Who remembers Cambridge Analytica? | Alex Young


In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix was subject to intense public scrutiny. His company had illicitly harvested vast amounts of personal Facebook data in order to influence the electorate, based on their ‘Big 5’ psychometric profiles. Upon discovery, public opinion rapidly converged: this new electioneering tool constituted a grave threat to our fair and free democratic process. Scandal ensued.

During this time, Mr Nix gave a little-known interview for a BBC program ‘Secrets of Silicon Valley’. What he said was defensive and unremarkable. His bookshelf, however, was astonishing. In the foreground of the interview a dozen or so books can be seen, from Herman Cain’s biography to a book on Data Analytics. In short, a roadmap of Donald J Trump’s entire election strategy. Yet, since the Capitol Hill Riot tragedy on 6th January, another of Mr Nix’s books seems relevant:

‘Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Democracy’ by John Fund.

Only ten Presidents, before Donald J. Trump, failed to win re-election. Most presidential candidates that win their first term also win a second. The Trump campaign would have known this. Cambridge Analytica would have known this. It makes sense that they would have helped to create an election playbook spanning two terms, not just one. It appears that Mr Trump’s re-election campaign had the voter fraud lie as its centrepiece from the beginning.

Mr Trump has been characterised by both the media and his close aides as someone who values routine and structure. If he were given a two-term election plan in 2016, even despite the conspicuous absence of Steve Bannon and his original advisory team, it would be reasonable to expect that Mr Trump decided to follow that plan going into the 2020 election.

Does a single book on voter fraud, on Mr Nix’s bookshelf, constitute evidence of an intent to lie and deceive the public? Not on its own. But taken in combination with the events that have transpired as a result of the meritless voter fraud allegations? Then we must take its presence seriously. If the intent was to accuse voter fraud, in advance of Mr Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, then the voter fraud was always primarily fiction rather than a reality. It would make the Capitol riot, not an isolated occurrence, but an unprecedented, deadly, repercussion of that two-term election playbook Cambridge Analytica and its investors helped create.

In all, lawyers representing Mr Trump filed and lost more than 60 lawsuits alleging voter fraud. Almost all of which were dismissed on the grounds of having neither evidence nor even specific allegations. Lawyers, judges and bystanders have variously slammed the voter fraud lie as ‘dangerous’, ‘meritless’ and in ‘bad faith’.

Had Mr Trump chosen to leave office with dignity, it is doubtful that the Capitol Hill Riot would have occurred at all. Instead, he and his stooges peddled their false voter fraud rhetoric with a renewed intensity in the weeks around the election. Now he faces the consequences of his actions; a second impeachment trial that could lead to a ban from running for public office in 2024.

Federal prosecutions are no doubt coming for the criminals that perpetrated the riot. While another action, the decision of several prominent tech companies to ban Parler, the social media app allegedly used to orchestrate the riot, is more consequential than first appears.

Parler was co-founded by Rebekah Mercer, an investor in Cambridge Analytica, co-owner of Breitbart News, and founder of the pro-Trump ‘Make America Number 1’ super PAC. Parler was launched in September of 2018, four short months after Cambridge Analytica ceased operations.

Could Parler really be a reborn Cambridge Analytica, the same idea with the same management, but sailing under false colours? After all, what better way to continue gathering data on voters than establishing a social networking app of one’s own; I suspect that Parler did not grow a large enough user base, especially of moderate or swing-voters, to produce any analysis of consequence in 2020. Even though Parler’s rapid rise was followed by an apparently swift fall, I doubt this will be its last incarnation.

I believe that luck played a role in Cambridge Analytica’s early success. Facebook was low hanging fruit. Although Mark Zuckerberg and his CEO cohort will be careful to ensure that a similar digital electioneering scandal won’t beset their companies in the future, the successful targeting of voters with psychometric data is a genie that will not go back into the bottle. Next time, the genie won’t be blue.

When the tricksters that threaten our democracy are not adequately held to account by public institutions, bans orchestrated by private companies may be necessary. Yet it is also clear that, by our inaction, we risk encouraging anti-competitive behaviour in the already morally fraught arena of social media.

We do live in a democracy, and Mr Trump failed to win re-election. But this is not the end of an era for digital electioneering, psychological profiling, and data gathering. Instead, we are only at the beginning.


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