This is the second part of a three-part series. Read part one here.
It happens to the best of us. You’re on Facebook when, in your feed, you are confronted with a question, simple yet provocative, and your imagination begins to run wild. “It’s a fair question,” you say aloud. “Which Beatle am I, really?”
Social media feeds are littered with quizzes which ask you a series of multiple choice questions. Hit “submit” and you find out what kind of person you are, be it via an IQ score, a Myers-Briggs style personality type, or a match to some archetypal figure from fiction or pop culture.
It’s harmless fun. Except, of course, for the danger such things pose to you, your friends, and a functional democracy.
First off, quizzes and other 3rd party social media apps are a significant privacy risk, prompting the Better Business Bureau to warn consumers “to be careful with IQ tests, quizzes and other content designed to get you to click on links or provide personal information” because many “can do more damage than cluttering up your Facebook feed. Some of them contain viruses that can damage your computer, while others are phishing scams that attempt to steal sensitive personal information such as credit card or bank account numbers.”
But beyond making yourself and your contacts vulnerable to viruses or identity theft, you are also allowing yourself to be profiled, with staggering accuracy, by people who want to manipulate you.
Meet Cambridge Analytica
Back in 1990, a man named Nigel Oakes, “a British national who calls himself ‘a pioneer in the field of Influence and Soft Power,'” founded a research facility called BDI, or the Behavioral Dynamics Institute. Oakes, who had a background in television and advertising, was interested in mass behavior and opinion-swaying, believing that incorporating psychological and anthropological academic insights would ultimately yield a more efficient means of targeting consumers than the traditional advertising.
Three years later, Oakes founded SCL, or Strategic Communication Laboratories, and BDI became a non-profit affiliate. SCL began as a commercially-centered firm, but they soon branched out and began working with political and military groups, providing “services ranging from military disinformation campaigns to social media branding and voter targeting.” SCL has “boasted of its ability to help foment coups” in developing countries.” “In the course of the years they have been financed, taught or implemented by the Pentagon, NATO and the defense ministries of Canada, the UK, Norway, the Ukraine and Moldova,”and have operated in South Africa, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nepal, and India, among others.” Their intentionally vague website once included “a ‘voter-suppression’ project in Nigeria,” among its contracts, but all trace of this was subsequently removed and SCL now claims to have never worked to suppress voters.
“In Latvia, SCL said it ran a campaign in 2006 designed to stoke tensions between Latvians and ethnic Russian residents.” According to documents seen by Bloomberg, SCL says it helped a candidate in Trinidad by spraying graffiti slogans that appeared to be the work of young Trinidadians. ‘The client was then able to ‘adopt’ related policies and be credited for responding to the needs of a “united youth.”
It’s a propaganda machine, pure and simple, but true to form for any self-respecting propagandists, they don’t use the word and are dismissive of such implications. They prefer the terms, “public diplomacy,” “influence operations,” and “psychological warfare.”
In 2012, SCL created a subsidiary called Cambridge Analytica (CA) with the sole purpose of becoming involved in U.S. election campaigns. It was involved in 44 campaigns in 2014, and was contracted by Ted Cruz during the Republican Primaries. Cruz, who is one of the most universally reviled politicians in the country, loathed even by fellow Republicans, went from having little hope of winning to being a front runner.
CA is funded in large part by a man named Robert Mercer, a former IBM computer scientist with a background in early artificial intelligence and the CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a multi billion-dollar hedge fund.
Mercer, so uber conservative that his views would make your drunken racist uncle blush, is also extremely aggressive in his political influence. He’s donated around $45 million dollars to conservative campaigns over the last seven years, another $50 million to conservative non-profits, is a former member of the Koch brothers donor network, has given ample sums to the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Citizens United Foundation, the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, and the Media Research Center; those last two have his daughter Rebekah Mercer as a board member. Rebekah Mercer also directs the Government Accountability Institute (which she founded with Steve Bannon, who served as chairman, and which was funded by the Mercer Family Foundation). “Clinton Cash,” the book written by GAI’s president, based on conspiracy theories unearthed by GAI’s deep web spelunkers, was later produced as a film by Steve Bannon and Rebekah Mercer for the Glittering Steel film company, founded, of course, by the Mercers and Bannon.
But wait there’s more! Mercer is the leading contributor to the Make America #1 Super Pac (directed by, you guessed it, Rebekah Mercer). His family foundation also heavily contributes to myriad conservative causes. Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer founded Reclaim New York, a watchdog group. Steve Bannon was once the vice-chairman of that.
Shortly after his inauguration, Donald Trump assembled members of the press and called them “liars,” “out of control,” and informed them that the “public doesn’t believe [them] any more.” He called CNN “very fake news… story after story is bad,” and had similar spite for the BBC. That night, Guardian journalist Carol Cadwalladr typed “Media is…” into Google. “And there it was,” she writes. “Google’s autocomplete suggestions: ‘mainstream media is… dead, dying, fake news, fake, finished’. Is it dead, I wonder? Has FAKE news won?” She clicked on the first link suggested by Google and was presented with “an article: ‘The Mainstream media are dead.’ They’re dead, I learn, because they… ‘cannot be trusted’.” She wondered at how this “obscure site,” heretofore unknown to her, had “dominated Google’s search algorithm on the topic?” The site was CNS News. Funded by? You guessed it; the Mercer Family Foundation.
The question of how CNS dominated the algorithm is a complex one. An array of factors contributes, such as use of specific keywords, image use, domain name, headers and so forth. SEO, or search engine optimization, is almost an art form. But where sites like CNS may be getting most of their boost is in back links.
When site A links to site B, site B benefits in terms of how highly it is ranked by a search engine. If enough sites link back to site B, it could very well end up on the first page of Google’s search results.
Jonathan Albright, a communications professor at Elon University, researched right-wing news sites. “I took a list of these fake news sites that was circulating,” he told the Guardian. “I had an initial list of 306 of them and I used a tool – like the one Google uses – to scrape them for links and then I mapped them. So I looked at where the links went – into YouTube and Facebook, and between each other, millions of them… and I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
What he was seeing turned out to be over 23,000 web pages and 1.3 million hyperlinks that “have created a web that is bleeding through on to our web… a vast system of hundreds of different sites that are… sending out thousands of links to other sites and together this has created a vast satellite system of rightwing news and propaganda that has completely surrounded the mainstream media system.” Albright likens this to a virus, surrounding and overwhelming legitimate cells, and believes social media has exacerbated the problem, calling Facebook an “amplification device.” Right-wing news outlets like CNS benefit greatly from this web around the web that is “surrounding and actually choking the mainstream news ecosystem.”
The Mercer-funded CNS, despite slogans about balance and eschewing spin, has a “strong conservative bias with wording and story choices,” and features articles that “use questionable language,” such as “referring to blacks as thugs.”
They’re not Mercer’s biggest success story on the news front. In 2011, he invested $11 million in Breitbart, the controversial alt-right “news” outlet run by (ahem, drink up) Steve Bannon. In February of 2017, it was confirmed that the Mercers are the co-owners of Breitbart.
While wearing these many hats, Rebekah Mercer “urges campaigns and clients who want her father’s funding to hire [the] data firm… Cambridge Analytica.” By the way, guess who was a Vice President and secretary of the board of Cambridge Analytica? Surprise, surprise, it’s our old disheveled pal Steve Bannon.
All of this creates a web as dizzying as that formed by the network of right-wing news sites and their hyperlinks. Foundations feeding into news outlets feeding into private companies feeding into super pacs, all back-linking to Bannon or daughter Mercer or daddy Mercer. And it sheds some interesting light on Cambridge Analytica’s role in the election. Though they claim to be non-partisan, CA has not taken a single left-leaning client. They are in fact a weapon for the right, engaging in “psychological warfare” against those who don’t lean that way. And it’s clear that Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer don’t see this as solely a domestic war.
Mercer’s conservative views extend beyond the United States; he also strongly supported Brexit. To aid the move to sway the British public to support the withdrawal from the EU, Mercer donated the services of Cambridge Analytica to Nigel Farage, a vocal critic of the EU and chief advocate of Brexit, and Leave.eu. Cambridge Analytica “is said to have advised Leave.eu by harvesting data from people’s Facebook profiles to decide how to target them with individualised advertisements.”
Andy Wigmore, the communications director of leave.eu, has in several interviews confirmed that CA was instrumental in making Brexit a reality. “Cambridge Analytica had worked for them,” he said. It taught them “how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles.”
However, CA and Mercer himself have denied CA’s involvement in Brexit. That’s a bit odd, considering Wigmore’s comments, the widespread reporting on CA’s involvement, and the fact that this video…
…shows one of Cambridge Analytica/SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.eu’s “launch event.” The denial is possibly because “the electoral commission was not informed of Mr Mercer’s work” and in Britain, “all services worth more than £7,500 must be declared.”
Along Comes Donny
Back in the US, it had become clear that no amount of data mining and influence peddling could counteract the nausea induced by Ted Cruz’s greasy smile.
The Mercers, along with Bannon, threw in with Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica became a tool in Donald’s MAGA-maniacal blitzkrieg, and Robert Mercer made certain Trump had plenty of cash to funnel right back into CA’s coffers; Mercer was, in fact, Trump’s single largest donor, having personally contributed $13.5 million to the former reality television star’s presidential campaign.
Millions of dollars, Time magazine reported on May 18, 2017, were paid from a Pro-Trump Super Pac for Cambridge Analytica’s services. The money was sent to a “mysterious” address in California registered to Steve Bannon. In addition, the Trump campaign itself hired the firm and paid them millions more, apparently at the urging of Rebekah Mercer.
What did CA do in return for these fees? According to their site, “Cambridge Analytica provided the Donald J. Trump for President campaign with the expertise and intelligence that helped win the White House, causing the most remarkable victory in modern U.S. political history. Analyzing millions of data points, we consistently identified the most persuadable voters and the issues they cared about. We then sent targeted messages to them at key times in order to move them to action.”
If you ever noticed how often Trump seemed to contradict himself, or why he seemed to hammer home repeatedly some peculiarly-phrased sound bite, there may be a reason for that. Alexander Nix, CEO of CA, noted that “‘Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven,'” in an interview with Motherboard. “On the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump’s team tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook. The messages differed for the most part only in microscopic details, in order to target the recipients in the optimal psychological way: different headings, colors, captions, with a photo or video. This fine-tuning reaches all the way down to the smallest groups.” Nix added, somewhat chillingly, “‘We can address villages or apartment blocks in a targeted way. Even individuals.'”
Starting in July of last year, canvassers for the Trump campaign were equipped with an app, also used by Brexit canvassers, which provided them with information about “the political views and personality types of the inhabitants of a house.” They would avoid knocking on the doors of those deemed by the app to be unreceptive, and “came prepared with guidelines for conversations tailored to the personality type of the resident.”
In Little Haiti, a district in Miami, Clinton supporters were targeted with personalized news detailing the post-Earthquake failures of the Clinton Foundation in Haiti; elsewhere, videos aimed at African-Americans showed Clinton referring to black men as predators.
How accurate are these profiles, and where does the data come from? Check out this video of Jack Hansom of SCL Elections.
If you’re too drunk from all the Wild Turkey you’ve downed to click the link, here’s the gist: they have developed a means of profiling people, based solely on Facebook “likes” and with a level of accuracy greater than that of your coworkers, or, given enough “likes” to work with, your friends or family. Strangers, in other words, have developed an algorithm that allows them to know you better than the people to whom you feel the closest. Remember that these strangers are the ones who use the term “psychological warfare” to describe what they do. And this machine is fueled by personal information we willingly and routinely hand over.
What Hansom is saying, that’s true just using “likes.” Cambridge Analytica also “draws on personality surveys it has conducted by telephone, e-mail and social media since 2013.” They also scrape the web for public content on social media platforms and get data from other sources, such as purchasing it from data brokers. “Nix candidly explains how his company does this. First, Cambridge Analytica buys personal data from a range of different sources, like land registries, automotive data, shopping data, bonus cards, club memberships, what magazines you read, what churches you attend.” They bought from “globally active data brokers like Acxiom and Experian—in the US, almost all personal data is for sale.”
They’re armed with knowledge about what makes you tick, what pisses you off, what you’re willing to fight for, what you fear the most. And, yes, they know about you. “We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people,” Alexander Nix told Motherboard.
Wins all around, it would seem. Bannon, of course, is now Trump’s chief strategist in the White House. Breitbart has been legitimized by Trump and its “journalists” are often given preferential placement at press conferences. Rebekah Mercer served on Trump’s transition team, and Cambridge Analytica began negotiating possible contracts to influence public reactions to policies. Robert Mercer will likely be rewarded for his service. One thing he wants is to abolish the IRS. This probably has nothing to do with the fact that his Renaissance Technologies hedge fund was found to have employed a “complicated banking method” as a “tax-avoidance scheme” and that the IRS is now demanding $7 billion or more in back taxes. The data farmed and collected and analyzed by CA during the election remains in their possession. What will it be used for next?
The FBI investigation into 2016 election tampering has led them to probe how complicit Breitbart was in the bot-dissemination of its biased articles, and congressional inquiries have expanded to look at the role of both Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica.
As for the rest of us? All day, every day, we share little pieces of a puzzle. Why we do it varies; maybe it’s to save 10% on shipping, or to have people like us more on social media, or because we really wonder whether this quiz will confirm that we’re more a Steve Rogers than a Tony Stark. If assembled, these disparate pieces form a detailed picture of who we are, what we believe, and what is most precious to us.
Two months ago, President Trump signed a congressional resolution repealing broadband privacy rules set at the twilight of the Obama administration. Those rules prohibited internet service providers from collecting, using and selling users’ personal information without consent. So far, most major providers like Verizon and Comcast have said they will not do so. But the door is open.
This week, Trump’s “voter integrity” commission requested “publicly available voter roll data” from all states and D.C. “However, the panel is also seeking sensitive information, including ‘dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information.'”
One cannot help but wonder whether this data would be made available to what is inevitable: CA’s involvement in the 2018 midterm elections, and the 2020 reelection run of Donald J. Trump.
Are we in the midst of a dangerous pivot? Has the dark web of money and power that surrounds the fabric of our nation corroded our venerable belief that privacy is essential to a functioning democracy? If so, what can we do against the force of all our own echoes, brought to bear against our opinions? What will we do when our data is honed and used to cut our throats?