I’ve just been reading Carole Cadwalladr’s excellent journalism on the subject of Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica, and the Brexit and Trump votes. You can see the articles here and here. They’re chilling, and upsetting, and important.
At some level, what Cambridge Analytica is doing is something familiar: propaganda. It’s different in two respects, though: one, it’s targeted at the people most vulnerable to it, and two, it’s crafted especially to trigger their vulnerabilities. So instead of trying to find a message that you can spread all over the airwaves to convince everyone of your message, you find the voters at the margin, who are undecided, find the segment of them that you can sway, and then you find just what emotional buttons to push to sway them. Because you can automate so much of this, it becomes much more cost effective. It also has the added advantage of never showing your message to people who might get polarized away from your goal by it.
Another important factor here is that people can be targeted because of the amount of data we’re just casually throwing off in our day-to-day lives now. Every time you use the internet (and remember, “using the internet” now includes things like buying something with a card, or with a loyalty program), go by a security camera, or more, you leave a footprint that contributes to a shockingly holistic image of your behavior. We have techniques these days to turn that image into a predictive model, and guess with good accuracy whether you are someone who can be swayed.
But this is something we can combat. Education is always the first and best bulwark against propaganda. Critical thinking is like a memetic immune system, allow you to expose yourself to ideas without uncritically absorbing them, and being colonized by them.
That’s all well and good, but what’s scary about Cambridge Analytica, and its ilk, is that they can target the weakest. It’s a basic principle of security that you are only as secure as your weakest point. You can lock the doors as much as you want, but at a certain point, an intruder will come in through the windows.
So what do we do?
I don’t really know, but I know that whatever we do has to have two dimensions: in the social space, there’s educating the public, to bring up the most vulnerable; and in the technical space, there’s starving the propagandists of data. Helping more people, and especially the most vulnerable, be digital ghosts is a vital task.