Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The Dirty Politics of Cambridge Analytica

Splish, splosh, there goes the sound of Cambridge Analytica executives tripping over and "accidentally" dropping hard drives and servers into the bath. The Observer/Channel 4 News/New York Times expose has been variously billed as shocking and earth shattering. It's certainly welcome and everyone who cares about politics should take the time to read The Observer splash and watch the reports. But it's either a measure of my cynicism or having been in politics for too long that none of it surprised me. The micro targeting of voters by segmenting huge data sets is nothing new. It is, after all, the way Facebook makes its money. Neither does Cambridge Analytica's confession, on tape, that they entrap political figures and muckrake have one reaching for the smelling salts. It's par the course where bourgeois politics are concerned. So why the big deal?

Generally speaking politicians do not understand social media, let alone how its political economy works, the wider questions arising from private ownership of personal and intimate data about the users of these networks, and how it can be manipulated to meet certain ends. Nor is there much of an appetite to learn, which suits social media giants - and those who ponce off their networks, like Cambridge Analytica - down to the ground.

Facebook and Google are the most important social media giants and their business models depend on advertising, which in turn demands the retention and manipulation of the data they hold about their users. Your Facebook presence, for example, is a place where you show off photos of your kids, what you had for dinner, the songs you happened to hear while passing through the shopping centre on the way home from work, and other fripperies. You react to things other people post into your feed, like missives from a certain blog, news articles, opinions and so on. Each and every action is recorded by Facebook and collated in its unimaginably vast database. With such huge data sets, Facebook uses algorithms to sift and sort the profiles into demographics and segments of demographics and uses this data to sell advertising space. So, for instance, because I have an interest in politics and plug posts from here on war and suchlike from time-to-time, the segmenting algorithm had me down as the sort of gentleman likely to be receptive to stockists of WWII Wehrmacht memorabilia. They provide the infrastructure, you stump up the content. They convert this to data and make money from it, a pattern of exploitation reflective of changes in capitalism generally.

On the surface, Cambridge Analytica's pitch to election campaigns is no different from what Facebook offers all its advertisers: ensuring the right messages appear on the screens of the right people at the right time. However, Cambridge Analytica went a step further. According to the allegations made by Christopher Wylie, the hip young gunslinger responsible for building the firm's data mining tools, Cambridge Analytica obtained 50 million Facebook profiles under false pretenses - ostensibly for an academic study. They were able to segment this data as they saw fit, and start disseminating their own messages on Facebook directly. This drew the attention of Facebook itself and ... they did nothing. Indeed, Facebook workers were embedded with Cambridge Analytica in the lead up to and during the 2016 US presidential campaign. A cavalier attitude to an unimaginably large data breach, you can see why the blessed Mark Zuckerberg now faces awkward questions. What makes matters stickier for Cambridge Analytica is their admission, again on camera, that their efforts targeting black propaganda against Hillary Clinton as an "independent" Political Action Committee was coordinated with the Trump campaign proper - for whom they also provided services. That violates US campaigning law.

Therefore are we dealing with a data science firm or an enterprise steeped in criminality? That's one for the cops and the legislators to work out, though there is one measure by which Cambridge Analytica resembles other firms in the social media ecosystem: a propensity to disregard the rules (and sometimes the law) and resort to very old, tried and tested methods. In his look at platform capitalism, Nick Srnicek discusses how the mega profits of social media can only be fully realised by cornering markets. Gone are the fictions of market economies as finely balanced equilibria between competitive but roughly commensurable actors (in terms of size) to a capitalism in which the market is merely a by-word for monopoly. To achieve this position, the struggle to become a platform through which economies can flow (like Google and Facebook) sees peaceful competition displaced by sharp elbow tactics. Looking at the shenanigans of Uber, we see legal threats and action, the stealing of data, damage of rivals' property, negative social media campaigns, evasion of the law, and so on. The potential of monopoly mega profits encourages behaviour bordering on petty gangsterism. Cambridge Analytica do not break with the corporate practices and culture of their brethren: their dirty tricks are their logical extension.

It might be the case we see a month or so of liberal hand wringing about the dark arts polluting our politics. The firm itself might even get broken up. Already, Chief Executive Alexander Nix has been shown the door while the rest of them try coming up with a way of saving themselves. But ultimately, if they disappear someone else will pick up the slack. Who knows, perhaps a dormant shell company of Cambridge Analytica will acquire the assets, the staff, and the supposedly deleted data sets and begin again. If there are markets for social media psyops, a service provider is bound to emerge sooner or later.

That said, I don't think there's a need to go about wearing a rain cloud. The delivery of dark, dirty politics of which Cambridge Analytica specialised are not automatically efficacious. In the first place, the purveyors of these campaigns and the people who hire them (no prizes for guessing the Tories are on the list of clients) have a very deeply cynical view of the political process. For them, voters are a herd to be prodded and nudged in certain directions. A manipulation of media messaging here, the dissemination of a campaign attack there and the sheep will lap it up. It's one of the reasons why the mainstream media matters so much to elite, establishment politics: they assume punters believe each dot and comma of their paper. Second, the political message they specialise in is relentlessly negative. Images put out by Cambridge Analytica during the Kenyan presidential election emphasise the horrors al-Shabaab would wreak, and the threats to national security posed by Raila Odinga and his centre left National Super Alliance coalition. Very similar to social media fodder that circulated in the USA and, dare we say it, Britain during the general election. Increasingly the right, worldwide, have nothing to offer but fear.

This can only work some of the time. When electorates are socially isolated and atomised, this kind of messaging is more powerful and can have just enough effects at the margins to swing a state here or a seat there and win an election. This politics of manipulation start breaking down when significant numbers of the electorate start moving. Compare the Conservative social media campaigns of 2015 and 2017. Three years might be an eternity in politics, but I remember well the praise the Tories received for their intelligent spending on Facebook. They used micro targeting techniques in the key marginals and blasted messages (and physical literature) at the people their segmentation said were amenable to what they had to say. Then in June last year it was rinse and repeat time, and they fell flat. Some of it could be laid at the feet of the worst campaign ever, which was wooden and less flash than Dave's, but the targeting didn't work. Why? Because the electorate were different. The Tories may have won more votes, but large sections of Labour's vote were politically active. Levering the party's massive organisational capacity to have millions of face-to-face conversations, and aided by the cascading mobilisation of self-organised networks online, the politics of cynicism and fear were swamped and swarmed around by millions of people entering the political stage on their own terms. The amplifying effects of atomism the Tories and, ultimately, Cambridge Analytica-style campaigns rely upon were largely nullified. Undoubtedly they will try again whenever the next election is, and likewise Labour's mass networks will respond in kind.

The forces of the left then have got something the right, at least in Britain, lacks: and that's numbers. The left elsewhere can learn from the Corbyn experience, of how popular participation in politics has the power to render the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and their ilk, as well as political fear mongering generally, utterly obsolete. This is the answer to the problem they pose, by confronting their efforts at manipulation with an unapologetic politics of mass mobilisation.


Blissex said...

«Increasingly the right, worldwide, have nothing to offer but fear.»

Well, that's not quite right: so far they continue their offer of big upward redistribution to the top 25-40% of voters, and that has made their core voters much richer.
The "fear" offer is for the "identity politics" fringe of their constituencies, those who are not in the magic core that gets the economic spoils, so they have to be offered something metaphysical.

It is common in the left to "misunderestimate" just how powerful is the appeal of the offer of upward redistribution policies when their net beneficiaries are a substantial minority of the population, like 25-40%, instead of just the 1% or the 0.1%, and even if most of the net beneficiaries in the upper 25-40% benefit a lot less than the 1% or 0.1%.

The future problem of the right is that as upward redistribution gets bigger and growth remains slow the net beneficiaries will shrink from the 25-40%, and that's why part of the current strategy of the right is to restrict the franchise as much as possible, as subtly as possible.

BCFG said...

I am wondering what the lying secular liberal war mongers would have said if Cambridge Analytica had been a private Russian company. The lying secular liberal war mongers would have claimed this was direct proof that Russia was hell bent on undermining what the lying secular liberal war mongers laughably call democracy and proof that Russia was actively trying to influence elections. Yvette Cooper, that poster girl of lying secular liberal war mongers, would probably have got up in parliament demanding war with Russia or some other such insane shit.

Actually as a prime example of a someone supporting lying secular liberal war mongers what would you have said? Maybe you could write a blog as if Cambridge Analytica were Russian, punctuating it with something must be done, Putin puppets, we must stand strong, Putins gang etc etc etc.

On the spying case Boris Johnson has said Russia holding the World Cup is like Hitler holding the World Cup in 1936. This shows a cl;ear motive for why the British state would have carried out the Skripal attack, to make Russia look bad before a very important national event. I remember talking to a finance analyst who pointed out that after world cups the economy of a nation would get a boost as would their stock market. The British motive is clear to undermine any benefit Russia might get from hosting the World Cup.

So now we have means and motive from the UK. One of many motives incidentally.

Incidentally this is to blame May and her rotten gang.

Blissex said...

«It is common in the left to "misunderestimate" just how powerful is the appeal of the offer of upward redistribution policies»

Just to give some numbers: property prices in the south east and London have been doubling every 7-10 years for several decades, and currently that means that some "proletarian" who bought a modest £100,000-£200,000 property back in 2001 are getting £20,000-£40,000 of tax-free work-free gross profit a year. That's a lot more than any trade unions could have gained them, and it is entirely redistributed from poorer people. That buys absolute voter loyalty, from those who don't need to upsize or buy.

«the net beneficiaries will shrink from the 25-40%, and that's why part of the current strategy of the right is to restrict the franchise as much as possible, as subtly as possible.»

Immigration for example has had the consequence that several millions of low-income "proletarians" (often those working and renting in the worst conditions) cannot vote in general elections, and has also the good property that it helps the "fear" offer, and not just helps making labour costs less "inflationary".

If the left had some political skills they would insist on giving the right to vote in general elections (or at least fast-track, no-quibbles, UK citizenship), like irish citizens already have, to all EU27 citizens resident in the UK.

Alex B said...

I'm more pessimistic that pure numbers will outrun manipulation from the centre. This is only the early stages when it comes to . All of this grass-roots activity occurs largely on centralised platforms, they will learn from their early failures to manipulate. In my opinion, we should start lobbying for laws requiring the federation of social media now, while they are still unsubtle about it.

History shows that a communications monopoly which is allowed to manipulate public opinion is hard to remove. The Western Union/Associated Press monopoly dominated US politics for 30 years:


asquith said...

BCFG the anti-imperialist imperialist strikes again!

Incidentally, did anyone read Private Eye this week? The pretensions of Christopher Wylie are demolished in there, proving him not to be what the liberal saint he claims to be.

Lidl_Janus said...

"to make Russia look bad"

Because everyone thought Russia was wonderful before?

"lying secular liberal war mongers"

OK, on this bit I'll bite. Why is religious influence in politics good (show your working, including why our most overtly religious PMs of the last 40 years - Thatcher and Blair - do not disprove this thesis)?