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Cambridge Analytica: subverting democracy, one Facebook profile at a time

Their methods are consistent with long-known concepts, making them only a symptom of a new old threat to our democracy.

cambridge analytica scl elections

Striking a balance between security and privacy has been subject to much dispute. Private information carries little meaning anymore: countless companies are seemingly allowed to acquire and process it under questionable supervision. This information went from the hands of anti-terrorist units to advertisers, and soon it became a commodity in high demand.

Before Cambridge Analytica made international headlines, Facebook was already in hot water for its features that arguably subverted democracy. The news feed became a source of real news, adulterated at the mercy of an algorithm credited with creating echo chambers. This meant that people who expressed interest in one topic or school of thought would see more of what they liked, and less of what they did not.

That, in turn, drove certain groups on the fringes of the political sphere and rendered constructive debate between sides a gruelling task. The animosity expressed during the Trump-Clinton campaign is one example.

The recent Cambridge Analytica scoop, closely linked to Donald Trump, revealed more insidious forces at work. The leak confirmed fears that personal data from millions of Facebook profiles was being sold to interests aiming to manipulate it to subvert democracy. The firm was reported to have used that data to both read and write public opinion to influence voters.

By psychologically tapping into voters’ anxieties, the political consultancy firm managed to create an emotional link with Trump, making him the preferred candidate against all odds and, possibly, all logic. To do so, Cambridge Analytica processed huge bundles of data to shape Trump’s rhetoric. Making use of data to shape a campaign is not a bad thing in itself, but the techniques used were highly unethical.

Importantly, it was not simply about data being used to influence campaigns. By studying statistical analysis composed of billions of data points, political advertising (or to give it its proper name, propaganda) was used to actively alter voters’ attitudes such that Trump became appealing.

The information gathered was used to feed material back to the masses in order to concretise emotions and tendencies, effectively rewriting public opinion. Data was used to homogenise socio-economic groups not by traditional statistical models, but by new, more developed categories.

Changing public attitudes through the dispersion of information is not a new concept. By definition, this is propaganda. Despite its disconcerting connotation, instigating thoughts of some dystopian, Orwellian system, it is not in fact such a radical idea.

Decades ago, philosopher Jacques Ellul discussed ‘The Formation of Men’s Attitudes’, focusing particularly on propaganda as a phenomenon that occurs inevitably in societies. He described how individuals are actively reduced to an average statistic and made to relate to a desired collective sentiment.

Cambridge Analytica’s modern refined methods of processing individual data may cast doubt on Ellul’s arguments. On the other hand, the essence prevails: individual anxieties are transposed into logically flawed rhetoric that appeals to the collective emotion. Ellul’s 1965 book therefore seems to hold true, even after intense technological change.

Herman and Chomsky focused on propaganda when the former coined the term ‘manufacturing consent’. This described the process Ellul anticipated wherein voters were not simply tricked into voting against their own interests, but their actual opinions were distorted using less-than-savoury methods – logical fallacies, alternative facts, conveniently alienated perspectives.

The Labour Party in government may or may not have not used similar methods to win over most of Malta. SCL Elections is Cambridge Analytica’s parent company – SCL Elections is an ‘election services’ company registered in Britain with close connection to Henley & Partners, Daphne Caruana Galizia had reported. Henley and Partners is the Malta Prime Minister’s chosen concessionaire for the cash for citizenship scheme, known as the Individual Investor Programme.

Muscat has been consistently plagiarising Trump’s political spin. The latest example is his response to being door-stepped by NET’s Mario Frendo with questions on Pilatus Bank following Ali Sadr Hasheminejad’s arrest in the US: black on white facts were effortlessly glossed over.

What is also shocking are the numbers on the government’s social media spend: the OPM alone, besides the other government department, spends millions of euro in unregulated Facebook advertising. The ‘l-Aqwa Żmien’ mantra, seen in Ellul’s light, soon becomes warped opium, force-fed to the public.

The lack of government-party separation makes it clear that Labour politicians, in their partisan capacity, are using taxpayer money for a cheeky (read highly corrupt and scandalous) boost to their personal image.

Cambridge Analytica’s shady players might be seen as pioneers of political manipulation (bar the good-old-fashioned enticement and blackmail of rival candidates), but they are certainly not visionaries. Their methods are consistent with long-known concepts, making them only a symptom of a new old threat to our democracy.

While alarm bells are ringing in affected countries, Malta should not be too quick to dismiss Cambridge Analytica as a far-away notion. The company represents universal threats to democracy, involving the media being hijacked by those who crave its influence.

We might not have Alexander Nix having coffee with the Prime Minister, but the state of the media in Malta today, with party propaganda outfits taking the lead, is not much better.

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