Cambridge Analytica: Marketing for Post-Democracy?

Communication techniques in politics (marketing and advertising) are becoming increasingly targeted. Online political marketing is now increasingly individualised and tailored for individual voters based on their political preferences, ideals, and values and, no doubt, fears. So far, so relatively mundane, possibly. That is until, inevitably, someone comes along and finds out a way to manipulate all the mass data available online to such a point where they may be able to malignly influence prospective voters’ opinions on a grand scale. A kind of mass digital Orwellianism, to use a well worn cliché.

Polish psychologist Michal Kosinski has pioneered a psychological technique based on people’s Facebook activity, what they like and so on. Kosinski has devised a personality test along the lines of what has become known in psychometrics as the Big Five test or OCEAN: openness to new experiences and readiness to non-conventional ideas; Conscientiousness, organisational attentiveness and attention to detail; Extraversion, how socially assertive you are; agreeableness, relating to characteristics such as kindness, compassion and willingness to co-operate; and neuroticism, dealing with stress and anxiety. Typical questions are answered by ticking three choices: accurate, inaccurate and neutral. Questions include: I have frequent mood swings, I respect others, I enjoy hearing new ideas, and I believe in the importance of art, and so on.

Although the answers are of course subjective it is claimed that from this information a reasonably accurate picture can be built that tells us about individual’s personality traits-whether they are driven predominately by fear or curiosity for instance. Such tests are obviously open to our own cloudy subjective biases-both positive and negative, which can and surely must up to a point distort the test results. Nevertheless it is claimed that OCEAN provides reasonably accurate and reliable if limited results.

When the data is cleaned up it is claimed an accurate and fairly predictive picture emerges of a person’s political leanings, attitudes, and, again, of the utmost significance, their fears. Then a type of sentiment analysis (the identification & extraction of subjective information from text, also known as opinion mining)is used to compile a database profile of millions of voter’s preferences. To boil it down, Kosinski developed a method of analysing people’s behaviour down to the smallest detail by looking closely at their Facebook activity.

But what happens when companies take this relatively harmless type of psychological testing and turn it into mass ‘political marketing’ to affect very different ends from what was originally intended? Utilise it in other words to sway and influence electorate behaviour with a breadth, scope and capacity unthinkable up until a few years ago. Fantasy of fiction? Both probably. We live in a world of deeply complex ambiguity after all.

For a few years now masses of consumer and behavioral data, open sources such as social media sites, have been collected and collated by large communications companies-self styled ‘leading pioneers in political technology’. This new revolution in marketing is driven by use of big data to develop psychographic profiles, testing psychological traits in other words.

Three technologies are used to do everything from predicting what you buy and watch online to nudge you to vote for certain candidates in elections: behavioural science (behavioural communications), data analytics and addressable ad technology. In other words it is microtargetting both consumers and citizens voting in elections. Take this YouTube video of a presentation by Alexander Nix, chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica, on the ‘power of big data and psychographics’, and ‘driving’ political behaviour-a euphemism if ever there was one. Self-generated hype? Probably. His shtick is obviously self promotion for himself and his company, and of course we don’t have to take completely seriously his studied marketing shtick on ‘individual data points’ and the ‘power’ of behavioural communication and psychographics to influence ‘target audiences’ and therefore political behaviour.

Yet still, the hype aside, the potential abuse of such technology is evidently disquieting. For a democracy to function properly citizens need access to as much information as possible, how else can they make informed decisions. They can’t make informed decisions if the narrow information that they are fed is micro-tailored specifically to their hopes, aspirations, and fears.

It’s true that conclusions drawn from big data may not be as precise as many companies would like us to believe. Statistical analysis is based on probabilities and doesn’t always accurately predict voting preferences. Moreover future actions do not always follow from past behaviours and present attitudes in other words, but often they do. More importantly, the methodology behind the science isn’t completely clear. Yet in a sense this isn’t the point.

Paralleling the history of democracy, there have been concerted and often successful attempts to influence and control public opinion to suit the ends of elite political and economic groups. Edward Bernays, the father of the modern public relations industry and a nephew of Sigmund Freud, clearly understood this in the early 20th century, just as bigmedia barons evidently do now.

In the U.S., millions of people have been fed on a diet of targeted propaganda and blatant misinformation by Fox News for years; many of those same people came out to vote in their droves for Trump. More importantly still, combine this with ‘politically driven’ microtargetting, however limited this ‘political technology’ may be for now, which of course it will not necessarily be in the future, and in the wrong hands you have a mixed bag of ‘influencing tools’ to use the jargon to sway voters one way or the other. So it is the technological potential of mass political microtargetting that really matters as techniques are increasingly perfected.

The point is this, microtargetting people based on their psychological profile to influence them to vote for a certain candidate only has to work on the margins for it to be effective-a targeted group in a tight constituency say. For instance, a subset of culturally conservative and authoritarian leaning white middle aged women or leftish leaning socially aware college graduates. For politicians it is a great tool, whatever message you think the public wants to hear, you give it to them. Correlation then does not always imply full causation, but that isn’t the point. As a marketing technique it only has to influence and sway a small but significant proportion of the targeted groups to have the intended effect. A future state, as complexity science tells us, can be highly influenced by small changes in the initial conditions in the previous state.

The message is not necessarily the medium then, it’s just the message or political promise, however vapid that message or political promise is or isn’t- and it has the potential to manipulate voter preferences on a grand scale.

Microtargetting on this scale embodies the technocratic ethos of neoliberalism: identify, measure, control. In this brave new world the only standard of value is market utility. Or if you consider the voter a consumer and your politician a brand, perhaps utility marketing is more apt. It also has the potential to be the ultimate technology in imposing atomised pro market values-controlling and influencing unsuspecting voters.

Technological Orwellian intrusion into our lives has become a tired and clichéd motif in recent years- a catch all phrase devoid of meaning because of overuse and misunderstanding. But what else describes this type of intrusive marketing and deceptive ‘political technology’: Kafkaesque, Machiavellian, or Huxleyian dystopia perhaps. Some argue that in terms of influencing elections we have already gone down the rabbit hole some way. Whatever you want to call it, potential dystopic technocracy might be more accurate-an intrusive technocratic technology for a technocratic politics you might say?

The real question however surely is this: does it have the potential to promote or subvert our democratic processes?

In our economically stagnating world, we are seeing populations lurch toward radical far right ideologies and autocratic leaders. So what happens if an unscrupulous demagogue decides to weaponise this type of technology in the future? The misuse and abuse of the social sciences, in particular psychology, for propagandistic ends has happened before. We must only read Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi to know where it ends.

Arendt warned us in the wake of WW II, after the persecution and industrial destruction of both European Jewry and the Roma and Sinti, of what happens to seemingly ordinary people-people just like me and you-when we are exposed to mass political manipulation for extreme causes and ideologies, and the very real and inevitable violence that follows. ‘We’ or ‘they’, depending on how you see it, become as Arendt put it as a result of this exposure quite literally ‘thoughtless’ in the face of injustise and oppression. That is we become incapable or unwilling to think for ourselves, and to understand the world from the point of view of the other-particularly if we have been primed to see the ‘other’ as either socially, racially, culturally or economically less than us. When this happens on a mass collective scale Arendt tells us that this thoughtlessness shields society, and individuals taking cover within society, against the reality and factuality of the violence happening all around it, by means of mass self-deception and lies.

The ‘Evil’ of totalitarian regimes as she saw it wasn’t carried out and enabled by demonic sociopaths but rather by bureaucratic and technocratic nonentities-the kind who ‘go along to get along’, to use a apt cliched and stock phrase. Adolf Eichmann was the classic nonentity which Arendt wrote about in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. When Arendt first saw him in the Jerusalem court in 1961 set up to try him of his crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people during the Holocaust, what struck her most of all about him was his mundane banality, his provincial mediocrity, his obedience to authority in pursuit of career prospects, and his intellectual incoherence-in total, his ‘banal’ ordinariness. Eichmann was Arendt wrote an ordinary Geheimnisträger-a ‘bearer of secrets’, just as everyone who was connected with the Final Solution or Endlösung was.

To be a Geheimnisträger was to know that the trains were being loaded, and that they were on time. It was to know that the smoke billowing out of the crematoria at Auschwitz contained tiny fragmented ashes of human bone and skin, and that in the name of a higher cause, outside of oneself, morally and in every other way, you could sleep sound at night knowing that you were merely a diligent node on a network of deliberate state murder. It was enough to do one’s duty, and to know also that that duty has been sanctioned by a higher authority-whether religious, ideological or political-to be absolved and cleansed of all personal and collective guilt and responsibility.

Eichmann wasn’t a ‘monster’ like Heydrich, the key architect of the Holocaust, Eichmann never actually killed anyone with his own hands, but rather he was merely an administrative penpusher who embodied and lived amoral values. ‘Evil’ in this capacity she said comes from a failure to think, to think ethically: to critically question all that we see around us with our eyes and minds wide open. Arendt was unequivocal in concluding that this was were the true horror lies. What made Eichmann so utterly terrifying was not his demonic iniquity, but just the very opposite in fact-it was his ‘demonic’ ordinariness that terrified Arendt, and it should also terrify us.

Photo used under creative commons 2.0

Yet one of the most unsettling things that we have to conclude from reading the Banality of Evil, amongst many, is that the same dynamic exists in modern democratic societies, if to a lesser extent. I’m sure the people who operate remote killing drones tell themselves that the resulting violence which follows from their actions is necessary, in the name of security and freedom, and decent career prospects.

Following on from this, it wouldn’t be difficuilt to ‘politically’ microtarget particular groups of people with fundamentalist and ideological belief systems, many of which have been primed by years of misinformation and blatant propaganda.

Belief systems held by groups which by their very nature reject criticism of what they perceive as their in-group, whether that in-group is racial, ethnic or political or a complex mix of all three. Groups which employ rigid worldviews as a defence against the social, cultural, political and economic ambiguity and complexity of modern societies (and which defer to authority as respite from all of the above), and moreover are not open to counter-evidence on any range of these subjects. In fact the more fundamentalist beliefs are challenged, and threatened from the perspective of the person holding these beliefs, the more resistant their collective value systems become.

It wouldn’t be difficult for an authoritarian demagogue to manipulate such groups for political gain, history is replete with examples. Only this time it could be done more secretly, under the radar. To make this happen it is only necessary, as Umberto Eco said in his essay Making an Enemy, for demagogues to invent a plausible enemy, or two. And the enemy must always be different as Eco pointed, and the epitome of difference is the foreigner, or refugees these days. Next step, reduce all complex problems to media sound bites, clichés, dogmas, stereotypes and propagate simple one dimensional solutions to all problems-flatten out complexity. Just as importantly, eliminate ambiguity in all political and social affairs-the 101 of all embryonic Fascism. There can be no place for pluralism or rational doubt. There must only be one overarching explanation for everything-all criticism therefore is by definition bad. For this, witness the current war on climate science; witness the demonisation of immigrants and refugees and; witness the wilful disregard for facts and evidence. Step three and four? We know where that goes.

The mass marketing of individualised political microtargetting throws into sharp relief the growing uneven power relations between those with the technical knowhow and those without. Crucially, it also has the very real potential to subvert the democratic will. But moreover, the purpose of this article is not to collapse the complexity of political events into simplistic conspiracy, rather it is to probe and ask questions in this the era of ‘alternative facts’ and supposedly alternative realities. There are no alternative facts of course, neither are there alternative realities. There is only what we choose to see clearly in front of our eyes.

So have we reached post democracy yet? Or even post-post-democracy? Where the institutions of democracy have become hollowed out shells, and the real power now resides firmly not with the people but elsewhere. Not yet. Not quite.

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