MUST READ: Yes it could happen here. Facebook, Cambridge Analytica & the poisoning of electoral democracy

By   /   April 4, 2018  /   29 Comments

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Under MMP our small voting public effectively constitutes a  single manipulable seat. The psychographic dispositions of swing voters could  be identified , targeted  and manipulated without difficulty. Certain offshore and resident billionaires could easily meet campaign research expenses and hide their contributions behind blind trusts. In place of Cambridge Analytica would be another similar organisation with a friendlier sounding name.  Election campaigns centred around the issues of tax, national sovereignty  and/or oil, gas and coal  exploration  would certainly draw the attention of the one-percenters .

In the digital world one central paradox prevails – communication and surveillance are inseparable.

Pervasive, interactive networks enhance and extend monitoring processes because they gather information about user activity. Whenever we use electronic infrastructures such as wireless internet, smart card readers, credit card systems, ATMs and mobile phone networks private information is instantly collected.

Those who fully use the internet, social media, iPhone devices and multiple apps can expect to be fully surveilled.

Facebook best exemplifies the communication- surveillance paradox.

Over two billion users worldwide are prey to a business model which monetises their online activity.

The  functionalities developed by Facebook`s managers and technical consultants encourage us to divulge ever more personal information about ourselves and others. The underlying purpose is to dissolve the distinction between the public and private spheres.

Facebook uses third party proprietary  software to on- sell our demographics, consumer preferences, geographic location and conversational activity to major corporates, advertising agencies and market researchers.

Sometimes, individual Facebook users are secretly paid by commercial interests to promote products and elicit information from others.

With the demographic and psychographic information they have gained, corporates and advertisers pay Facebook  for the right to micro-target users  with ads, offers and enticements.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook`s institutional investors rort megaprofits from the free labour of Facebook users who are themselves the objects of unprecedented commercial surveillance.

Furthermore, as Edward Snowden`s  revelations demonstrate, government surveillance carried out by the US National Security Agency and its `five-eyes` counterparts  relies upon data mined from Facebook (as well as America–On–Line, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Pal Talk, Skype  and  Yahoo). This so called Prism programme collects, identifies and stores  chatroom posts, emails, file transfers, internet telephone calls,  log -in IDs, photos,videos and video conferencing footage. In short,  online communication magnifies commercial and state-security surveillance.                                                                                                                                                     

The Cambridge Analytica scandals reveal how Facebook`s surveillance and information gathering manipulates election campaigns.

The story begins with the Remain vs Brexit  referendum of June 2016. In March and May last year Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr revealed that Nigel Farage`s  Leave EU and Boris Johnson`s Vote Leave were supported by SCL elections/Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ  respectively.

Despite outward appearances these data-analytic companies and the two Brexit campaigns were working together on a daily basis. They shared the same database even though different strategies were employed.

Leave EU targeted disaffected, working class  Labour voters  with images of refugee queues. Vote Leave spooked middle England by claiming that EU bureacrats were receiving  350, 000 pounds per week  from the British taxpayer  and  assuming control of the National Health Service.

Behind the scenes stood SCL/Cambridge Analytica owner Robert Mercer – American hedge fund billionaire, bankroller of  Donald Trump`s election campaign, colleague of his chief strategist Steve Bannon and Leave EU`s Nigel Farage.

Mercer funded research undertaken by the two data analytics companies for the two main Brexit campaign groups. Electoral law in the UK implicitly opposes co-ordination between disparate campaigns and expressly forbids campaign funding from foreign donors. However, the actual strategies of digital/social media election campaigns are beyond legal scrutiny. Thus, Cambridge Analytica advanced  Leave EU`s social media campaign by attracting supporters to its Facebook page and interviewing almost 500,000 Britons online.

From the demographic and psychographic information gleaned, different messages could be tailored to different voters. Such techniques were refined for Donald Trump`s 2016 election campaign, a process exposed by recent investigations from the Observer, the Guardian , Channel 4 and by the damning testimonies of former Cambridge Analytica insiders – Christopher Wylie and Brittany Kaiser.

It is now evident that Cambridge Analytica harvested the Facebook profiles of US voters in order to predict and influence their choices.

To this end Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan built a data collecting app called  thisisyourdigitallife  through his private company Global Science research and in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica.

Approximately 320,000 US voters were paid $2-5 dollars to take a personality test that required them to log in with their Facebook account.

Individuated test results were paired with  Facebook data such as likes ,dislikes and other personal information. Crucially, Kogan`s app based questionnaire also collected information about the test takers` network of friends.

Altogether, Facebook data was obtained from more than 50 million users. Algorithims combined the individuated Facebook data with other sources such as voter records to construct demographic/psychographic profiles. Individuals in the key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennysylvania and Florida could then be sent customised campaign ads and messages.

Potential Trump supporters were encouraged to vote Republican while potential Clinton supporters were dissuaded from voting at all.

This micro-targetting of voters was not new; President Obama`s 2012 re-election campaign pioneered the process. By 2016 ,however, the scale and precision of data-analytics had advanced considerably, especially after the June Brexit referendum. Zuckerberg`s claim that the Trump campaign controversy was merely a one-off breach of third party data protocols should fool nobody.

In 2003 he built a website that allowed Harvard undergraduates to compare and rate the attractiveness of their fellow students and rank them accordingly. Student ID photos were harvested without permission and Zuckerberg was accused by the University authorities of breaching security, copyrights and individual privacy. Overall, the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook imbroglio  is not just a matter of voter manipulation or `dirty politics`.

What we have here is the poisoning of electoral democracy on an industrial scale.                                                                                                                                                                                       

So, could this happen here? Absolutely it could. Facebook is our most popular online destination after Google Search. Over two million New Zealanders check Facebook daily and its attractiveness for advertisers is growing rapidly.

Under MMP our small voting public effectively constitutes a  single manipulable seat. The psychographic dispositions of swing voters could  be identified , targeted  and manipulated without difficulty. Certain offshore and resident billionaires could easily meet campaign research expenses and hide their contributions behind blind trusts. In place of Cambridge Analytica would be another similar organisation with a friendlier sounding name.  Election campaigns centred around the issues of tax, national sovereignty  and/or oil, gas and coal  exploration  would certainly draw the attention of the one-percenters .

In such circumstances if  Facebook allowed user data to be harvested it could simply  ignore New Zealand privacy law because the Privacy Commissioner has no prosecuting authority. Facebook`s recent refusal to allow a complainant access to personal information held on the accounts of several users illustrates this. The social media behemoth is a law unto itself and a fundamental threat to the democratic process everywhere.                                                                                                                                        

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29 Comments

  1. Cemetery Jones says:

    I suggest everyone falling for this nonsense about the efficacy of Cambridge Analytica in making Brexit and Trump happen read Fraser Myers’ latest article. It flows, of course, from the elite notion that the hoi polloi can’t possibly have formed their own independent opinion, and must instead have been gulled by sophisticated propaganda because that’s the only way they could have failed to heed the superior arguments of their betters.

    http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/calm-down-cambridge-analytica/21259#.WsQUdVLUiUl

    “The Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal is the latest in a long line of excuses from those who – two years on – have yet to accept the democratic outcomes of the US presidential election and Britain’s EU referendum. Having exhausted their tedious theories about Trump winning thanks to the Russians, and Brexit thanks to a bus, now these people are talking up data company CA as the cause of the alleged political nightmares that are the Trump administration and Brexit Britain. Apparently Trump won courtesy of ‘Steve Bannon’s mindfucking tool’ – that is, CA – while sections of the Brexit campaign are said to have cheated by channelling money to a CA-linked firm.”

    “The outrage over Cambridge Analytica’s data mining for political ends is not really about what they did – it’s about who they did it for. Before the Brexit and Trump earthquakes, social media were lionised for catalysing the Arab Spring, while Big Data was credited with putting Obama in the Oval Office. In 2012, the chattering classes gushed that data-driven strategy had put the soul back into politics and restored the primacy of the individual voter.

    They’re only turning on Big Data now because it has ‘delivered’ – as they see it, anyway – results they don’t like. In their mind, the Cambridge Analytica ‘mindfuck tool’ manipulated the plebs into voting the wrong way. If Hillary’s mindfuck tools had been more successful, you can bet there would be celebrations right now over how Big Data gave America its first female president. So the very basis of this scare – that Big Data is inherently bad – is based on political bitterness, not cool-headed analysis.”

    • Sam Sam says:

      The illicit data mining is also where Cambridge Analytica (CA) is in the most substantive trouble. For one, expect Facebook to sue them to pay some of its looming legal costs. But most of the juicy CA stuff so far is, while sleazy, not all that illegal. The data operation under EU law is a whole different matter. And another matter all together easier under UK law.

      You can’t properly exploit the data of your comsumers (not customers, customers pay for a service) if some common data analysis company can simply write a program to just scrape the relevant infromation from your website. How utterly unfair, that information was worth lots of money and Cambridge Analytical simply stole it like that. Arrr me Hearty.

      And the entire idea of using facebook data to influence elections and to direct campaigning isn’t new. That sort of tactic was at the very least pioneered by Obama and his election campaign. It should surprise no one that people took note of that and deveoped the strategy further. After all, facebook is such a useful resource and way broader the polling your electorate. Why not make use of that freely available data its users blast out into the ether for the world to see?

      What I want to see is who else if any Cambridge Analytica was working with/for besides Brexit and the Trump campaign in 2016. And was there any overlap between their data extraction from Facebook and Russians under the bed.

      • Cemetery Jones says:

        Yeah they’ve done campaigns in some off-track places, at least a couple of African republics I seem to recall.

        Latest context material here:

        https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-04-03/facebook-trump-campaign-was-better-facebook-clinton-team

        Fact is, Trump’s general election opponent sucked at the internet generally despite having a supposed dream team of millennial digital specialists; and as covered by Myers, Trump’s main primary opponent, Ted Cruz, is the one who was using Cambridge Analytica in the first place!

        • Sam Sam says:

          Like comments and subscribe are sub-humans. I once witnessed YouTube ban 10 million YouTube accounts in one fowl swoop for being fake accounts.

          Somehow normies find it in them to be surprise; it really shouldn’t.

          It’d seem like CA data was used for some targeted digital advertising and a TV buy, but the main source of the “get out the vote” matching digital data seems to have come from the Republican National Committee. I guess.

          Most people don’t realise how close Bernie Sanders came to winning the Democrat 2016 nomination. He literally lost by a couple of coin tosses. And if that sounds like a joke to some people there is footage.

          Any way thanks for the update. I’m sure the narrative now is going to be twisted into “Sanders was a Trump supporting, Nazi sympathizing, Russian sleeper agent, NRA conference organizer.” But lets give them the benefit of the doubt till we hear more 😀

          • Cemetery Jones says:

            Yeah they’ve done much the same to Sanders as has been done with Corbyn, they’re clearly terrified that he’ll take another run at the nomination for 2020 and be even more successful. Shows that the Democrats are not a left wing party by any stretch of the imagination. Which should have been obvious for a long time, but some continue to labour under the delusion.

          • ababy says:

            Fell swoop. it’s “one fell swoop”. U talkin chickens bud

            • Sam Sam says:

              Yeah its pretty ridiculous. The dynamic is simple really. Theyre in the advertising business and businesses dont want to be associated with crazy people, so youtube have to de-monetize to an extent. problem is there is a large US corporate consensus pushing conspiracy theory with zero actual evidence.

      • David says:

        Palantir Technologies: A “CIA-backed startup”

        The WSWS has reported on the real pedigree of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, the behavioural research and strategic communication company, SCL.

        Asked by the parliamentary select committee if there were other data companies operating similarly to Cambridge Analytica, Wylie specifically cited the data analysis giant Palantir Technologies.

        https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/04/03/pala-a03.html

        • Cemetery Jones says:

          Interestingly enough, the WSWS have themselves been deranked from search results by Google – they noted in an article a while back that they used to be a first-page result for the search term ‘socialism’; at the time of their article, they were down around 7 or 8 pages into results, i.e. long past the point most people are still searching.

    • Marc says:

      Just get honest, most people are IDIOTS, they suck up every biased info that suits their picture and agenda, Fakebook or not But that leaves us no better off.

      • Cemetery Jones says:

        It’s their right to do so, just so long as they are free to hear both sides of the story, because free speech is meaningless without free access to both sides of the story. Unfortunately too many on the left are turning into something resembling the 80s and 90s right wing, trying to ban their way to a one way street of information. Not that I’d claim those elements of the right have entirely diminished, not by any means. But the left used to be the champion of free speech and free enquiry. Now, that’s under threat and we must insist on preserving the tradition and not have a bar of the censorious ways which have started to prevail.

    • Historian Pete says:

      You are on to it Cemetery !Underlying the Brexit and Trump victory is the growing inequality throughout the Western world. This has created a dissatisfaction that has expressed itself in a refusal to accept the status quo, not always in a rational manner. There is no conspiracy here , just an unwillingness of the neo-liberals and neocons to accept that the populations are getting restive to the point of getting seriously cranky! What do you expect when the American Dream, which was regarded as being a birthright to Americans, began to recede? And British citizens see their once highly regarded welfare state evaporate before their very eyes.Throw in some racial and cultural tensions and loss of jobs and you get the result we have witnessed. And there is more of that to come, as those in power have learned nothing!!!

      • Cemetery Jones says:

        Indeed, that is the concern which is driving my analysis of the current situation. When the left and right wings of the elite both find the populace unwilling to back them but instead to take their own path, the two will soon be found in vengeful cahoots. It’s already happening. The fusion paranoia about Russia which establishment tories and progressives alike are exhibiting; the frantic bipartisan defence of the undemocratic European Union, the endless gaslighting and strawmanning of opposition all reveal a fundamentally undemocratic way of thinking, and a visceral contempt for free enquiry and anything which comes of it.

      • Theodore says:

        So lets get this straight, Pete, you call the election of Trump as a result of growing inequality in the world? Yet Trump’s team used private data illegally “mined” from social media? Trump hasn’t drained the swamp, he just took out the bits that suited himself.

  2. Marc says:

    You must be wrong, Wayne, this is the ‘purest’ and ‘greenest’ country on earth, all so ‘honest’ people, all doing ‘no harm’ to each other, all so ‘trusting’, and good sorts.

    And all the well off immigrants, we ‘need them’, we offer them ‘opportunity’, you cannot suggest they come to manipulate us, can you seriously?

    This is NZ Inc the ‘purest of the pure’, where fairies dance in light air, and all join into the dance, so do not suggest such dark and sinister thoughts, to such an ‘innocent’ people of purest of minds and souls.

  3. Lois Griffiths says:

    One should read what Glenn Greenwald has to say about Facebook…
    and also what I have written as a Guest Blog.
    Google too is denying readers, searching for information, access to ‘left-wing sites’ unless they are specifically asked for.

    • Marc says:

      If any person believes in ‘peaceful resistance’ and ‘education’ and the likes, go and bury yourselves, you are obsolete as advisors.

    • Cemetery Jones says:

      That is a very good point, Lois. Many progressives applauded this at first because they thought it was just a clampdown on the ‘alt right’ or whatever other deluded strawman they wish to make of commentators whose influence and opinion they find inconvenient. But now an increasing number on the left are having the same treatment. First they came for…

    • Sam Sam says:

      Totally agree. Inevitably the people who ban hammer are the people you don’t want as political leaders.

  4. Bazza says:

    I’ve never had a facebook account. I’m pro-Leave and Tony Benn influenced my view on Brexit a damn sight more than Cambridge Analytica could have.

    • Cemetery Jones says:

      Same.

    • Sam Sam says:

      Lots of people new the EU would brake up, except for the people running the EU. Brussels is so tone deaf.

      • Cemetery Jones says:

        So we should all expect! Take a bunch of people who have shifted from the higher echelons of politics, finance, and lobbying into a system with almost no checks, balances, or exposure to popular election, where you basically can’t be fired, and where they get to pay a tiny neoliberal-style tax rate on their salary (which they came up with themselves).

        The elected EU parliament can do virtually nothing to reign them in; the elected governments of EU states can do virtually nothing to reign them in. They rarely need to step outside of the rarefied atmosphere of the political precincts of Brussels and Strasbourg.

        Who could live that life for long without becoming completely out of touch and tone deaf to the general public? They have created a situation where this is practically guaranteed to be the outcome. That’s why Brexit was such a shock, and why they cannot approach any negotiation surrounding it with anything approaching adult maturity.

  5. Strypey says:

    “In the digital world one central paradox prevails – communication and surveillance are inseparable.”

    At the risk of sounding a bit paranoid, this is what FarceBook et al want you to think; “you have two choices folks, be used by FB, or live in a log cabin with a typewriter like the UnaBomber”. It’s a false choice.

    As Richard Stallman and the rest of the software freedom movement have been saying for decades, you can use computers and networks *and* have your rights and freedoms respected. But you can’t do it if the tech you use consists of mysterious black boxes, which users don’t have the Right to Repair, manufactured and controlled by corporations. The structural and cultural reasons for this are explained in a very accessible style by Doug Rushkoff in ‘Life Inc.’ and ‘Throwing Rocks as the Google Bus’. One of the key problems is that the operators of corporations believe in “The Divine Right of Capital” (to quote the title of Marjorie Kelly’s book), and ignore the interests of everyone who isn’t a shareholder, including the users of digital devices and internet services.

    Remember the old Indymedia saying, “don’t have the media, become the media”? It applies to corporate “social media” for all the same reasons it applies to corporate broadcast media, and setting up community-controlled social networks on the net is much easier than setting up your own television or radio station, or even your own newspaper or magazine. For tips, see:
    https://www.coactivate.org/projects/disintermedia/blog/2017/04/01/a-brief-history-of-the-gnu-social-fediverse-and-the-federation/

    • Sam Sam says:

      I remember a time before smart phones when cell phones where dumb, calls and text only. We’d just ring to organise, it made our lives a heck of a lot more efficient and profitable. Being late to work was nothing because you could ring in peak hour tragic. Now people are late to work because they’re distracted on there phones with alerts or getting run over by a train. Smart phones is the new sugar crack every one craves but think it’s not harmful. That’s why you have to not pick up a smart phone before you’re 18 so you can get some perspective. Once you have a perspective it’s easier to dismiss unsolicited charlatan educators selling learning platforms that only make them money.

      Or something like that.

  6. web-dev says:

    I disagree, actually. I don’t think that kind of thing would happen in New Zealand now at all.

    You have to remember that the preparation for the CA scam occurred in 2014 using a data harvesting system that was shut down quickly afterwards. It might have been kinda useful back in 2016 for Brexit and the US elections, but that data is now four years old.

    If there even was information collected from New Zealanders in that way (which I doubt).

    That period will probably be looked back on as the peak of the data problem era and after that, companies had been at least recognising that they need to be more careful.

    If you are not familiar with the problem: Facebook allowed web developers to make ‘apps’ or applications that used user information to provide services. This isn’t using data to sell you things, it was using data to provide genuinely helpful connections, for instance, one app was described as a employee head-hunt app that indicted to you all of your friends who had suitable experience or qualifications. There were probably others that linked us all up over cars, or other interests. In order for this to work, however, the app needed access to all of your friends, for instance, work history and/or qualifications. There were a whole bunch of things that were made available as people started making these, as I said, genuinely helpful apps. And it wasn’t secret information. The app was only gathering information from your friends you could see anyway and developers weren’t really meant to see it,(although they invariable would require access as part of the app) but in case they did, they were obviously made to sign confidentiality documents.

    Unfortunately, others were not so scrupulous. Cambridge Analytica’s app ‘this is your digital life’ (or something) was designed simply to do one thing, access and download the information of the person providing the permissions, then access and download all of the information of their friends that it had access to. Then, I suppose, the site would spit out some random thing like ‘yes, you’re smart’ to keep the ruse going.

    Once FB figured people had figured this out, they quickly moved to shut it down. It was a moment in time where they were too lax and too trusting of developers and things are very different now.

    And there are umpteen things Facebook are changing that nobody here (or anywhere, really) are discussing that have way more import than what happened to some data 4 years ago. Things like closing custom audiences and the reach guess system which, when combined, allowed (through painstaking effort, but doable none-the-less) malicious actors to build up a database of all users and the each of the behavioural characteristics that defined them as advertising targets, complete with direct reference to their email addresses and phone numbers. That was way more of a problem than CA ever was.

    I think this episode has been a turning point in privacy online with the EU regulations. I think we have seen the first speed brakes put on the data rentiers. I think social media is going to change after this. The only way social media revenue can grow (other than brute screen hours) is by innovation in data use. Fortunately, I think we have seen the end of ‘innovative data use’. Perhaps we have got to the ‘seat-belt’ phase, or the point in the development/maturity of social media where we may have put the equivalent of speed limits in that still allows social media to function effectively, and even sell us things from time to time, but not at the same high-value but highly-intrusive way it used to.

    The spotlight has been shone and the area disinfected as we speak

    • Strypey says:

      I agree the focus on CA and the potential use of FarceBook to manipulate voters in a couple of key election is far too narrow. It’s like someone with a massive stomach cancer complaining getting upset about a pimple on their belly. Like cancer, the problems with FB are terminal, and didn’t start or end with CA:
      http://www.salimvirani.com/facebook/