“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” – George Orwell, 1984.
These words were written in 1948 as Orwell imagined the world almost four decades into the future, a world of mass surveillance and control. This week’s revelations about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook prove these words to be more applicable to the modern world than ever before.
A Channel 4 exposé revealed that data analysis company Cambridge Analytica extracted data from the Facebook profiles of over 50 million Americans in 2014, allegedly for political gain. Whistle blower Christopher Wiley was the former Head of Research at Cambridge Analytica and the person who made it possible for them to harvest this personal information from Facebook profiles.
Before this week, you could be forgiven for never having heard of Cambridge Analytica, I hadn’t, they describe themselves as a political consulting firm created with the intention of becoming involved with American politics. The company is funded by Robert Mercer, who donated over $15 million to get Trump elected, and formerly had Steve Bannon at its helm as Vice-President, so it is clear where their political interests lie.
So how did they do it? With the help of Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge professor, who developed an app, which invited Facebook users to complete a personality test in exchange for payment. This part was consensual. What these users were unaware of was that doing this gave Cambridge Analytica access to all their Facebook friends. On average, for every person who completed this test, Cambridge Analytica were able to access data on 300 more. It is not difficult to see how they managed to access 50 millions users in only a few months.
Extracting this data was not illegal, Facebook actually facilitated this data breach by giving apps, such as the one designed by Kogan, certain permissions. However, the response of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg feels wholly inadequate. In a Facebook post (where else?) Zuckerberg wrote that the policies which allowed this were “a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect”. Facebook have also said they will be improving these policies to ensure this does not happen again, but they were aware of what these apps were doing back in 2015 so don’t hold your breath, the site is for profit, protecting the privacy of users isn’t high on their list of priorities.
We also need to examine why this extraction of huge amounts of data actually matters. Well, the aim of Cambridge Analytica wasn’t to promote a product, like companies who use Facebook to advertise; they wanted use this data to build up individual profiles, to understand cognitive biases and vulnerabilities and then target people with resonating messages to impact their vote in the 2016 U.S. Election. Or as Chris Wiley puts it to “move into the hearts and minds of American voters in a way that has never been done before.” Cambridge Analytica call this the ‘psychographic method’, but this is a palatable term for the psychological manipulation and propaganda Orwell imagined in 1984.
Did it work? Perhaps – Trump won and Cambridge Analytica are not shy about taking credit for this. In Channel 4’s undercover footage, Cambridge Analytica officials can be seen boasting that Trump winning the Electoral College vote was because of the data they provided. This could be boasting, however there are connections that should not be discounted or ignored. Cambridge Analytica take a twin track approach when attempting to manipulate people’s thoughts, all positive political messages are promoted directly through the campaign, but negative messages use external affiliated groups as to avoid any links being drawn with the company. Take for example the advertisement “Defeat Crooked Hillary.” Cambridge Analytica stated this to be their invention, but this was officially published by the organisation ‘Make America Number 1’. An organisation also funded by donor Robert Mercer.
Unsurprisingly, Brad Parscale, the digital director for Trump’s campaign, has called Cambridge Analytica’s statements “an overblown sales pitch” and does not believe the method they supposedly used to target voters works. Trump’s campaign team may be vehemently denying that Cambridge Analytica are those responsible for Trump’s win, but the campaign and now the administration have already shown their Orwellian side, pedalling the notions of “alternative facts” and “Fake News”. Proving that, to Trump, facts can be altered, so why not the ‘facts’ promoted by Cambridge Analytica to convince voters that Trump was the right choice?
The potential influence of Cambridge Analytica goes beyond the U.S. Election. They have also, supposedly, been involved in elections in Nigeria, Kenya and Argentina, among others and were also allegedly involved in the 2016 Brexit referendum working for the ‘Leave’ side. So with no certainty can we roll our eyes and say this is just Trump’s America.
Many people may shrug and say “I don’t really care who can access what I post online”, but this is not about the “coincidental” adverts for the skirt you just looked at on ASOS that appear on the side of your Facebook account; this is about a potential disruption to what it means to live in a democratic country. This is about people you do not know, have never met and probably will never meet having a more complete picture of who you are than your family, friends and co-workers, and using this information to unwittingly manipulate you.
Whether Cambridge Analytica’s research and data was the cause of Trump’s election success, or whether the company simply boasts about their “abilities” to impress potential clients, will probably never been known. But what can be said with absolute certainty is that Cambridge Analytica is only one of many companies with the ability to gather unprecedented amounts of data on every individual sharing snippets of their lives online; and this mass surveillance is creating an Orwellian nightmare where we are no longer aware of the potential manipulation we face when logging on to Facebook. We will cease to see how our thoughts are being torn apart and put back together under someone else’s choosing as Orwell predicted.
Photo Credit: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images.