Yesterday I booked a flight from Manchester to Belfast on the internet. Half an hour later I received on Facebook an advert for a guidebook to Belfast, from another seller entirely and entirely unsolicited. Not very serious, you might think, and indeed possibly helpful. (I won’t however be in Belfast long enough to need a guidebook.) This sort of thing has happened to me before, and also I imagine to everyone else. Once, googling the name ‘Mata Hari’ (the WWI spy – I was writing about the Secret Services at the time) I was led to a Lesbian site – was she a Lesbian? not from what I know about her – which I quickly deleted, but which didn’t stop my being plagued with ‘Graphic Lesbian Sex videos’, from sources unknown to me, for weeks afterwards. Again, merely irritating. But it did set me wondering – rather later, I imagine, than most people – how widely, indiscriminately and possibly misleadingly this sort of information, innocently provided, might be being spread. And how potentially damaging, if it gets out to MI5, for example, or the government, or the police, that I access Lesbian pornography.
It didn’t occur to me then that the technology that allows this could be used not only for marketing products, which is unsettling enough, but also to influence ‘democratic’ elections. That’s what the recent Cambridge Analytica/Facebook revelations in the Observer and on Channel 4 are claiming (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election). Cambridge’s algorithms were certainly used by Trump’s presidential campaign to corral and influence voters, and very likely played a part in Brexit’s referendum campaign. A Channel 4 TV programme last night even had the CEO of Cambridge Analytica boasting about its more devious weapons: honeytraps (with ‘beautiful Ukrainian girls’), ‘dirty tricks’, and disseminating fake news (‘it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true, only whether people believe it’). The CEO, incidentally, one Alexander Nix, is an Old Etonian, which, taken in conjunction with David Cameron and that inveterate liar Boris Johnson, also Old Etonians, must make us wonder what kinds of values our most prestigious Public School is instilling in its over-privileged pupils. As well as this, the genius behind the ‘app’ that gathers all this information, the Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan, is of Russian origin. Conspiracy theorists could have a ball with this. Historically Cambridge University and the Public Schools, after all, are no strangers to treachery. – But I wouldn’t want to run too far with that.
This clearly has implications for democracy. (You see why I put quotes around that word earlier on?) To work well, a democracy requires the public to have reliable information on which to base its decisions. We already know that our deplorable press in Britain does what it can to muddy and distort this information. (This is just one example: https://bernardjporter.com/2018/02/20/a-traitor-in-our-midst/.) Cambridge Analytica’s diabolically clever algorithms make this easier, and far less detectable. Voters are being presented with and selectively driven to fake news which panders to and confirms their existing prejudices, discovered by mining their Facebook profiles and their presence – even if just as customers – on other internet sites. That’s the original purpose of this technique. (It’s why I never seem to get Right-wing stuff channelled to me.) Of course we can’t measure the effectiveness of any of this precisely; but the fact that Trump’s election campaign engaged Cambridge Analytica at a cost of several million dollars obviously means they thought it was worth it. Which suggests that Cambridge’s subversive impact on American politics, and possibly on our own, if it turns out that the Brexit campaign made similar use of Cambridge Analytica, might have been considerable.
But it’s too late now, if we want to question the results of both of those campaigns. In a social and political environment in both countries in which sporting metaphors seem to have much more traction than any other, it would make us look like ‘bad losers’. ‘You lost. Get over it.’ The other great problem is that it seems to be doubting the intelligence of those who may have been influenced by these techniques. Those of us on the ‘Remain’ side of the argument often charge the Brexiteers with ‘stupidity’, which of course raises the latters’ hackles – and prejudices against ‘elites’ – no end. They insist that they were smart enough to learn the facts, and to distinguish between truth and propaganda. Tell them that much of the propaganda was so subtle as to be undetectable even by the brightest, and they still won’t give in. No-one likes to admit to having been fooled. So – in both America and Britain – we are saddled with disaster. The devil (educated at Eton) has won.