The news broke over the weekend, confirming everyone’s worst fears. The 2016 election of Trump and the Brexit vote were indeed engineered by one firm, Cambridge Analytica, which used millions of facebook profiles to build, then manipulate, psychological profiles of voters ready to be led like sheep.
It’s terrifying. It’s everything George Orwell warned us about. And it may be completely legal.
The story of Christopher Wylie broke first in the Guardian and ran in a series of articles. The complexity of his work and its implications make it very hard to piece together exactly what happened and when. What we do know is this – the surprising electoral results of Brexit and Trump were both engineered by a massive new tool which used facebook profiles to target voters very precisely.
This is not exactly new. During the election it was know that this was happening, and the techniques have been employed by retail companies for years. Anyone with access to facebook data can build predictive behavior profiles for millions of users and target them very specifically. There is no need for mass manipulation – it’s done one person at a time.
As it stands now, there may be nothing in place to stop it.
If anyone broke the law, it may have been facebook. Most states have privacy laws which require users to be notified as to how their data will be used. This is in the privacy agreement which nobody reads. Research is in there, but not elections. Further, if there was a security breach, defined as a breach of that agreement, facebook is obliged by privacy laws in various states to inform the users that this occurred. They did not.
It is also known that facebook staff was placed inside many political campaigns, meaning that there was direct action by agents of facebook at all levels of this operation.
There is a possibility that through investigations so far various people have lied to the UK Parliament and the US Congress about the role and status of this information. For example, Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica told Congress that the data was obtained properly and has since been deleted, which it was not. This implies that he thought something needed to be covered up, but what exactly?
Left unsaid so far is the relationship between the information on all of these profiles and the footsoldiers of the cyberwar, the Russian Troll Farms. Exactly what information they had at their disposal and how it worked alongside the direct targeting of individuals by the campaign is unclear. This is the area that might easily cross over into violation of election laws and may be what makes Cambridge Analytica staff nervous.
In fact, the “smoking gun” of the Mueller investigation might be right in front of you. It might be your facebook profile.
As of right now, we have a situation very similar to the one that every campaign faces. There is far too much data and it is very poorly organized. It will take someone very different from Christopher Wylie to bring it focus and make sense of it. A story has not yet been laid out and examined by lawyers to see whether anything illegal took place.
What we do know is that a massive operation using the same targeting methods employed by retailers successfully sold facebook users on political positions and candidates. They were energized to go vote or turned off from politics entirely. At some point, the process broke away from convention and disinformation fed into voters fantasies and fears.
This is what politics has become. You change the culture first and the politics follows. Culture, itself, is a matter of mindset and values which can be manipulated and sold. Thus the Culture War becomes a Cyber War.
Many links were provided to long and detailed articles that have more information. Consider this a summary and commentary rather than anything comprehensive. Follow the links for more information.