“Ethical Markets highly recommends this article on Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Silicon Valley’s similar business models! Watch our upcoming TV show “Social Media in the Crosshairs” at www.ethicalmarkets.tv
Even Mark Zuckerberg is calling regulation of Facebook, since the complexities of trying to govern such a monster company, more powerful than many countries, cannot be left to young Silicon Valley coders and internet entrepreneurs!
~Hazel Henderson, Editor“
“The man with the proper imagination is able to conceive of any commodity in such a way that it becomes an object of emotion to him and to those to whom he imparts his picture, and hence creates desire rather than a mere feeling of ought.”
—Walter Dill Scott, Influencing Men in Business: Psychology of Argument and Suggestion (1911)
This week, Cambridge Analytica, the British election data outfit funded by billionaire Robert Mercer and linked to Steven Bannon and President Donald Trump, blew up the news cycle. The charge, as reported by twin exposés in the New York Times and the Guardian, is that the firm inappropriately accessed Facebook profile information belonging to 50 million people and then used that data to construct a powerful internet-based psychological influence weapon. This newfangled construct was then used to brainwash-carpet-bomb the American electorate, shredding our democracy and turning people into pliable zombie supporters of Donald Trump.
In the words of a pink-haired Cambridge Analytica data-warrior-turned-whistleblower, the company served as a digital armory that turned “Likes” into weapons and produced “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.”
Scary, right? Makes me wonder if I’m still not under Cambridge Analytica’s influence right now.
Naturally, there are also rumors of a nefarious Russian connection. And apparently there’s more dirt coming. Channel 4 News in Britain just published an investigation showing top Cambridge Analytica execs bragging to an undercover reporter that their team uses high-tech psychometric voodoo to win elections for clients all over the world, but also dabbles in traditional meatspace techniques as well: bribes, kompromat, blackmail, Ukrainian escort honeypots—you know, the works.
It’s good that the mainstream news media are finally starting to pay attention to this dark corner of the internet —and producing exposés of shady sub rosa political campaigns and their eager exploitation of our online digital trails in order to contaminate our information streams and influence our decisions. It’s about time.
But this story is being covered and framed in a misleading way. So far, much of the mainstream coverage, driven by the Times and Guardian reports, looks at Cambridge Analytica in isolation—almost entirely outside of any historical or political context. This makes it seem to readers unfamiliar with the long history of the struggle for control of the digital sphere as if the main problem is that the bad actors at Cambridge Analytica crossed the transmission wires of Facebook in the Promethean manner of Victor Frankenstein—taking what were normally respectable, scientific data protocols and perverting them to serve the diabolical aim of reanimating the decomposing lump of political flesh known as Donald Trump.
So if we’re going to view the actions of Cambridge Analytica in their proper light, we need first to start with an admission. We must concede that covert influence is not something unusual or foreign to our society, but is as American as apple pie and freedom fries. The use of manipulative, psychologically driven advertising and marketing techniques to sell us products, lifestyles, and ideas has been the foundation of modern American society, going back to the days of the self-styled inventor of public relations, Edward Bernays. It oozes out of every pore on our body politic. It’s what holds our ailing consumer society together. And when it comes to marketing candidates and political messages, using data to influence people and shape their decisions has been the holy grail of the computer age, going back half a century.
Let’s start with the basics: What Cambridge Analytica is accused of doing—siphoning people’s data, compiling profiles, and then deploying that information to influence them to vote a certain way—Facebook and Silicon Valley giants like Google do every day, indeed, every minute we’re logged on, on a far greater and more invasive scale.
What Cambridge Analytica is accused of doing, Facebook and Silicon Valley giants like Google do every day, indeed, every minute we’re logged on.
Today’s internet business ecosystem is built on for-profit surveillance, behavioral profiling, manipulation and influence. That’s the name of the game. It isn’t just Facebook or Cambridge Analytica or even Google. It’s Amazon. It’s eBay. It’s Palantir. It’s Angry Birds. It’s MoviePass. It’s Lockheed Martin. It’s every app you’ve ever downloaded. Every phone you bought. Every program you watched on your on-demand cable TV package.
All of these games, apps, and platforms profit from the concerted siphoning up of all data trails to produce profiles for all sorts of micro-targeted influence ops in the private sector. This commerce in user data permitted Facebook to earn $40 billion last year, while Google raked in $110 billion.
What do these companies know about us, their users? Well, just about everything.
Silicon Valley of course keeps a tight lid on this information, but you can get a glimpse of the kinds of data our private digital dossiers contain by trawling through their patents. Take, for instance, a series of patents Google filed in the mid-2000s for its Gmail-targeted advertising technology. The language, stripped of opaque tech jargon, revealed that just about everything we enter into Google’s many products and platforms—from email correspondence to Web searches and internet browsing—is analyzed and used to profile users in an extremely invasive and personal way. Email correspondence is parsed for meaning and subject matter. Names are matched to real identities and addresses. Email attachments—say, bank statements or testing results from a medical lab—are scraped for information. Demographic and psychographic data, including social class, personality type, age, sex, political affiliation, cultural interests, social ties, personal income, and marital status is extracted. In one patent, I discovered that Google apparently had the ability to determine if a person was a legal U.S. resident or not. It also turned out you didn’t have to be a registered Google user to be snared in this profiling apparatus. All you had to do was communicate with someone who had a Gmail address.