are so many factors affecting what political beliefs someone has that trying to determine and influence that from a set of largely meaningless data points derived from social media profiles is, frankly, idiotic.
Meanwhile, let’s apply a little scientific method to this supposedly scientific approach to mass marketing. Ted Cruz, whose policies were pretty similar to Trump’s, was using Cambridge Analytica for considerably longer than Trump. If they were so effective then Cruz would have won the Republican nomination, backed by the unstoppable tide of big data black magic delivered by button-down British psychopaths like Nix. But Cruz didn’t win the nomination, Trump did. This effectively falsifies any claim that Cambridge Analytica was a key factor in the election – that a candidate that used them more was less successful.
This gets into an issue I touched on in the Science and Entertainment Exchange episode – that non-scientists have a tendency to view science as a kind of witchcraft, a kind of occult knowledge far beyond the understanding of us mere plebs. We’re conditioned to see science in this way, most often through science fiction. The spectacle of technology blinds us to the realities of the limitations of the scientific method.
And this is perhaps the final major problem I have with what Nix is saying here, and the socially-acceptable conspiracy theory swirling around Cambridge Analytica. All the media coverage of this story talks about how this company has a file on every voter in the US, containing thousands of pieces of data. But most of that data is about whether they prefer the Pogues or the Bangles. Or whether they prefer shopping at Tesco or Asda. It’s effectively useless from a psychographic point of view, except in the most simple-minded sense.
The model of psychographcis used by Cambridge Analytica divides people up according to five personality traits – openness (how open you are to new experiences?), conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?), extroversion (how sociable are you?), agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative you are?) and neuroticism (are you easily upset?). In many behavioural science circles these are considered the ‘big five’, that supposedly have the most influence on someone’s overall personality. But what does my preference for The Rock over Bruce Willis tell you about my extroversion or my neuroticism? Absolutely fuck all, or on the other hand so much that it would make it impossible to determine exactly what it means, only what it could mean.
On top of that there’s the problem that this is largely based on social media profiles, which are inherently dishonest representations of the people running them. My social media profile tells you some things about me, but there is a hell of a lot I would never and have never posted on there. I have many thoughts and feelings, as I’m sure you do too, that you don’t share on public forums. Indeed, I’m quite introverted, I don’t share as much as a lot of people do, but you might not be able to work that out from my profile since I run a public podcast and on a very small scale I’m a public figure, which many people would interpret as extroverted.
What other reasons are there why Trump won?
Another big problem I have with this narrative and this conspiracy theory is that is attributes Trump’s victory to Cambridge Analytica, or at least cites them as a major factor. This is to the exclusion of numerous other reasons why Trump won, to whit:
1) Trump is rich. A poor person or even a reasonably well-off middle class person could not have done what he did. The barrier to political power is not political experience, it is money.
2) Massively contradictory statements and promises. Trump’s campaign is best characterised as ‘inconsistent’. As I explained in the Fake News episode, simply sticking to one message and playing to your base is not a particularly sensible strategy any more, you’re better off saying a bunch of contradictory stuff that appeals to several bunches of different people and hoping no one notices or points out the contradictions.
3) A smug liberal establishment who thought it couldn’t happen. To be clear, I’m not saying the establishment in the US is liberal, I am saying there is a liberal establishment who, after 8 years of Obama and the seeming inevitability of a Hitlery run for president took it for granted that things were progressing in what they thought was the right direction. The underlying Hegelian thinking behind liberalism convinced them that history only goes in one direction, progressing incrementally towards some sort of utopia. The idea that a rich idiot spouting racist nonsense could be such a disruption to that simply didn’t cross their mind, and when people don’t see an ‘enemy’ coming they’re usually pretty ineffective at dealing with it when it arrives.
4) A public that on both the Left and the Right were pissed off with neoliberal economics that was making it harder for them to make a decent living. In particular the Rust Belt which was a sweet spot for Obama in 2008 and somewhat in 2012 was entirely ignored by the Hitlery campaign, who basically handed it over to Trump who campaigned hard in those areas. In terms of voter swing from 2008 and 2012, this is the biggest factor in why Trump won.
5) The growing hard right movement not just in the US but in other places too. We saw this with Ron Paul (an anti-abortion, anti-immigration, pro-corporate Christian fundamentalist who thinks the US shouldn’t have got into WW2 because it’s not their job to help Jews) and then the Tea Party (an anti-abortion, anti-immigration, pro-corporate Christian fundamentalist mob largely funded by the Koch brothers). This has been coming for a while now, and anyone whose political memory goes back more than 12 months wasn’t especially surprised by Trump’s victory.
6) Voter disenfrachisement. Greg Palast has done some excellent work on how Voter ID laws (an almost entirely Republican-led trend) have effectively disenfranchised millions of Americans, primarily poor, black Americans. This was in some ways a response to the 2008 election of Obama which saw record numbers of black voters exercising their democratic rights. A number of media commentators noted how many of those voters stayed home in 2012, and again in 2016, but this was largely presented as a choice on their part rather than systemic disenfranchisement.
7) The voting system. Hitlery actually got around 3 million more votes than Trump, but due to an arcane and stupid electoral system she lost the national election for president. Not that I wanted her to win, I’m just saying that if you have a nationwide election then the candidate with the most votes should be the winner, otherwise it’s kind of a joke. If they did this on the X-Factor there’d be a public outcry, but do it to determine your head of state and for some reason very few people care.
8) Voter apathy/disillusionment. While 2016 had a relatively high turnout at 58% that still left more people who didn’t vote for anyone than voted for any of the candidates. It’s the same in the EU referendum in this country – more people didn’t care or felt so alienated from politics than the number of people who voted for either option. This makes it easier for apparent outsiders – Trump won with a little under 63 million votes in a country of 323 million people. Around 1 in 5 out of the total population elected the president.
9) The DNC shafting their more popular Left-wing candidate in favour of a less popular centrist candidate. While some critics – especially on the alt-right – said that Sanders was a means of sucking in Left-wingers so they’d end up electing Hitlery, in fact it seems the opposite happened. It appears that the DNC pushing Sanders out of the way upset and estranged a lot of the people they needed to win the election.
10) The James Comey letter and Wikileaks DNC email release, which confirmed the DNC’s corruption at the exact moment they were trying to appear as though they were the adults in the room. This is one of very few factors that the Democrats have recognised as a reason why they lost – though they’re trying to blame the whole thing on Russia. I am planning a Rorschach Politics: Russiagate episode so we won’t get into that here.
Those are just 10 reasons why Trump won that have nothing to do with Cambridge Analytica, I could come up with another 20 but I think I’ve made the point. Exactly how much influence you accord to each of these different factors, as well as any others you wish to include, is pretty subjective. I’m not sure how you could quantify these things in a measureable, repeatable way but in my opinion Cambridge Analytica is perhaps the 25th most important reason, behind these 10 and some others.
So before we move on I want you to ask yourselves – of all the media you have read, seen or listened to about Cambridge Analytica, how much of it has even acknowledged the other reasons why Trump won? Because this is how a conspiracy theory spreads – when one factor, namely, the conspiracy – is blamed for something to the exclusion of all other possible factors. It’s a psychological confidence trick – scapegoating one particular person or organisation or method is very satisfying, and makes the solution simple and easy – just outlaw or destroy that one person or organisation or method. Other factors then become psychologically threatening, they are disruptions to that sense of satisfaction, so they are ignored. I think this applies just as much to the producers of this media, as it does to their audiences.
Newsnight and Cambridge Analytica: A Conspiracy Theory
Perhaps the textbook example of how this conspiracy theory has been propagated is a piece that was broadcast on an episode of Newsnight, the BBC’s late-night news discussion and analysis programme. They tried to expand the conspiracy theory to include not just Trump’s victory but also the Brexit vote. I want you to watch or listen to this with a particular eye or ear for how they’re capitalising on people’s surprise at these results in order to push this particular explanation of why they happened.
Just as with Nix’s presentation that we listened to earlier, we have the same sort of logic being employed. ‘The more they know about you, the more they can influence you’ says our presenter, Gabriel Gatehouse. But is this true? Is knowing whether you have a cat or two dogs or no pets at all genuinely useful in helping draw up a profile for use in political marketing? He goes on, ‘In the age of big data, is our democracy open to manipulation?’ As though our democracies weren’t open to manipulation before, and that this is something new.
This is all setup, designed to play on people’s shock or anger or confusion at political results not going the way they wanted or expected. When people are in such a state, it is very easy to convince them that this one thing they hadn’t heard about before is the sole or major reason why something happened. This is especially effective when it is something outside, so it isn’t that I did something wrong and that’s why I feel like this, it’s all someone else’s fault. An obscure data analytics and social media marketing firm whose CEO is both two-faced and prone to exaggerating the effectiveness of their methods is a perfect scapegoat.
On the subject of which, Nix is obviously lying when he denies their involvement in the Leave campaign. He doesn’t blink, he’s doing weird little nervous movements with his eyebrows – he’s clearly lying. You don’t have be an expert in cognitive and behavioural science to notice this. But herein lies a problem – his only apparent reason for lying is if they did something untoward that affected the result, so his weak denial actually serves as an effective marketing tool, as indeed do all the claims and conspiracy theories surrounding Cambridge Analytica. It makes them look like they’ve got the keys to the castle, like they can win elections at will.
The BBC’s segment made the connection between what Cambridge Analytica are doing, and military psychological operations – psyops. This is fair and accurate, one of the few points in the segment that was proper journalism. But one thing we can learn from covert operations, especially psychological warfare operations, is that they can fail. Even the classic example, the CIA and MI6 coup in Iran in the 1950s, came within a hair’s breadth of failing. Likewise at the Bay of Pigs in the 1960s, the CIA expected that their invasion would see thousands of like-minded Cubans rise up against the government and help to overthrow Castro. It never happened. As the cliché goes, political manipulation is more art than science. And even science throws up a lot of unexpected, unpredictable, unrepeatable results.
I will also ask: what PR and propaganda isn’t psychological? If you read Bernays, or psyops documents from WW2, you realise that this stuff goes back decades at the least. One could make the argument that it goes back millenia, if you think back to the Trojan war and how Patroclus put on Achilles armour and pretended to be Achilles on the battlefield in order to intimidate the enemy. Covert, even false flag operations are an old game. The idea that just because they’re using more sophisticated technology that Cambridge Analytica have changed the whole paradigm is simply untrue.
Nonetheless, I am not denying that these techniques can be effective, sometimes very effective. I was recently reading a GCHQ report from 2011 – two years before Cambridge Analytica were even founded – about incorporating behavioural science into JTRIG operations. JTRIG are the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, a cyber-ops unit of GCHQ. It explains how:
JTRIG targets a range of individual, group and state actors across the globe who pose criminal, security and defence threats. JTRIG staff use a range of techniques to, for example, discredit, disrupt, delay, deny, degrade, and deter. The techniques include: uploading YouTube videos containing persuasive messages; establishing online aliases with Facebook and Twitter accounts, blogs and forum memberships for conducting HUMINT or encouraging discussion on specific issues; sending spoof emails and text messages as well as providing spoof online resources; and setting up spoof trade sites.
Further on it explains how these techniques are being used against Iran, to try to discredit the government, in Afghanistan as part of the counter-insurgency program to try to turn the local population against the Taliban, to help regime change in Zimbabwe – basically, to do what Cambridge Analytica are accused of doing in the US and UK. So there’s an obvious hypocrisy in the media espousing conspiracy theories about this private company while conveniently ignoring our own government agencies who’ve been provably doing the same thing for a long time.
But behind that hypocrisy lies an interesting psychological dynamic. While the Snowden leaks were little more than confirmation of stuff that quite a few people had known for years, the media coverage ensured that no one could deny that this was happening. The only laws passed in the wake of Snowden effectively normalised these practices, they offered very little in the way of new control or oversight or legal obligations and rights for citizens. If anything, we live in an even more surveilled state now than we did at the start of the decade.
So there is this lingering sense of guilt – that in exchange for a safe and stable society we’ve accepted mass surveillance of everything we do with electronic communications, which is about half of what we do with our lives. Deep down most people know that it’s bullshit, that this is totalitarian tactics in a velvet glove, but in the absence of any obvious means of doing something about it, we’ve acquiesced. That internalisation of guilt inevitably leads to suspicion and projection, so now we’re accusing the Russian state, Chinese hackers, Cambridge Analytica and even ISIS of doing things that we know our own governments have done. It’s a way of saying ‘everyone’s at it’, and thus absolving ourselves of responsibility.
And herein lies the worst element of this whole story – that in order to believe that Cambridge Analytica are capable of manipulating people on a mass scale we must believe that we’re that easy to game, to con, to deceive. The entire conspiracy theory about Cambridge Analytica is only plausible if you ignore people’s ability to think for themselves and their responsibility for doing so. It’s simultaneously a kind of learned helplessness and an ideological confidence trick – that because the big data black magic is so powerful we might as well give up on democracy and surrender to magicians like Alexander Nix.
Indeed, this is how the conspiracy-themed media have responded to the mainstreaming of this conspiracy theory – to throw their hands in the air and shout ‘woe is us’ or to say smugly ‘see, this is why people shouldn’t vote’. Both are disempowering, self-victimising, self-alienating nonsense. Indeed, almost no coverage of this story empowers people or helps them actualise their political desires and ambitions in any way. I know you could say that about most political coverage across the whole world, and you’d be right, but it’s especially true with this one.
So that’s my other reason for not believing this story – that my soul demands something else. When the psychologists say that conspiracy theories become popular in the wake of shocking events as people search for explanations and reasons, they aren’t wrong. It’s just they generally only apply that to the classic form of the conspiracy theory – the JFK assassination being the apotheosis, the perfect example. If we apply it to the contemporary, postmodern form of the conspiracy theory – the one that is half-endorsed by the major media – then the same is true.
The Other Cambridge Analytica Conspiracy Theory
I am not saying these methods are completely ineffective – I think they do work. I’m not convinced they work any better than previously-established methods, and I think they’re just a slightly more simplified version of what GCHQ and the rest have been using for quite some time. So I don’t reject this conspiracy theory in its entirety.
What I do reject is the specific claim that Cambridge Analytica played a critical role in either the US presidential election or the EU referendum. Not to get into it all now, but I also reject the idea that the Russian government played a critical role in either of those. However, before I go I do want to offer up a different kind of conspiracy theory.
A friend of mine – Lily, who neither confirmed nor denied that she was happy for me to credit her with this research so I’m going to credit her with it and embarrass her a little – did a deep network analysis on Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer and associated people, organisations and topics. She linked a lot of these things to the Council on National Policy – a lesser-known organisation sometimes called the right-wing Council on Foreign Relations. Josh Reeves’ series The Secret Right also talks a lot about the CNP, and in particular its links with Alex Jones, the principal brownshirt for the Trump White House. Also on this linkchart we find the Gatestone Institute – the premier neo-con anti-Muslim thinktank here in the UK.
Now, if this was so-called Left wing foundations and that overused diagram of their funding to fringe media organisations like DemocracyNow, the conspiracy theorists would be making all sorts of claims. Curiously, when it’s a bunch of right wing foundations and their support for the pipelines for alt-right and neo-con propaganda, along with big data marketing firms and ultimately, the Pentagon, there isn’t the same degree of suspicion.
What I’m getting at is that I think that identity politics is being gamed from a high level. It would exist anyway, it is quite an organic response to a world lacking any kind of unifying myth or ideology. But I do think that rather than the specific events like the 2016 election and the EU referendum, it is the more general direction of political identity and political dialogue that is being influenced by the Mercer family along with these foundations and other organisations. I think Cambridge Analytica did work on the EU referendum but didn’t charge any money for that work, hence the ambiguity and unconvincing denials. I think the hard right, the alt right and especially the selling of neo-conservative ideas as somehow rebelling against the establishment is being encouraged, grown, studied and fed like a bunch of lab rats who are trying to take over the world.
I can’t prove this, but you tell me what’s more likely? That an obscure data analytics firm developed a magical new formula for winning elections, failed to get Ted Cruz elected but magically were the key factor in getting Donald Trump elected, or that a bunch of closet fascist billionaires are using big data mass marketing to try to push society in a direction that’s conducive to their interests? Which of those two conspiracy theories sounds the more practical, the more realistic? But which of them is the one you’ve been fed by the mainstream and the alternative media?