November 9th, 2016 —waking up on that November morning will always be something I remember. President Donald Trump had just won the election for the President of the United States.
As I drank my much-needed morning coffee, I recalled the inauguration of President Obama four years before. That had felt at the time like history in the making; the first black President of the United States, a heavyweight who seemed then and remains today a sharp contrast with his predecessor, George W. Bush. That cold and grey November was a moment of history too of course. It was only qualitatively different.
Earlier that year, the squawking Nigel Farage had led a full-scale charge on our senses during the Leave Campaign. Promises that were never going to honoured were liberally scattered around as rabble-rousing rhetoric replaced any pretence at rational debate. Meanwhile, the Stay Campaign was supine, complacent and unable to muster a positive argument in favour of a set of arrangements that had held the peace in western Europe since the end of the Second World War.
It’s fair to say that 2016 had turned into a horror show.
Over the coming’s months the narrowness of both results grew more significant the more I thought about them. In the U.S. it is calculated that as few as 77,000 votes in an electorate of 125 million won the day for Trump.
In the U.K. the margin of victory was more substantial, 51.9% for Leave to 48.1% for Stay. 3.8% is still a thin majority however, and in fact, Britain has now almost certainly reversed its position just based on the changing demographics. Older people were majority leavers, and younger people were majority stayers. More old people have now died, and more young people have joined the electoral roll.
The fact that both decisions were so narrow demonstrates how divided our societies have become. At least that’s the most obvious conclusion.
Look more closely at these results, and there’s another issue. Just how many people predicted both of these results three years out? Or a year? Or even six months?
In both cases, the actual result was consistently on the wrong side of most predictions.
The question is, what changed?
The Cambridge Analytica Affair
It’s now clear that the electorate in both elections were the subject of unprecedented and targeted manipulation via Facebook. Kudos to The Guardian Newspaper whose investigative journalism has led the way in revealing how exactly this happened. Here’s a link to one of the Guardian’s original articles on the topic.
In case you’re not sure what Cambridge Analytica was all about here are the basic facts.
A hedge-fund billionaire called Robert Mercer owned Cambridge Analytica. Steve Bannon ran the company and was later to be Trump’s campaign manager.
A Russian-American Cambridge University academic, working for Cambridge Analytics called Aleksandr Kogan created a quiz app called thisisyourdigitallife. Cambridge Analytica then paid hundreds of thousands of people to take the quiz making it clear that the results were intended for use in academic research.
Cambridge Analytica exploited Facebook’s API (governing how other apps interact with the Facebook platform) to access metadata of all the Facebook friends of everyone who had taken the quiz.
80,000,000 people data had their metadata extracted in this way enabling Cambridge Analytica to match the records of 50 million U.S. citizens to the electoral roll — roughly 25% of the electorate. Cambridge Analytica used the results of the online quiz and the Facebook data they acquired to develop an algorithm designed to analyse individual Facebook profiles and identify personality traits which they matched to voting behaviour.
The final step in the process was to design campaigns tailored to match population groups sorted by their profiles — the campaigns themselves targeted voter suppression. The goal was to ensure that fewer Democratic voters cast their vote.
4 million fewer Democrat voters cast their vote in the 2016 election than four years earlier. While it is hard to be sure that this was all due to the impact of voter suppression, the narrow margin of Trump’s victory means that even a small effect would have made the difference.
Facebook’s reaction has been dismal, beginning by threatening the Guardian with legal action and culminating in eliding over the truth and making vague promises. The truth is that nothing substantial has changed.
The Brexit Leave Campaign used similar tactics. As the Guardian reports:
‘Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica employee turned whistleblower, has revealed that as well as playing a part in setting up the firm – which is now facing increasing scrutiny from investigators on both sides of the Atlantic over its role in harvesting Facebook data – he was also a central figure in setting up AIQ, which accounted for 40% of Vote Leave’s campaign budget.'
Dominic Cummings, campaign director for the Leave campaign, would later state:
“Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Trump and Brexit, both unexpected results, both benefiting from targeting potential voters using data that Facebook released. To make matters worse, many of the campaigns targeting voters which followed were run on Facebook. Facebook’s malign influence on two pivotal moments in western democracy is hard to understate.
And all of this before we even start to examine the Russian influence on both results.
So Why Did Trump and Brexit Changed Everything?
It is arguable that both results would have been different had there were stronger protections of our privacy. The vast quantities of personal data Cambridge Analytica and AIQ had access to allowed them to understand the likely voting intentions of millions of people.
This insight enabled highly targeted efforts to drive voter behaviour strategically.
That’s why nearly four years on from that grey November morning the world is a different, more uncertain place.
What can we do?
None of us individually has the power to change the way Facebook or Google dominate the internet or the way the economic incentives make privacy intrusion a hallmark of their businesses.
There are however steps we can each take to limit the intrusions into our privacy. Taking action to protect privacy is a major theme I’ll be exploring on The Information Paradox website.
Ultimately, however, it’s the politicians who are going to solve this problem. A good start would be to break up companies like Google and Facebook. New legislation is required too. It should be illegal for companies to scan our emails, scrape and put up for sale our browsing data, gather details of our financial transactions and auction them to the highest bidder and so many other practices that we would never tolerate offline
As technology creeps toward a machine age, where artificial intelligence and clever software engineering manipulate our psychology, it’s possible to imagine our human vulnerabilities preyed on in ways we can hardly imagine today.
Now is the time for action.