The author lives in Santa Barbara.
The recent commentary by Calla Jones Corner (Voices, Sept. 8) compared the Democratic debates to party games. Let’s compare that to a Republican game which will be replayed in the 2020 election.
Perhaps you remember the name Cambridge Analytica and know that it has something to do with the 2016 Trump campaign. Perhaps you have even heard that it had something to do with President Trump winning the election, and that Facebook was somehow involved.
That’s about as far as I got with it until last week. Then I watched a two-hour documentary about it on Netflix called “The Great Hack.” I will try to summarize some of the disturbing information in it, but I strongly encourage you to watch the film yourself.
As with a lot of other information coming our way lately, it was scary. In fact, in the documentary, Professor David Carroll asks: “Who is feeding us all this fear?” It is one of the questions that motivated him to study and eventually sue Cambridge Analytica, to have them return all the personal information they had gathered about him — and to reveal where the information came from. The film features information from him, from two former major employees of Cambridge Analytica (Brittany Kaiser and Christopher Wylie), and from Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative reporter from The Guardian in the UK who helped expose much of the information about Cambridge Analytica. Her interest in the firm came about because it also handled “fixing” the UK’s Brexit campaign.
Cambridge Analytica was a British consulting firm co-founded by Robert Mercer, a billionaire who helped finance Donald Trump’s campaign. Steve Bannon was also a co-founder, and takes credit for inventing the name, “Cambridge Analytica.” The firm was hired to create “data-driven behavior change” in voters. They were hired to create the “victories” of Ted Cruz in the 2016 Iowa caucus, the Brexit vote, the Trump campaign and in many other political elections. How did they do it?
Cambridge Analytica was a full-blown propaganda machine. I am using past tense here, since Cambridge Analytica somehow went “bankrupt” when this information about them emerged. Several former employees are, however, working in campaigns around the world, including the Trump 2020 campaign. They harvested the personal data from millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political propaganda advertising. They called themselves a “behavior change agency.”
Using Facebook data, including personality traits, they created voter profiles. (Did you ever take one of those quick personality tests online?) Out of just 230,000 people, they built a model for every voter type in the U.S. They then selected those who were undecided about the election and who lived in key districts in three key electoral battleground states. Of those, they selected those whose personalities were most susceptible to change, and created slanted or untruthful and incendiary ads meant to arouse fear and anger. They bought ad space on Facebook targeting those specific people to turn them against Hillary Clinton, and thus for Mr. Trump. They needed to shift only 75,000 votes in three key states. The rest is history.
This is not a one-time fluke. Revenue from the selling of data by big companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon surpassed revenue from oil last year. And the swinging of supposedly free elections is not an anomaly. Many of the dictators who have gotten into office have used the services of Cambridge Analytica and other personal data providers to get there. Cambridge Analytica worked globally on about 10 political elections a year, including voter suppression efforts.
Will this devious game be played out in the 2020 election? Brad Parscale oversaw all aspects of digital media for Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. He is now the campaign director for Trump 2020.
Major questions arise from all of this:
Are free democratic elections viable anymore? Ms. Cadwalladr, mentioned above, thinks not.
Are rights to data about you and your personal privacy no longer yours?
Do Facebook and others have the right to develop a portfolio of who you are without your permission, not to mention sell that information to others?
Do you have the right to reclaim your personal information? That’s what Mr. Carrol tried to do. He won his case, but he doubts that he will ever get his information back.
Should Democrats start to engage in such campaigns? Is that how we want our elections to be conducted?
“Big Brother,” after all, turns out not to be “Big Government,” but “Big Data.”
What I am writing here does not use “scare tactics” but simply scary information. There is a difference. Watch the documentary on Netflix, “The Great Hack.”