A new Netflix documentary brings home the uncomfortable truth that we are happily giving over our personal data to companies who are using it as a weapon. The film, The Great Hack follows the story of how we discovered that Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) and its offshoot Cambridge Analytica used technology to collect the personal data of millions of people and used that to manipulate voters and influence election results.
SCL and Cambridge Analytica worked for election campaigns in India, Brazil, Kenya and Italy among other countries, and all the campaigns they ran succeeded in sweeping their right wing, ultra-nationalist candidates to power. Cambridge Analytica executives were also captured on camera in a 2018 Channel 4 News undercover investigation boasting of the dirty tricks they used including creating and running the Facebook campaign demonising Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election, a campaign that seems to have convinced a huge portion of the electorate that Clinton was a dangerous criminal.
What the film highlights is how extremely dangerous this trend is, how it has undermined the democratic process and how technology is being used deliberately to divide people through fear and hate. Carole Cadwalladr, the Guardian journalist who has led the investigative reporting of this story has concluded that all the campaigns that Cambridge Analytica ran in countries like Kenya, India or Trindad and Tobago served as test cases and they led up to the divisive (and successful) Brexit campaign and then Trump’s presidential campaign. Both the latter campaigns were notable for their deeply divisive nature, their nationalist rhetoric and the sort of venom they spewed, and have dramatically altered the society and politics in these countries. In the film we see the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie explain the process saying that people like Steve Bannon (of alt right and Breitbart fame, and Trump’s former strategist) think that in order “to change society you have to break it” and that this is exactly what these campaign have done: they have used data to identify voters who can be manipulated and swayed and they have done this through aggressive social media campaigns. This is technique that one CA executive describes in the undercover report as a process of poisoning, of “putting information in the bloodstream and watching it grow” knowing all the while that “it is untrackable.”
Wylie speaks of Bannon and the far right trying to start a culture war in society through tactics of fear and hate, and another important whistleblower Brittany Kaiser says that personal data is actually now being used as a weapon, a very effective and dangerous weapon. The documentary (directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujain) highlights how these data-driven campaigns are based on techniques used by militaries for communication warfare: psychological operations or ‘psyops’. It also underlines the thinking that “data has surpassed oil as the world’s most powerful asset.” Certainly if we look at the examples cited, this use of data seems to be a tool for regime change as it subverts the democratic electoral process by using fear and hate and spreading disinformation.
Because the campaigns that have benefitted from these operations are mainly far right or ultra nationalist ones, these groups or individuals try to discredit such findings by terming them ‘fake news’ being spread by the ‘dishonest liberal media.’ This is a growing trend (look at India, America — even Pakistan) that attempts to portray those who actually expose such dirty tricks as being the actual villains. This demonisation of the so called ‘liberal media’ bodes ill for the future of democracy as wealthy right wing organisations can now actually buy countries simply by using a company such as Cambridge Analytica to manipulate public opinion, win elections and incite hatred.
Cambridge Analytica went into shutdown and filed for bankruptcy last year after the broadcast of the secret filming revealed their election tricks, but it was widely believed that this was done mainly in order to limit the British investigative authorities’ access to their records. Its CEO Alexander Nix, who had been ‘suspended’ by the company after the secret recordings came to light, is now a director at a company called Emerdata, which is also linked to the SCL and the US billionaire Robert Mercer. So basically it’s the same people using the same tricks…
I recommend that you watch this documentary because it illustrates just how much of a scandal this thing is. An even bigger scandal, of course, is that this subversion of electoral law has not been much noticed by those whose data continues to be stolen by technology platforms and who remain so easy to manipulate. Watch this film because then you’ll understand why people like Professor David Carrol, fighting to have digital rights equated with human rights, are such heroes. You might also understand why it’s really not such a great idea to do quizzes or emotive chain letter type ‘shares’ on Facebook and why some Whatsapp group messages might be a little suspect. Watch this to see how the technology that encouraged people to dream of a connected world might well be the engine that is dividing that world.