No, Your Facebook Likes Didn’t Steal the Election
Will Bunch wildly exaggerates the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Will Bunch has a rather bizarre column seeking to explain “How your Facebook ‘likes’ helped Trump steal the 2016 election.”
Nixon on steroids, indeed. In 1972, the 37th president’s dirty tricksters got caught in the Watergate with some Radio Shack-style gizmos and some badly applied duct tape trying to bug the Democratic Party’s headquarters so they could try to steal the words of one man, party chief Larry O’Brien. That act — and the various cover-ups and sleazy maneuvers that surrounded it — cost Richard Nixon his presidency.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign paid roughly $6 million to a firm founded by a hedge-fund billionaire supporter that used 21st-century technology, subterfuge and out-and-out fraud to essentially steal the thoughts of 50 million Americans — quite possibly you, or your friends and neighbors — to launch a psy-ops campaign against voters, to put Trump in the White House. In other words, multiply Watergate to at least the 10th power.
Whoa if true.
In 2013-14, the young firm called Cambridge Analytica had backing from the right-wing billionaire, Robert Mercer; a rising political force in its association with the Breitbart News impresario Steve Bannon; a bold mission to, in the words of one former employee, “fight a culture war in America” and a scheme to use state-of-the-art Big Data and psychological profiling to win elections with modern propaganda.
What CA lacked, however, was the data the pull this off. That’s when what Facebook’s top lawyer has now acknowledged was “a scam — and a fraud” came into play. Wylie — the young political data maven now turned whistleblower — and the team assembled by Mercer and Bannon turned to experts in “psychometrics” at Britain’s Cambridge University; there, a Russian American (heh … a bit more on that later) professor named Aleksandr Kogan was hired for $800,000. Kogan reportedly then lied to Facebook about his real project — a personality quiz and an app that 270,000 people consented to but which allowed the firm to pull Facebook “likes” and other personal info from 50 million unsuspecting Americans. (The company also seems to have lied to Facebook about later destroying the data.)
According to the newspapers, Cambridge Analytica ultimately created about 30 million usable profiles for voters — who were then targeted in the 2016 election with the kind of psychological warfare that the Pentagon has honed for decades to use on our enemies.
In 2016, the enemy was us.
Indeed, Wylie noted that Cambridge Analytica emerged from a defense contractor called SCL and what it began to market in the mid-2000s was “cyber warfare for elections.” The Mercer-and-Bannon-backed CA was initially hired to work for GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016 — Mercer’s initial horse in the race — but the team had switched by summer 2016 to party nominee Trump, which then paid the firm about $6 million.
So . . . they gave a personality quiz on Facebook so they could mine user Likes? That’s sleazy, to be sure, but not exactly Watergate. And these military-grade psychological warfare techniques were first applied to Ted Cruz, who eeked out a narrow win in the Iowa caucuses and then didn’t win another significant race other than his home state of Texas?
What does political cyber warfare look like? As you might imagine, pretty ugly. In an election where most voters’ preferences are deeply rooted, a campaign like the one engineered by Cambridge Analytica tried to tap into the psychology of the voters who could most easily be peeled away from Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton — young people who might be convinced to vote third-party, or blacks who’d been enthusiastic about Barack Obama but could be discouraged from showing up in 2016. Data seemingly as trivial as what sneakers or candy bars you like helped develop profiles of the persuadable.
So-called dark posts reminded African American voters about Clinton’s infamous 1990s comment about young blacks whom she labeled “super-predators,” while in specific neighborhoods like Miami’s Little Haiti there were messages linking the Clinton Foundation to post-earthquake problems in Haiti. It’s impossible to know how well these “dark posts” worked but the objectives were certainly achieved. A recent major study by a team of political scientists found that a whopping four million 2012 Obama voters, many of them nonwhites, sat out 2012 and many others voted for third-party candidates like Jill Stein of the Green Party, which is what Team Trump and their hired guns at CA wanted them to do. At Trump’s post-election rally in Hershey in December 2016, the then-president-elect bluntly noted that blacks “didn’t come out…So thank you to the African American community.”
So, these bastards use their super-secret data-mining to discover that blacks were less enamored of Hillary Clinton than they were of Barack Obama? And that they didn’t enjoy being called “super-predators”? Because, sneakers?
But at the end of the day, a capitalist company such as Facebook and its billionaire founder Zuckerberg have gotten rich by exploiting the essence of our humanity — our friendships and even our personalities — for profit. The Trump-Cambridge Analytica scandal is a two-lane highway to hell — your intimate personal data flowing north to shady operators, then flowing back south as divisive negative politics or even “fake news.” That’s an existential threat not just to democracy but to a broader civil society.
That some significant number of people are getting most of their information from algorithm-chosen sources designed to keep their attention as long as possible is problematic. That it might be further manipulated for nefarious purposes compounds the issue. But we were dividing up in this manner even before Facebook, let alone Cambridge Analytica.
Bunch’s column concludes with a long rant about possible collusion with the Russians and the general problem of Russian attempts to manipulate the election outcome. Those are indeed major threats to our democracy. We should continue to investigate those and Congress should ensure that President Trump does not interfere in said investigation.
It’s possible that the data-mining scandal will be an existential threat . . . to Facebook or its senior leadership. As of yet, however, there’s zero evidence that the 2016 election was “stolen,” let alone by Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, or Trump.