There’s nothing new about targeted messages. A candidate can stand on an Irish hillside and a competent local organiser will offer a rundown on the relationships, errant offspring with a vote, prejudices, fears and voting habits on the unsuspecting families around them.
A cunning, conviction-free candidate can “tailor” his message before setting foot on the doorsteps. But now, imagine what happens if that local organiser’s knowledge is distilled and multiplied by 50 million?
Get Cambridge Analytica. This is the private company which appropriated and exploited about 50 million Facebook user profiles and – by its own words – nano-targeted enough unsuspecting voters to elect Donald Trump.
In one of his rock star-style appearances at massive digital media conferences, Cambridge Analytica’s Alexander Nix talks about Wisconsin. It was such a safe seat for Democrats that the Clinton campaign never visited once but Cambridge Analytica managed to identify large quantities of persuadable voters who might vote for Mr Grab ‘Em by the Pussy himself, his client Trump.
“So the Trump campaign had five rallies in Wisconsin, which probably gave him contact with some 60,000 – 70,000 voters and I think this state was won by a margin of 50,000, which gives you an example of how powerful this data is.”
Asked if Trump would have been elected without Cambridge Analytica’s help, Nix pauses modestly: “Obviously I wouldn’t stand on stage and say that. For elections that are increasingly won on very small margins, technology can play a role and we saw that in this last [Trump]election”.
Advertising is not coercive; people are smarter than that.' In other words, they couldn't have done anything wrong
By Monday evening, a hapless junior had apparently been put in charge of its Twitter account. Cambridge Analytica had found itself at the centre of one of the most staggering stories of the internet era – a firm supposedly majoring in nano-targeting technology was filmed proposing age-old techniques such as honey traps and bribes and ex-MI5 spies to manufacture political scandals and destroy opposition candidates. By now, the regulator was announcing an imminent raid on the place.
Still Cambridge Analytica was whining: “If success breeds envy and scrutiny, then so be it. There are countless firms that have used our tactics to get information on target customers . . .”
‘Personality drives behaviour’
A few days before, another of its tweets declared: “Advertising is not coercive; people are smarter than that.” In other words, they couldn’t have done anything wrong because their product didn’t work, because people are not stupid.
A galaxy away from Nix’s claims in happier times, when he quoted a “highly targeted” push for Trump by Cambridge Analytica which was cited in a controlled Google study and showed an 11 per cent increase in favourability for his client.
Their unique selling point, he emphasised time and again was their five-factor Ocean personality model, a “cutting edge” psychometrics instrument rolled out at Cambridge “to probe the underlying traits that make up your personality . . . An understanding of your personality drives behaviour which obviously influences how you vote”.
Ocean’s five factors are openness (how open you are to new experiences); conscientiousness (how much you care about order, habits and planning); extraversion (how social you are); agreeableness (whether you put your needs ahead of community and society or vice versa); and charmingly, neuroticism (a measure of how much you tend to worry).
You didn't know that was a fear until you saw something that evoked that reaction in you. What you also didn't know is that you were specifically and individually targeted
“Blanket marketing is dead”, Nix declares repeatedly. He uses cars and toothpaste for examples of micro-targeting consumers. For politics, his chosen focus interestingly, is gun rights. So take a target group in Iowa say with an “interest in the second amendment”.
“You can nuance your messaging to resonate more effectively with those key audience groups.”
“These have been identified under the Ocean model as a “highly neurotic and conscientious audience, so you’re going to need a message that is rational and fear-based or emotionally based – the threat of a burglary and the insurance policy of a gun is very persuasive. . .”
You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that evoked that reaction in you. What you also didn’t know is that you were specifically and individually targeted as some kind of neurotic who would react exactly like that. But how did Cambridge Analytica know that?
"We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis that the entire company was built on," said Christopher Wylie, who worked to develop the data and has now turned whistleblower, to the Observer.
In the era of “dark advertising”, an ad is posted where only the nano-targeted group can see it, not the general public. The “product” may as well be toothpaste. This excludes the marketplace of ideas so essential to a robust, argumentative democracy. And because facts don’t matter, lies are a given and emotions are the sole consideration, this hijacking of an electorate – many electorates perhaps – has taken place under the radar. So deep is the targeting that opposing messages may be sent to spouses in the same household unknown to each other. Wedges are driven between communities, countries are polarised.
Some describe this as playing with the psychology of entire nations and therefore grossly unethical.
Are you happy you helped to elect Trump, asked a tech worker of Nix? “I’m happy with the job that we did”, he replied.