- August 16, 2017
Cambridge Analytica: The Secret Tech Firm Manipulating Elections
Elections are supposed to be simple. Everyone is presented with a number of options, the facts relating to these options, and – based on this information – people are asked to cast a vote. But what happens when the information which is presented to the electorate is deliberately being manipulated?
While ‘Fake News’ may have entered the global lexicon in recent months, there is a growing theory among certain groups that the power of big data is being used to shape elections. People’s opinions are being manipulated, influenced, and swayed in favor of those who have the most power and money. But very few people are aware this is even happening. Many of the theories begin with a corporation called Cambridge Analytica.
Cambridge Analytica is the vanguard of a particular kind of digital manipulation. Run by Alexander Nix, the company has been around only four years. Cambridge Analytica is owned by Robert Mercer, a billionaire backer of Donald Trump who has also invested in Breitbart. Steve Bannon, former Breitbart chairman and current advisor to Donald Trump, served as the company’s vice president. Nix himself once described the work done by CA as the ‘secret sauce’ used by political groups to win elections.
So how does it work? Cambridge Analytica uses data. They use all sorts of data, taking as many as 5,000 different data points, and using the information to create psychological profiles of as many as 220 million Americans, as well as people from other nations. The information is made up of numerous sources, such as Facebook likes, geometric information, and simple demographics, such as age, gender, and employment status. The group collects as much information as it possibly can, then assembles this data to create profiles for each and every individual.
These profiles are not just indications of a person’s verifiable facts; they can predict people’s personalities with remarkable accuracy. Given how much data the organization can collect on individuals, they can predict what a person will respond to, what they will enjoy, and how best to communicate ideas to the person. They can also play on that individual’s darker instincts. The profiles can predict which negative emotions are likely to be aroused by certain news stories, what the person hates, loathes, and mistrusts. The profiles can be used to awaken strong emotional responses in a very targeted manner and then encourage them to vote in a certain way.
But how does this win elections? There are two key examples which are discussed when talking about the immense power held by Cambridge Analytica and similar companies. The first is the election of Donald Trump, who has close ties to many of the organization’s owners, and the Brexit vote, which has also been noted for its striking proximity to CA. Nigel Farage, considered by many as the orchestrator of the Brexit vote, has been closely linked to Robert Mercer, as well as numerous individuals on the American right. These two elections are held aloft as demonstrations of the power of data-driven psychological profiling to manipulate a population in a certain regard.
The key is the accuracy of the psychological profiles, helped by the vast amount of information available online. Armed with such unerringly accurate information, CA is able to predict which types of news stories, political messages, and campaign strategies will work best among certain demographics. Once they have this information, all that remains is to create the content and put it in front of the right people.
According to a company brochure released by Cambridge Analytica in 2016, the psychological profiles can reveal “hidden voter trends” as well as “behavioral triggers.” From this, the company advises the political groups as to how best to create direct mail slogans, how to create scripts for door-to-door staffers, and how to target adverts that make voters react in a very real, very visceral, and very emotional manner.
From this point, it is only a short journey to understanding how Cambridge Analytica is so able to motivate voters. In the aftermath of the recent US election, the furious storm surrounding fake news took hold. While there is little evidence that directly ties CA and other firms to the creation of these demonstrably false news stories, they serve as the perfect foil to the company’s stated goals. The company knows exactly how to make people react in a certain way, all they need to do is to put the right news stories in front of them.
This can be achieved through social media. Given how closely social media profiles align with the company’s work on data-driven psychological profiling, they can be sure of which stories will gain the most traction among which demographics. There are certain subjects which will arouse people’s emotions and will encourage them to share, motivating them to become active in the distribution of the stories and share them with like-minded people. But these news items do not necessarily have to be true.
Thanks to the accuracy of the psychological profiles created by Cambridge Analytica, the company can advise political parties or groups as to which news stories are most important to voters. By putting controversial headlines, misleading stories, or simply fake news in front of these audiences, they can be certain that a significant number of people will engage with the stories and thus vote in a certain manner. The fact that they are false becomes inconsequential. The voting public has been pushed in a particular direction, as dictated by big data.
There are many conspiracy theories which tell of how the government is seeking to control citizens. From chemtrails to the New World Order, the manipulation of people and information through propaganda has been a constant hot topic among those who are seeking the truth.
But – finally – there is evidence of this occurrence. Through the sheer volume of data, social media information, and feedback available to companies like Cambridge Analytica, voters are being manipulated and coerced. The idea of impartial facts leading informed decisions is no longer viable. The psychological profiles are often able to predict behavior better than people could predict their actions. In doing so, they can manipulate and change the very structures of government. The way that power works in the world, Cambridge Analytica will be able to control the public and the way they vote.