The Guardian story around the supposed “dark arts” performed by the company Cambridge Analytica is still going strong. It has apparently caused a massive dip in Facebook’s share price amongst other things. I’ve reflected a lot on the story and read every article I can find about it, both in Britain and in the American press. I’ve also read Dominic Cummings blog post from yesterday, which is an important addition to the story, if you really want to understand it all as objectively as humanly possible.
I find several things disturbing about the whole CA tale, aside from the stuff that everyone I know is disturbed by about it, i.e. uses of personal data not thought through enough by the general public, how little we understand about how today’s technology shapes behaviour, etc. Let’s start with the fact that all of the whistleblowers involved seem pretty tangential to everything they are whistleblowing about. That in and of itself doesn’t invalidate anything they’ve said; it’s just that this always rings alarm bells with me. A lot of very junior people seemed to have had access to a very, very high level information within their companies. Again, this can happen, but it is extremely unusual, particularly within the types of organisations we’re talking about here.
The second is Cambridge Analytica itself and the Channel 4 hidden camera stuff. The story goes that these guys are some sort of psychological techno ninjas who not only helped Britain vote for Brexit but also were crucial to getting Trump elected, right? I mean, that’s the ultimate thrust of all off this, isn’t it? But if that’s the case, why did Channel 4 rather easily manage to get the CEO of this company bragging on secret camera about setting up Ukrainian hookers to blackmail politicians, all to get some low grade work in Sri Lanka? These guys come across in the Channel 4 footage as rank, sad amateurs more than anything else – a far cry from the masters of the universe other parts of the story want us to buy into. I hate to say it, but there is a real disconnect here. They can be super villains changing world history or they can be the type of guys who once they’ve been caught on tape say that it was they who were trying to entrap their potential third world clientele, but they cannot be both at the same time.
The third thing about the story that disturbs me is the idea, now starting to become taken for granted, that with the amount of information available on a Facebook page you can design a few ads and that will make people vote radically differently. There is something about this which seems inherently false. Yes, you can certainly manipulate people with media, but it is always a time intensive project. Ten years of watching Russia Today will undoubtably have a definite effect on your worldview. But a month full of Facebook ads changing the way you vote? I’m struggling a little with this.
The final thing is the deepest felt: I’m part of the core target audience for this story. I really, really want everything about this, including every conceivable implication, to be true. In the furthest potential telling of this story, it supposedly involves Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Arron Banks, Steve Bannon, Julian Assange, every douchebag of our sad era bar Corbyn in fact, all involved in a deep, tangled plot to subvert democracy. If it were all true, it would mean there is no real culture war going on and there is no genuine crisis within western democracy – it’s just that a lot of bad people conspired to temporarily break it. The majority of the British public didn’t want to leave the EU, just as the majority of the American public didn’t want Trump (the second one is actually technically true, but go with me here), it’s just that a sizeable enough group were tricked into voting for these things. It’s the very perfection of the whole conspiracy which makes me deeply doubt its veracity. To paraphrase Voltaire, “If there were no Cambridge Analytica scandal, liberals would have had to invent it.”
I want to be clear that this is not to say that I am casting doubt on anything in Carole Cadwalladr’s story thus far. She’s spent a lot of time on it, and already uncovered some undoubted gems. It’s caused us to rethink the way we hand out our personal data online, itself an important thing that had to happen eventually. But even if every single thing she’s written about were true, it means a lot less than most Remainer liberal types assume. A logical fallacy most people fall into all the time is creating a complex story in their minds for how something might have happened, then taking any one part of it being proven true to mean the whole of the construct is equally true. Everything in Carole’s story about Cambridge Analytica could be spot on and that still wouldn’t mean that the web of douchebags actually conspired to do anything electorially substantial, much less succeeded in anything they supposedly set out to do. And it definitely doesn’t mean that the British public didn’t really vote for Brexit or that Trump was elected by brainwashing people in Michigan using Facebook ads.
I get that liberals want there to be an easy answer to everything we now face. But the fact is, there isn’t. I would be the happiest person on Earth if the web of douchebags theory turned out to be 100% true and as a result, we stayed in the EU, Trump was impeached, and there was a Russian Spring. Yet it feels false to me that it will be this neat. Liberalism has greater problems than Facebook algorithms making people angry, unfortunately.