A lot of the discussion of Cambridge Analytica obscures what it does with fancy language such as “information warfare” and “psychographics”. I think what they do is digital marketing, not too different to what agencies all over the world do to sell everything from flights to car insurance.
The data that Cambridge Analytica has (not just from Facebook), and the sophisticated understanding they have of psychology from Cambridge University academics, means they can do very detailed segmentation, targeting and positioning work on populations the size of the entire US electorate. STP is the bread and butter of what digital marketers do.
Cambridge Analytica work on a scale much bigger than what most digital marketers are capable of, (it’s easier to do this sort of thing when you have Robert Mercer’s checkbook) but it’s not radically different in approach to techniques used by the Obama campaign - or online mattress sellers.
Cambridge Analytica’s segmentation of the US electorate are very detailed and their political understanding means they know exactly who to target to have the desired effect and they know what messages these people will respond well to, (that’s positioning) but this is what digital marketers around the world are doing. Information warfare, whether it’s by Cambridge Analytica or Russia’s Internet Research Agency, seems to be little different to the process that made me a customer of Beer 52.
There are question marks over whether Cambridge Analytica is effective; most digital marketers are keen to demonstrate that their methods are effective. It’s difficult to say what got Donald Trump elected. His Tweets, false equivalence of both candidates’ flaws, Russian interference, dislike of Hillary Clinton, democrats being incumbents, the FBI email investigation and a vacant supreme court seat where certainly factors, along with fake news made by Macedonian teenagers and the general left/right cultural divide in America. It’s hard to identify the precise impact that Cambridge Analytica had amongst all of this.
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie implied that what Cambridge Analytica did went beyond digital marketing when he exposed their activities to the Guardian. He said that there activity was “worse than bullying,” because “if you do not respect the agency of people, anything that you’re doing after that point is not conducive to a democracy.”
This implies that Cambridge Analytica are doing goes beyond marketing for politicians and is against democracy. It implies that Cambridge Analytica took the data they had from Facebook (and other sources), put it through standard digital marketing processes and created weapons. If you can use your digital marketing to bring down a government then it’s a weapon. If you can use your digital marketing to prop up a tyrant then it is a weapon. What is a Kalashnikov, but a weapon to overgrow a government? The same can be said of digital marketing that destabilises democracy.
What I find most scary about Cambridge Analytica and what they can do is that its segments are so detailed, its targeting so sophisticated and their positioning so subtle that it would allow politicians to speak in very different ways to different audiences. Using this, politicians can safety identify people who would respond positively to racist messaging, exploit those prejudices and it be so subtle that other supporters of said politician or party, who would be horrified by racist campaigning, would never find out about it.
What has stopped politicians from appealing to our most carnal hatreds is fear that they will be found out. Very detailed segmentation, targeting and positioning makes it possible this would go unnoticed.
If this scares you as much as it scares me, then that’s good as it means we can do something about it. This could be the moment that people wake up to the risks of social media firms and big tech companies, just as they woke up to the problems of big tobacco firms in the 1960s.
We can pass laws that regulate these firms. The complete absence of regulation that they have operated in so far has led to this scandal, but we can prevent worse abuses of data in the future. It used to be possible to advertise cigarettes as healthy, now we are aware how bad such advertising would be and we don’t allow it. Maybe soon everyone will be aware of how bad digital marketing for politicians is?