Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a US company, endorsed by Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD). President Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon is a board member of the company. And Trump’s main backer, Robert Mercer, is a key financier. During the EU referendum campaign in Britain, CA targeted over a million social media users. According to a prominent Leave.eu figure, it was CA technology that ensured a Brexit win.
In short, it’s all about persuading people, possibly without their knowledge, to act in a certain way or adopt certain attitudes. An ideal approach when it comes to influencing elections.
CA’s British-based parent company, SCL, offers a similar range of services. These include “behavioural microtargeting‘ – which it defines as “advanced data analytics, to identify groups of voters who share demographics, political beliefs and lifestyle, and use this insight to create unique messages designed to resonate with them”.
Again, very useful for election management.
It was the Yanks wot won it!
And Leave.eu financier Arron Banks seems pretty confident about why the Brexit result turned out the way it did:
interesting,since we deployed this technology in leave.eu we got unprecedented levels of engagement. 1 video 13m views. AI won it for leave https://t.co/mlB3TSyrSk
— Arron Banks (@Arron_banks) January 30, 2017
Brexit and the US players
To put all this into context, we need to look at the key players.
Firstly, Donald Trump’s campaign team paid CA more than $5m to help elect him as US president. Also, billionaire Trump adviser Robert Mercer partially finances CA. And Mercer is not only Trump’s main financial backer, but also funds Breitbart News; whose former Executive Chairman Steve Bannon (now Trump’s chief strategist) happens to be a board member of CA.
Importantly, it was Mercer who reportedly persuaded UKIP’s Nigel Farage that Leave.eu make use of CA’s services. Though it’s still unclear if Leave.eu declared these services to the Electoral Commission.
Voter manipulation and war propaganda
It’s noteworthy, too, that CA works on several British and US government defence projects in Asia, Europe and Latin America. These include “counter radicalisation, counter violent jihadism, and the reduction of recruitment into terrorist cells”. The implication being that there appears to be a link between war propaganda (sometimes referred to as ‘psyops‘) and voter manipulation. In this respect, it’s interesting that the US and UK defence departments have “approved” the methodology of both CA and SCL:
Manufacturing election results
Swiss data activist Paul-Olivier Dehaye has commented on the CA and SCL methodology as follows:
Is it going to be used to try and manipulate people around domestic policies? Or to ferment conflict between different communities? It is potentially very scary. People just don’t understand the power of this data and how it can be used against them.
Noam Chomsky, meanwhile, famously coined the phrase ‘manufacturing consent‘ – the
Brexit and subverting the electorate
Powerful individuals can subvert democracy. And they can use modern technology to support that subversion.
Arguably, Britain’s EU referendum was already manipulated through the use of lies and disinformation. But it now looks like outside forces may have also manipulated a section of the electorate; in unexpected 21st century ways. That raises some very serious questions about the state of Western democracies today.
Correction 3.10pm 2 March: This article originally referred to Steve Bannon as Breitbart’s “former Chief Editor”. He was actually its former Executive Chairman.
– Read more on Brexit.
Featured image via Flickr Creative Commons
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