Who Needs the Russians When We Have Cambridge Analytica?

Recent revelations about the methods of Cambridge Analytica via the whistleblower, Christopher Wylie and Channel 4 confirm the worst and more about what many have suspected for some time. 

Senior representatives of the firm, riddled with links to the British establishment and the Tory Party, were filmed discussing how they utilise traditional spook tactics such as bribery, entrapment, and stings, as well as the more hi-tech work behind manipulating and exploiting voters deep-seated hopes and fears on social media. 

Facebook have now suspended the company, who had for years been harvesting data on 10s of millions of people through such methods as those “fun” seeming quizzes, which people often engage in. This data was then improperly used to target propaganda at social media users, seeking to establish “informational dominance” on behalf of clients. Facebook’s knowledge of such activity goes back at least 2 years. The oft lionised Mark Zuckerberg now sporting considerable egg on his face. 

Trying to downplay the issue, Cambridge Analytica claimed on Twitter that people are smarter than to be coerced by advertising, but elsewhere they boast of engaging “data-driven behaviour change”. It’s long been true of all advertising that we may think ourselves above its influence, but if it didn’t work then capitalists simply wouldn’t pay for it.

All sides in politics engage in propaganda and adapt with the times, but while the outcomes of such manipulation may not necessarily be favourable to right wing and establishment forces, it is such forces that invariably have the most money for such work.  

The revelations have gone viral in the last couple days, with the BBC has come under fire for some shoddy coverage

Beyond the initial noise of the exposures, there are broader considerations regarding how social media users relate to content, and implications for independent media. 

Some people are pushing the idea that we should “Delete Facebook”, although blogger Another Angry Voice strongly rejects this idea, noting how helpful grassroots social media activity in drumming up support for Corbyn and The Labour Party. 

It could be that this case speaks to a phenomenon whereby the amount of agency and engagement on the part of social media users (as compared to legacy media) can make us somehow even more susceptible to manipulation. We may think that the info (or disinfo) we imbibe is more ours, personal to us, a product of our discernment – “duh MSM is garbage – I discovered this for myself”. Thus we could take content even more to heart and surround ourselves with a plethora of content which suits “our” discovery like a teenager getting into new bands. 

The episode also further underlines the need for independent progressive media, more grassroots in nature and generally with fewer resources, to continue downsizing reliance on huge platforms for exposure, because those platforms, through commercial pressures and manipulation, crowd out smaller voices. 

We need to be assertive and savvy in encouraging people to be more discerning in how they source their news content because just going with what social media sticks in front of usrisks being little better than the old days of being exposed to only a few establishment TV channels and a handful of press baron newspapers.

Stephen Durrant

The Media Fund