Law in the Internet Society

In Defence of Cambridge Analytica

-- By JakeTaylor - 08 Oct 2019


Unfortunately, Cambridge Analytica did not steal Brexit.

The leap from the intentional harvesting of user data and subsequent micro-targeting of voters, to the dishonest appropriation of an election, is a charge too far. No, what took place in 2016 is a symptom of something far more subversive.

Brexit remains the lifechanging, generation-transcending, constitution-breaking moment that ripped up the political playbook, rendered traditional political parties and their processes obsolete and has torn apart my friends and family. Nevertheless, the impact of Cambridge Analytica on this lived reality is limited, either to the narrow number of ‘persuadables’ or, as a seminal new study suggests, that it may have had little or no impact on voters.

To focus on the role of Cambridge Analytica and to revel in the satisfying conviction in the court of public opinion of Alexander Nix, is to miss the more terrifying present. The digital commodification of thoughts, ideas, anxieties and opinions leading to mass behavioural modification is already entrenched in the last remaining generation that was not born into it.

What Cambridge Analytica did “was much less important than how the media has portrayed it because… it was nothing shocking or radically unexpected,” The Cambridge Analytica story has laid bare the level of pervasiveness of Facebook’s (as well as other digital oligarchs’) data collection structure, but has not galvanized the necessary questioning of the impact of technology on the ability to formulate earnestly held political views.

The New Politician: September 26, 1960

Politics has changed. The advent of the heyday of television saw the initial seismic shift whereby it was no longer the idea or the politic that mattered, it was the messenger. The United States led; the world followed. Of the early Kennedy/Nixon debates, the late John Perry Barlow observed that “from that point on, the President of the United States become more a movie star than a leader, more myth than a manager, more affect than intellect”.

Television, or at least the classic conception of this medium, is increasingly redundant. This is only because television’s purpose or valuable currency - maintaining human attention, has been usurped by far more effective technology. Perry Barlow prophesized of television: “this medium has defined our national agenda in ways that were often at odds with what might have been dictated by either sense or experience, until what we’re left with today is what I like to call Government by Hallucinating Mob”. If television created the hallucinating mob, the internet as we know it, weaponized it.

The Irrelevance of Mr. Nix

The underlying cultural, political and historic tensions that informed an individuals’ vote in the Brexit referendum are myriad. Within this, the persuadables in the UK amounted to a small proportion of the electorate.

Moreover, in a seminal new paper, political scientists, Kalla & Broockman summarise 49 research studies and concluded that: “The best estimate for the persuasive effects of campaign contact and advertising-such as mail, phone calls, and canvassing--on Americans' choices in general elections is zero. Our best guess for online and television advertising is also zero”.

This is not to suggest that the scraping of data and the use of lax permission regulation to accumulate 50 million data profiles equates to ‘engaging in good faith to legally supply data for resale’ it is merely to look more closely at the mob itself.

Whilst the UK clearly needs to grapple with the entrenched deficiencies in its campaign finance laws, and questions of how political campaigns operate in the future, to focus on the mis-deeds of Cambridge Analytica plays into the ‘unhelpful fable’ that the public vote for right-wing authoritarians because they are being manipulated by the media.

To look beyond Cambridge Analytica is to question whether there was an inevitability to this, given the lack of understanding as to what was going on with licensed data - Cambridge Analytica was merely the most effective at marshalling the information and, at the very least, manipulating a situation. Within this context, it is that lack of understanding of the internet society that presents the real underlying crisis – the nature of the internet that we have allowed to grow. Put another way, how we have allowed ourselves to become the weaponised hallucinating mob through it.

The Underlying Crisis

We live within a completely unregulated landscape – by default or design, our new ‘global commons’ is digital and online. The majority have no idea how it works.

The online commons is built upon a model where the information and structures have been centralized. In this way, the Terms of Service can be seen as a new digital ‘social contract’. The contract requires, in exchange for interconnectedness, the commoditization of personally identifiable information and the blind trust in information oligarchies who hold that information. The cost of being able to see an ex-girlfriend’s photos or to wish a distant relative happy birthday is the keys to warehouse – the knowledge of human habit and thought, on both a macro and micro level. With that comes the ability to document, implant and change ideas, not only through micro-targeting, but by being the gatekeepers of thoughts and information itself.

Are My Ideas Even My Own?

If one accepts as a starting proposition that the majority of human activity is unconscious, how can a mind that has been subjected to the use of military technology, social psychology and manipulation by devices more in tune with my worst compulsive anxieties than any human being could ever be, be capable of genuine earnest political thought?

In 2016, I was not a persuadable, but that misses the point. I am already a bona fide member of the hallucinating mob. I have owned a smartphone since 2008 and have operated a Facebook account for at least as long as that. What anxiety-induced compulsive Facebook checking of my echo chamber formed my current outlook? It is harrowing.

A Small Act of Resistance

In the face of this, there is but one personal act of defiance left. I may never be one of those who knows how to change the behaviour of computers, but the decision to seek to learn, grapple and engage with the design of my global commons is a start. We have had Cambridge Analytica, we have had Snowden, we know the power of information and we therefore no longer have the luxury of ignorance. So, why have I not deleted Facebook?

I don't think I understand the arc of the essay, which probably means that the best way to make it better is to make clearer the contour of the argument.

The first point, which also seems to be the title point, is that the activities of Cambridge Analytica did not by themselves change the result of a referendum that was decided by a relatively significant margin of 4%. That does not seem to me to be a very strong thesis, however. The significance of the matter, as you indicate yourself, has nothing to do with whether it was outcome-determinative in one electoral incident.

I think in deciding what Cambridge Analytica itself accomplished, the matter would better be addressed by asking what it actually did, in this and in prior electoral episodes elsewhere, than by relying upon one (or even more than one) general political science studies of the effect of advertising on candidate choice. We can all agree, I think, that the question about psychographically-tagerted "push communications," which are not necessarily advertisements, is how they effect behavior, rather than idea formation.

But that's the less evident aspect of the process that you discuss in the remainder of the draft, which is far removed from the question of single electoral choices, and more generally directed at the issue of the effect of these push communications on self-fashioning tout court. Once we are at the question of how the self is shaped, any one Alexander Nix is indeed insignificant. But the matter cannot be analyzed simply as one troll and one anxiety sufferer in his echo chamber. Now the question is about the "climate of opinion," the influence of the great plurality of minds and bots affecting minds, that studies of "computational propaganda" are in this sense about.

So I think the way forward is to clarify what the central idea is, and to reflect that ida both in brisk introduction and in a more closely-sustained effort to produce the analysis that causes you to believe in the value of whatever idea it is. So far as why you haven't removed yourself from Facebook (or is that FACEBOOK?) yet, I should think the answer is that you're still not taking the question very seriously.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

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r3 - 17 Nov 2019 - 16:52:40 - EbenMoglen
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