If you are looking for a carefully researched but readable accounting of this complex topic I recommend Carole Cadwalla’s Guardian index. Researching the fake news issue I found her December article “Google, democracy and the truth about internet search”. That reporting led me to some of the researchers in the field like Martin Moore at the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Jonathan Albright at Elon University. In the December article Carole asks my initial questions:
Did such micro-targeted propaganda – currently legal – swing the Brexit vote? We have no way of knowing. Did the same methods used by Cambridge Analytica help Trump to victory? Again, we have no way of knowing. This is all happening in complete darkness.
I am also asking “is there a positive-feedback servo loop where Cambridge Analytica [CA] exploits the fake news ecosystem to reinforce the dark posts that CA sends to micro-targeted Facebook accounts?” This excerpt from Google, democracy and the truth about internet search got my attention, beginning with Jonathon Albright’s comments:
And the constellation of websites that Albright found – a sort of shadow internet – has another function. More than just spreading rightwing ideology, they are being used to track and monitor and influence anyone who comes across their content. “I scraped the trackers on these sites and I was absolutely dumbfounded. Every time someone likes one of these posts on Facebook or visits one of these websites, the scripts are then following you around the web. And this enables data-mining and influencing companies like Cambridge Analytica to precisely target individuals, to follow them around the web, and to send them highly personalised political messages. This is a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go.”
Cambridge Analytica, an American-owned company based in London, was employed by both the Vote Leave campaign and the Trump campaign. Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave, has made few public announcements since the Brexit referendum but he did say this: “If you want to make big improvements in communication, my advice is – hire physicists.”
Steve Bannon, founder of Breitbart News and the newly appointed chief strategist to Trump, is on Cambridge Analytica’s board and it has emerged that the company is in talks to undertake political messaging work for the Trump administration. It claims to have built psychological profiles using 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters. It knows their quirks and nuances and daily habits and can target them individually.
“They were using 40-50,000 different variants of ad every day that were continuously measuring responses and then adapting and evolving based on that response,” says Martin Moore of Kings College. Because they have so much data on individuals and they use such phenomenally powerful distribution networks, they allow campaigns to bypass a lot of existing laws.
“It’s all done completely opaquely and they can spend as much money as they like on particular locations because you can focus on a five-mile radius or even a single demographic. Fake news is important but it’s only one part of it. These companies have found a way of transgressing 150 years of legislation that we’ve developed to make elections fair and open.”
Did such micro-targeted propaganda – currently legal – swing the Brexit vote? We have no way of knowing. Did the same methods used by Cambridge Analytica help Trump to victory? Again, we have no way of knowing. This is all happening in complete darkness. We have no way of knowing how our personal data is being mined and used to influence us. We don’t realise that the Facebook page we are looking at, the Google page, the ads that we are seeing, the search results we are using, are all being personalised to us. We don’t see it because we have nothing to compare it to. And it is not being monitored or recorded. It is not being regulated. We are inside a machine and we simply have no way of seeing the controls. Most of the time, we don’t even realise that there are controls.
There is no question that micro-targeted ads were deployed in the Brexit and Trump campaigns. We know there are controls on this machine. Who is operating those controls? Who built and operates the fake news ecosystem? If you have sources or insights, please comment. I plan to post anything definitive that I’m able to find. As I write Carole has published eight articles on this general topic. And Jonathan Albright has published a number of articles that delve into the machinery of behavioral micro-targeting and fake news propaganda. These are some of Jonathan Albright’s Medium articles I’m studying: