Pro-War Press, Not Cambridge Analytica, Is the Real Scandal
The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal is simple. To understand what it means, all you have to do is take everything you’ve read about it in The Guardian, The New York Times or at CNN and stand it on its head—or, as Marx would say, on its feet.
Officially, the story concerns yet another band of Kremlin-linked evildoers seeking to overturn American democracy, in this instance by using some 87 million psychological profiles that Cambridge Analytica illegally “harvested” from Facebook to swing the 2016 United States presidential election. Since Aleksandr Kogan—a Cambridge University psychologist who worked with Cambridge Analytica—was born in the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova, grew up in Moscow, taught at St. Petersburg University and even “received grants from the Russian government to research ‘Stress, health and psychological wellbeing in social networks,’ ” as The Guardian breathlessly declares, the Russia connection seems clear. Since Cambridge Analytica once put together a briefing for Lukoil, the Russian energy firm that has been the subject of U.S. sanctions since 2014, it seems even more so.
All of which is red meat for liberals convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the root of all evil and that Donald Trump sneaked into office by virtue of “meddlesome tricks by foreign powers, data harvested from the unsuspecting, and cover-ups,” to quote CNN. As Hillary Clinton told Britain’s Channel 4 News, the big issue was whether Cambridge Analytica used its fearsome “micro-targeting” skills to enable the Kremlin’s famous election-busting internet trolls to focus their efforts most effectively.
“The real question is how did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely to undecided voters in Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania,” she said. “That is really the nub of the question. So if they were getting advice from, let’s say, Cambridge Analytica or someone else about, OK, here are the 12 voters in this town in Wisconsin, that’s whose Facebook pages you need to be on to send these messages, that indeed would be very disturbing.”
It would be disturbing—if true, that is. But it’s not. The real story is not about how Cambridge Analytica used dark arts to swing the 2016 election but how the press, led by an endlessly Russophobic Guardian, has exaggerated the firm’s skills in order to manipulate the public into believing that Putin is a latter-day Svengali who must be stopped by all means necessary. Although Americans may be too shellshocked by this point to notice, they are now the subject of an unparalleled propaganda blitz about nerve agents in Salisbury, poison gas in Syria and internet manipulation that is now threatening to lead to all-out war.
Christopher Wylie, the centerpiece of this effort, is a self-described “gay Canadian vegan” with oversized spectacles and a nose ring who dropped out of high school but somehow wound up working for the Canadian Liberal Party at age 17 under Michael Ignatieff. A decade later, in testimony before a British parliamentary committee or in a video interview with The Guardian, he comes across as wonkish, intelligent and articulate but also as shallow, unreflective and someone who is overly fond of the limelight.
A fervent believer that “big data” can be used to predict and influence individual behavior, Wylie experienced an epiphany of sorts when, as a graduate student, he came across a Cambridge University psychology paper showing how personality traits correlate with political beliefs. As a Cambridge researcher told The Guardian, the paper “showed these odd patterns; that, for example, people who liked ‘I hate Israel’ on Facebook also tended to like Nike shoes and KitKats.” It was a new way of breaking the electorate down into its component parts, thereby enabling campaign strategists to home in with laser-like accuracy on tinier and tinier voter subsets.
Wylie hooked up with a company known as the SCL group, which then joined forces with the pro-Trump American billionaire Robert Mercer and Breitbart Executive Chairman Stephen Bannon to form Cambridge Analytica, a firm dedicated to revolutionizing how election campaigns are run. Wylie told The Guardian that he clicked immediately with Bannon, Mercer and Mercer’s daughter Rebekah—even though Wylie considers himself a progressive, while the others couldn’t be more right wing. “She loved the gays,” he said of Rebekah Mercer. “So did Steve. He saw us as early adopters. He figured, if you can get the gays on board, everyone else will follow. It’s why he was so into the whole Milo [Yiannopoulos] thing.”
Cambridge Analytica gave him an opportunity to put his ideas into practice. In May 2017, an anonymous source—presumably Wylie himself, since he was still reluctant to go public—told Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr that the new technique was a variation on the old theme of “psyops … the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change.” Working at Cambridge Analytica, the source went on, “was like working for MI6. Only it’s MI6 for hire. It was very posh, very English, run by an old Etonian and you got to do some really cool things. Fly all over the world. You were working with the president of Kenya or Ghana or wherever. It’s not like election campaigns in the west. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit.”
Wylie continued to sing the micro-targeting tune even after parting ways with Cambridge Analytica in mid-2014. In January 2016, for instance, he approached Vote Leave, the London-based group heading up the Brexit campaign to leave the European Union, with a proposal to “harvest online and social data” in order “to predict personality and psychological traits of individual voters.” When the group turned him down, the ever-upbeat Wylie said he was “always happy to chat” about such techniques should similar circumstances ever arise.
That was the old Christopher Wylie. The new one is 180 degrees different. Rather than a new breed of campaign strategists, he now maintains, Cambridge Analytica is “a full-service propaganda machine” that believes that “if you can control all the streams of information around your opponent, you can influence how they perceive that battle space and you can then influence how they’re going to behave and react.” Rather than a way of fine-tuning political messaging, micro-targeting is now a means of destroying society by smashing it into bits.
“Instead of standing in the public square and saying what you think and then letting people come and listen to you and have that shared experience as to what that narrative is,” he said in his March video interview with The Guardian, “you are whispering into the ear of each and every voter. … We risk fragmenting society in a way where we don’t have any more shared experiences and we don’t have any more shared understanding. If we don’t have any more shared understanding, how can we be a functioning society?”
It’s a good question. But why would Wylie suddenly repudiate ideas that he had spent years advancing? Was it the shock of seeing Brexit pass in June 2016? Was it Donald Trump’s no less surprising victory five months later? Or was it his newfound alliance with the anti-Russian, anti-Brexit Guardian? As he told a parliamentary committee in London: “2016 was where I started looking at what this company was actually doing in the United States and, you know, coming to appreciate that the projects that I was working on may have had a much wider impact than I initially anticipated it would. And after Donald Trump got inaugurated, very shortly after that, that’s when I started working with Carole at The Guardian on reporting some of the things the company was doing. So for the spring on, I was one of her key sources anonymously until we could figure out a legal position that would allow me to come forward.”
Unable to drum up business with the Vote Leave campaign, in other words, he perked up when approached by Cadwalladr and adjusted his message accordingly.
The Guardian, for its part, touted the firm’s abilities in a way that would make the most gung-ho salesperson blush. Cambridge Analytica was not just another bunch of campaign advisers. No, Cadwalladr wrote, it was at the center of “one of the most profoundly unsettling” stories of our time, one involving Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants. “Brexit and Trump are entwined. The Trump administration’s links to Russia and Britain are entwined. And Cambridge Analytica is one point of focus through which we can see all these relationships in play[.]”
“There are three strands to this story,” Cadwalladr continued. “How the foundations of an authoritarian surveillance state are being laid in the U.S. How British democracy was subverted through a covert, far-reaching plan of coordination enabled by a U.S. billionaire. And how we are in the midst of a massive land grab for power by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested and stored. Whoever owns this data owns the future.”
Cue the ominous background music. Today, we have Cambridge Analytica. Tomorrow, the world.
The reality is a good deal more mundane. Before the story broke, Dave Karpf, an assistant professor at George Washington University, was pointing out that micro-targeting suffered from a fatal flaw: the need to craft ever more specialized messages for all those infinitesimal groups. Since such appeals are not cost free, any campaign that uses such techniques will find itself expending more and more energy to reach smaller and smaller audiences. As Karpf puts it:
The more segments a campaign creates within a voter universe, the more distinct messages that campaign has to develop, test, and refine. Even if Cambridge Analytica correctly assigned every American to one of its 32 psychographic categories AND linked those profiles to a national voter file, the data would only become useful if the Trump communications operation was crafting distinct messages for each of the categories.
Few campaigns have the resources to engage in such a massive operation, least of all the bare-bones and chaotic Trump campaign in 2016.
Indeed, Karpf notes that Cambridge Analytica now seems to be edging away from micro-targeting. As digital director Molly Schweikert observed in a post-election analysis, the company assisted the Trump campaign by “going into the field on a weekly basis to collect large amounts of direct hard ID responses.” This entailed “thousands of responses coming in from battleground states through which we were able to score individuals on a few key things … [such as] candidate preference … the particular issues they cared about … and also their likelihood to turn out.” [Quote begins at 18:25.]
Cambridge Analytica, in other words, was doing what campaigns have long done, which is to knock on doors and ask people what they think. These are techniques that the Obama campaign raised to new heights in 2008. Says Karpf: “Rather than bragging about a new leap forward in voter targeting, Schweickert is effectively boasting that the Republicans have caught up to the Democrats.”
“You get a lot of snake oil like this in data work,” one Trump campaign consultant observed. No less skeptical was Trump himself. “I’ve always felt it was overrated,” he said of such high-powered techniques.
So where does that leave us? The answer is with a “vaporware” salesman, to use Karpf’s term, locked in an illicit relationship with an equally vapid press—in other words, with old-fashioned hype raised to a new order of magnitude. The more Wylie and Cadwalladr take their horror show on the road, the more people will be persuaded that Facebook must be censored and Russia contained.
In the U.K., the immediate goal for anti-Brexiteers is to invalidate the 2016 referendum and pave the way for a new one. In the U.S., it’s to discredit the 2016 election by showing how it was distorted by outside manipulation and pave the way for ousting Trump.
As much as people might like to see Trump go, they should realize that the price is an increasingly distorted view of Russia as the new Nazi Germany and hence an increasingly feverish push for war.
Not so long ago, observers regarded the prospect of a U.S.-Russian military clash as far-fetched. But thanks to Syria, Salisbury, et al., it’s now all too real.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal pales in comparison to The Guardian scandal and that of the rest of the pro-war press, which is the scariest scandal of them all.