Cambridge Analytica (CA) was caught red-handed by Channel 4. The rot is deep. Everyone pointed fingers at Alexander Nix, the now suspended CEO, and a few senior directors. Facebook is also on the spot. It seems to be just the tip of a great deception iceberg.
This has been happening for decades, for humans seem to be quite predictable. The big data and social media tools have just accelerated the process and made it more wicked, not only in politics and campaign management but also in the use and misuse of data for psychological manipulation and exploitation of unsuspecting users.
Kimberly Mureithi, a bright and perceptive law student, says that an intelligent look at Cambridge Analytica’s profile reveals that it was in the business of deception and psychological manipulation.
CA said so, but put it nicely. It was a consulting firm that combined data mining and data analysis with “strategic communication for the election process and consumer advertising”.
To truly comprehend how the firm worked one must understand the correlation between personality traits and political behaviour. The late American journalist Andrew Breitbart said ‘’politics is downstream from culture, to change politics you need to change perceptions’’. How does one do this?
MICROTARGETING AND PSYCHOLOGICAL TARGETING
I interviewed Olivia Njoroge, another sharp law student, who is quite conversant with IT and law. She explains that Cambridge Analytica was created to combine the tactic of microtargeting the electorate, which already existed in politics, and psychographic profiling.
CA obtained its data through Global Science Research (GSR), a Cambridge University firm led by Aleksandr Kogan. Kogan was the best source because he already had apps on Facebook with special permissions that could harvest data from Facebook users.
They created an online survey called ‘This Is Your Digital Life’, where they paid people to take the survey. This survey could not only access the Facebook users’ data but was also equipped at grabbing data from the users’ friends’ networks.
Olivia explains that GRS accessed over 50 million Facebook profiles in a space of three months. This was done without their knowledge or consent. Facebook became aware of this in 2015 and lukewarmly asked Kogan and Cambridge Analytica to destroy the data they had mined but did not follow up on this.
Olivia concludes that Cambridge Analytica was built on algorithms that were created from the data obtained from the profiles. These algorithms allowed the firm to know what kind of messaging potential voters were susceptible to, including details such as the framing of the message, the tone, content and which forum they should post it on.
The firm went out of its way to create websites and blogs, and set up teams of people specialised in disseminating these messages that could lure voters and change how they think.
On March 18, 2018, Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, and Shahmir Sanni, a volunteer for Team BeLeave went on record to The Guardian to reveal what was termed “The great British Brexit robbery”.
Cambridge Analytica, through affiliates SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories) and AIQ (Aggregate IQ), engaged in a plan to swing Britain’s EU membership referendum. The British Observer also reports the firm participated in a master plan to bypass strict electoral spending limits, which is the heart of British parliamentary democracy.
This was done through forming BeLeave, which promoted progressive trends such as “BeLeave, For decades the EU policies have driven African farmers deeper into poverty” targeted at the youth. The campaign was working with Team Leave but stated it was “separate” to account for overspending, thus cheating the British electoral system.
In the 2016 US presidential elections, Wylie told The Guardian how he made Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon’s “psychological warfare tool”.
Kimberly explains that this was done by data-mining illegally obtained data. Then developing a predictive data model to identify, engage and persuade voters through behavioural influence, such as showing how conservatives responded positively to slogans such as “drain the swamp” or “deep state”.
It seems the firm also “reached out” to WikiLeaks to help distribute Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails, instigating investigations on Clinton that led to voter suppression and voter apathy.
On Kenya, Britain’s Channel 4 exposed Managing Director Mark Turnbull taking credit for the 2013 and 2017 rebranding of the Jubilee campaign, which manipulated ethnic sentiments in crude ways.
A young lawyer and writer, Michelle Ondili, says that so far no legal action has been taken against Cambridge Analytica in Kenya, but anything could happen because our Elections Act identifies the use of a fraudulent device, trick or deception that coerces voter decisions as an offence. However, Kenya has no regulation whatsoever on data mining.
Strathmore’s CIPIT (Centre for Intellectual Property and Technology Law) did a survey late last year and found that a high proportion of young voters “received texts via short messaging service (SMS) from candidates vying for various political seats during the campaign period of the elections.”
FALSE TRIBAL NARRATIVES
The research established that “these SMS texts were allegedly accurate as to where the individuals were voting and to some extent, their political inclinations.”
Reuters and Channel 4 mention Cambridge Analytica as the mastermind of the video “Raila 2020: Raila suspends the constitution” that fed tribal propaganda entrenching false tribal stereotypes.
This allegedly played a crucial role in voter turnout and cementing false tribal narratives and instilling fear into the people. This could also explain the low turnout in the repeat election, after the “Raila threat” had dissipated.
On social media, Wylie further told The Guardian, he engineered a plan to harvest over 50 million Facebook profiles in the US, to use their private information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles.
Unknowingly, Facebook users believed slogans such as ‘connecting people’ and took personality surveys. The New York Times and the British Observer report the master plan was to illegally use Dr Aleksander Kogan’s academic research granted by Facebook to study profiles.
Facebook, through their CEO and COO, has since apologised for failing to protect their users’ data. However, what we have seen so far may only be the tip of the iceberg.
As a general trend across jurisdictions, information can only be used with the user’s consent and for the purpose for which it was obtained. We, the naïve users, tick the box of “I agree” with a policy we have never read. Then we thump our chests when our data is used without our ‘knowledge’. We tick what we don’t know.
Kimberly strongly feels that Cambridge Analytica’s actions reveal the danger of data mining to deceive and manipulate “we the people”, undermining free choice and subverting democracy.
The European Union had already sensed this danger and in 2016 they passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which regulates data protection and privacy for all individuals within the European Union.
The GDPR will enter into force in two months’ time, on May 25. It addresses the “export of personal data outside the EU. It aims to give control back to citizens and residents over their personal data.”
It would be naïve to tear our garments. What is happening is not new in marketing and politics. Every political candidate also does it at every election. The choice of colours, every speech and every smile are carefully studied and analysed. Also in marketing, just look at the ads on your Google page…they are all targeted.
LACK OF AUTHENTICITY
Cambridge Analytica’s biggest mistake was to betray the last bit of ethics left in our modern society, ‘authenticity’.
Lack of authenticity is intolerable and unforgivable. It seems to be the only real sin left in today’s world. We have lost the moral compass for everything else except for what is unauthentic.
It is sad, but social media users may insult each other, use coarse words, post indecent pictures…and we seem to accept all the trash for as long as it looks authentic.
The same people who tear their garments today, are the ones who suspended Alexander Nix. They are the same who celebrated him as a great CEO and kept him in the job since 2013, when the company was founded.
Cambridge Anaytica is a child of our times. Times of deception when the only objective value has become profit maximisation…and it must be achieved at any cost, even through deception, lies, and possibly, murder.
Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi