Trump campaign data may be directly tied to social media manipulation, according to an investigation at The Guardian. If that is the case, then take a back seat, fake news, because what we could have is a deliberate right-wing propaganda machine that is altering the way that voters perceive candidates and issues. It could be much more detrimental to our democracy than any fake news.
The Guardian has revealed that extreme conservative ideology is cycled through popular social media sites through algorithms so it becomes pervasive, dominant, and constant.
Social media manipulation is trouble for democratic society everywhere.
Cambridge Analytica’s Data Mining and Trump’s Victory
One company that drives data, Cambridge Analytica, goes so far as to take credit for Trump’s election win through its ability to manipulate media messages targeted at persuadable voters. According to the homepage of its website, Cambridge Analytica (CA) uses data to change audience behavior. If you click on the “Political” tab, you can eventually find a description that says,
“CA Political’s industry-leading data services help you to find, understand, and engage with voters more effectively. Our services can be purchased individually and tailored to your needs, but combined they offer a fully end-to-end campaign package. CA Political provides clients with a truly quantifiable approach to campaigning.”
It is a company that openly brags that the “expertise and intelligence” it provided to the Trump campaign spurred his election win. How did CA’s data analysis lead to what CA describes as the “most remarkable victory in modern U.S. political history?” Why is CA now suing The Guardian for a 2017 article titled, “Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media?“
That article now has a subtitle, “This article is the subject of a legal complaint on behalf of Cambridge Analytica LLC and SCL Elections Limited.”
What exactly happened with the Trump campaign data, according to The Guardian‘s inquiry? And do the forces behind his win continue to use data manipulation to influence the US government today?
How Trump Campaign Data Links to Google Searches
How does a 21st century data-driven campaign for an unlikely candidate for President of the USA work? By designating three integrated teams — research, data science, and digital marketing — CA was able to move millions of data points into targeted messages directed at “the most persuadable voters and the issues they cared about.” The purpose? Hit them with messages at key times to get them to take action to vote for Donald Trump.
Doesn’t really sound like anything different than any other contemporary campaign, does it? Just wait.
Data mining to target voters is only one aspect of the controversy around CA and The Guardian. In December 2016, writer Carole Cadwalladr chronicled how some topics, when searched on Google, resulted in responses that “were being dominated by right wing and extremist sites.”
In an interview, Jonathan Albright, professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, says that his research reveals that right-wing news sites attempted to do what most commercial websites try to do: find tricks that elevate their placement on Google’s PageRank system. They try to “game” the algorithm. Albright’s mapping of the news ecosystem has divulged that millions of links between right-wing sites were “strangling” the mainstream media during the 2016 Presidential election.
CA was cited by Albright as a company that sites like Breitbart could use to track people as they surf the web, including their visits to Facebook. They wanted to direct specific ads to their advantage. According to Albright:
“They have created a web that is bleeding through on to our web. This isn’t a conspiracy. There isn’t one person who’s created this. It’s a vast system of hundreds of different sites that are using all the same tricks that all websites use. They’re sending out thousands of links to other sites and together this has created a vast satellite system of right wing news and propaganda that has completely surrounded the mainstream media system.”
Ordering of search results does influence people, says Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College, London. He explains,
“There’s large-scale, statistically significant research into the impact of search results on political views. And the way in which you see the results and the types of results you see on the page necessarily has an impact on your perspective.”
The results of Albright’s research that a vast network of right-wing sites feeds Google searches make me a little sick to my stomach.
The Case Study of Donald Trump for President: “A Full-Scale Data-Driven Digital Campaign”
Let’s return to the case study of CA’s data collection and analysis for the Donald Trump presidential campaign. Let’s try to figure out what CA did that was different — and how The Guardian‘s expose was so controversial that it led to a lawsuit.
CA built 20 custom data models to forecast the voter behavior of 180,000 individuals. Their digital marketing efforts led to a large-scale operation with 8-figure ad budgets and an infrastructure that supported all aspects of the campaign, “influencing voters where and when it counted.”
The responses from each individual polled by phone or online were matched with existing data in CA’s database. They analyzed numerous topics — “from their voting history to the car they drive.” As they did so, CA correlated individual behaviors with voting decisions. These models allowed CA to predict the way individuals would vote, even without the backdrop of knowing their specific political beliefs.
In essence, consumer and personal behaviors led to data organization and predicted which candidates the polled individuals would most likely prefer when it came time to vote.
Then CA organized voters into different categories and determined the best way to influence them through marketing. With these audience segments identified, CA created and implemented a marketing strategy for Trump fundraising. Get Out the Vote programs, heavily laden with persuasive motifs, included targeted advertisements in key battleground states that were directed to the most persuadable voters.
Designing Algorithms for Social Media Manipulation
What’s essential to understand here is that CA collaborated with “30+ ad tech partners.” Cadwalladr at The Guardian wrote that “Google’s search results on certain subjects were being dominated by right wing and extremist sites.” CA’s marketing operation utilized a number of platforms, including social media, search engine advertising, and YouTube. By using the social media that polled individuals tended to frequent most often, CA was able to appeal to voters using language and imagery in ways very familiar to this audience — ways they would understand and to which they would respond strongly.
“We used our data infrastructure to target voters who could be influenced in the most meaningful way. For example, if they cared about healthcare, targeted adverts directed them to websites explaining Trump’s views on the matter.”
Trump’s views on healthcare, according to a October 9, 2016, Business Insider article, were criticisms about the Affordable Care Act as having “resulted in runaway costs, websites that don’t work, greater rationing of care, higher premiums, less competition, and fewer choices.” Words like “runaway,” “don’t work,” “rationing,” “higher,” “less,” and “fewer” worked to demoralize persuadable voters who may have already been struggling with health care costs in addition to other living expenses.
If, as Albright’s research indicates, millions of links between right-wing sites were responsible for “strangling” the media, CA’s data mining and categorization during the Trump campaign may have worked as triggers to persuade undecided voters that the Trump Republican narrative was normal, sensible, and fiscally responsible.
CA kept polling and assessing the Trump campaign progress in an real-time basis, with 17 states pinpointed as essential battleground states and 1500 people polled weekly in those key areas. More important than any other element, CA could also identify which voters were likely to support Donald Trump. Through social media portals that rerouted right-wing messages in deeply complex cycles, potential voters viewed right-wing rhetoric so frequently that it became a familiar message.
Dr. Jonathan Rust, director of Cambridge University’s Psychometric Centre, says,
“The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behavior. It’s what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. It’s how you brainwash someone. It’s incredibly dangerous.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behavior can be predicted and controlled. I find it incredibly scary. I really do. Because nobody has really followed through on the possible consequences of all this. People don’t know it’s happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs.”
So, CA influenced voter intention, and it also inspired people to take specific actions. What were the results? “Donations increased, event turnouts grew, and inactive voters who favored Trump were motivated to get out and vote on election day.”
In the final months, reports based on the new data that emerged from polling were sent daily to the Trump campaign. Those reports demonstrated how voters might be shifting their perceptions of issues and candidates. What might that have looked like? Well, with CA’s ability to assess state-by-state reactions to any political event, they were able to understand any unexpected shifts in voting intention. The constant FBI Director Comey announcements about Secretary Clinton’s emails come to mind.
With great pride, CA argues that its “work informed the campaign strategy and meant key voters, who might otherwise have stayed home, were reached in their own backyards. This ultimately contributed to the extraordinary victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.” CA’s efforts toward the Trump campaign, with data-driven marketing techniques, changed behavior in target populations. In other words, CA assisted the Trump campaign to use technology platforms to give voice to racists and xenophobes, according to Cadwalladr in another story in The Guardian.
And the results continue to snowball. Trump boasted that Apple CEO Tim Cook called to congratulate him soon after his election victory. “And there will undoubtedly be pressure on them to collaborate,” says Moore at the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication, and Power.
There are other reasons to be really concerned over and above Google right-wing search domination and CA’s 30+ media technology partners that have contributed to social media manipulation.
What if one person has donated $45 million to different Republican political campaigns and another $50 million to right-wing, ultra-conservative nonprofits? Is he, as Cadwalladr suggests, “trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs?”
Hedge Fund Billionaire Robert Mercer: The Man behind the Trump Data Mining & Manipulation
He’s a brilliant but reclusive computer scientist. He made his fortune in language processing science that fed into today’s AI. Afterward, as joint CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money by using algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets, he became a billionaire.
What has Mercer done to single-handedly promote right-wing agendas? He:
- funded the Heartland Institute, renowned for its climate denial and across-the-board fight against regulation;
- donated to the Media Research Center, which has a mission of “correcting liberal bias;”
- propped up Steve Bannon with $10 million for Breitbart; and,
- reportedly holds a $10 million stake in Cambridge Analytica (CA), which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group.
The Guardian claims that, “with links to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Nigel Farage, the right wing U.S. computer scientist is at the heart of a multi-million dollar propaganda network.” And we are its tools: our social media conversations and interests are being redirected to win votes through ideological mechanisms that are invisible to us. Maybe it’s a coincidence that Greg Gianforte, a Republican technology executive who was charged with assault, defeated Rob Quist, the Democratic candidate, in a special election for Montana’s at-large House of Representatives seat. Or maybe not.
Emma Briant, a propaganda specialist at the University of Sheffield, says that CA and other data mining sites like it have the technological tools to effect behavioral and psychological change. The social media sites where we go for leisure and relaxation are a new space where international geopolitics is being played out in real time, and we’re pawns in the game.
It’s a new age of persuasion and social media manipulation, and, if Cadwalladr’s research stands up in court, we need to be hypervigilant about the sources we believe and the inferences we make based on those sources.