Cambridge Analytica – until recently a relatively unknown organisation is now (along with Facebook) the centre of attention for their role in consulting for democratic votes including the US 2016 Election, and the UK’s decision on whether to leave the European Union. For those of us that followed 2016 a little too closely, they were a shady company that we knew existed in the world of dark arts and online persuasion, but the extent to which remained relatively unknown. Until now.
When one of the big 2016 election stories first hits the news there is always a rush to credit that specific story with the result of the election. We are all still confused as to how it happened, and looking for the reason. Like a person whose life is falling apart trying to find the one person to blame. But this time it is collective learned helplessness. Russia, Facebook, Polarisation, Racism, Fake news, Wikileaks, Hillary as a bad candidate, Opiods, the economy, immigrants and now this. Through the fog of victimhood we can just make out that it is likely that not every one element was solely responsible for what remains a startling result. I will one day put all my thoughts into a piece on the 2016 election and how a whole lot of factors went one way, but for now it’s safe to say the targeted, skillful, online campaign was one factor among many that pushed towards Trump (and the UK towards Brexit). How much? Who knows. (Cambridge themselves tell Congress they don’t impact elections, and yet they tell clients they do..)
It’s worth reading some background on this company before getting caught up in the hoopla of the news cycle. They were talked about throughout the campaign, but the first truly scary piece about them and indicating Trump’s election chances were not as bad as we all hoped was a piece in Bloomberg BusinessWeek about their data strategy. The Trump campaign was reported as chaotic, and by all accounts it was – but the data team was not part of the chaos. They were not chaotic at all, but rather singularly focused and effectively going about their strategy. They were calculated, the team in Austin (led by Brad Parscale, who is change of Trump’s re-election campaign) clearly knew what they were doing. It was scary because they had laser focus on Facebook as an influencing tool (which made sense), and within this they were all about voter suppression, particularly certain groups in certain county’s (you can guess). The whole operation was filled with realism and logical thinking. It just made sense, and the people seemed smart. But Hillary was so far ahead that it seemed like it would be ok. Of course, it wasn’t.
Whilst I avoided post election coverage for a while, I had read of the Mercer family and their influence during the campaign and the financing of algorithmic based strategies. Their connection to Breitbart was the biggest giveaway, but the mention of Cambridge in the context of the UK and US elections always led back to their family. The New Yorker delved into this a bit further in March 2017 with a look at Robert Mercer and some of his dealings. Cambridge was a big part of that piece. It confirmed an uncomfortable feeling that once again a small group of rich people were directing traffic for an entire country, and subsequently directing senior appointments. It was pretty clear then that interesting persuasion techniques had been used. But still nothing blew up. It was such a non deal that the Liberal Party in Australia had recently secured their services (those services have now been tied).
But now, insiders from the company have spoken out, uncomfortable with the way the company was and is being run and to what end. From this piece in the NY Times, to the an interview with an ex company insider in the Guardian, to a broader questioning of tech responsibility in the NY Review of Books – media companies and writers are on this story. Channel 4 in England has a nice little video that helps explain everything. They even pretended to hire Cambridge Analytica to get inside access to their material. It’s good reporting and it is pretty compelling.
[Side Note: I can’t help still talking about the election clearly, and one thing this continues to highlight is how far off the game everyone was in 2016. Part of what made the campaign of Trump so successful was that it was information overload for media too. Trump was doing so much crazy stuff, that a lot of the background was missed. If data breaches and Facebook manipulation is a big story now, it was a bigger story before the election. Same with a lot of these factors. But the space was too crowded with chaos (another strategic win that went towards helping Trump).]
So what to make of Cambridge with the additional information? It’s a dirty organization willing to subvert democracy for money. But so are most organizations, they perhaps just have different lines they are and aren’t willing to cross. Cambridge have self interest, but they have the interests of their billionaire funder too, which is less government. What’s still unclear is how different this is from an oil company trying to quash environment legislation, or a hedge fund manager trying to get tax cuts for the rich. It feels different. But is that just because Trump won?