By Colleen O'Connor
Want to scare yourself this Halloween? Forget witches, goblins, ghosts or haunted houses. Instead, read Christopher Wylie’s book Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America.”
It is a must-read primer on the dark arts of cyber politics—”scaled online disinformation, fake news, and mass profiling.”
If half of what Wylie writes is true, everyone should be seriously frightened.
It comes as no surprise that much of what high-tech, fin-tech, med-tech and cyber-tech have unleashed is a mixed bag of tricks and treats, that remains to be sorted.
In politics, however, the dark arts and “artists” of these often illegal activities, are rarely unmasked.
Wiley—dubbed “the millennials’ first great whistleblower”—exposes the alleged corruption and often illegal work of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and the Russians.
As Cambridge Analytica’s director of research, Wylie explains how he helped design and build big data banks of private information that were then monetized, mobilized, and politically weaponized.
To weaponize, “You figure out which bits of salient information to pull to the fore to affect how a person feels, what she believes, and how she behaves.” Then tweak and exploit it for political or economic gain.
The real goal was “to fix society under the radar”—stealing personality profiles and pitching false narratives to affect voters’ reasoning”—thereby, increasing or suppressing turnouts.
In plain speak, this meant acquiring via Facebook, governmental sites, academic records, police files and voting records, all of your clicks, pics, family videos, voice messages, tastes, purchases, likes, shares and preferences—in fashion, music, movies, sports, furniture, etc.—and then planting Trojan Horse fake news and video stories nearby in a “virtual neighbouhood” for people like you, so that you believed and trusted the contents.
This online ghetto of targeted disinformation used your personality profile and that of everyone you ever contacted on Facebook.
And they did it in real time. Or as Wylie writes, they were building “the first prototype of the artificial society.”
In earlier prototypes, used by the military, such profiles were designed to ferret out violent behavior and stop it. Such as terrorists.
By contrast, Bannon and Cambridge Analytica’s data sets were designed to maximize resentment and to “foster distrust.”
They designed and uploaded fake focus groups, fake news, polls, social pages and videos to promote anger among the susceptible, targeted groups.
They wanted to alter the culture, divide the country and not just predict the future but change it. Or as Wylie’s argues, “to break America.”
How is this different from traditional political smear campaigns, whispers, vile accusations, leafleting and commercials?
Think of it this way: more than 90% of Americans receive their news online, and about 50 percent of these rely on social media sites.
And, “there are no privacy laws in the United States to prevent Cambridge Analytica from collecting as much Facebook data as it could.”
Staffed with psychologists, computers scientists, hackers, and academics, Cambridge Analytica and Bannon employed the Facebook mantra to “move fast and break things.”
So fast and so frightening that by 2016, they could scale “live disinformation.”
It turns out that “build the wall” and “drain the swamp” were “exact phrases that Cambridge Analytica had tested and included in reports sent to Bannon well before Trump used them.
Brexit, the British vote to leave the European Union, functioned as a trial run for the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
“Britain served as an important cultural signifier for Americans. Win the Brits, so falls America, Bannon later told me. The mythologies and tropes of Hollywood had crafted an image of ‘Britain as a country of educated, rational and classy people.’” So attack this culture of entitled “elites” and you win “left behind” angry voters and the election.
Brexit and Boris Johnson won that election. Britain was divided and remains so.
Yet, Boris Johnson just suffered a serious loss in a series of parliamentary votes and may now face a new general election—which he could lose.
As Brexit and Johnson go down to defeat, so too might MAGA and Trump.
So its best to be fearful this Halloween. That kid in the Frankenstein mask may not be all that he appears.
According to Wylie, “America is now living in the aftermath of the first scaled deployment of a psychological weapon of mass destruction.”
Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.
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