Remember Nudge? It was a 2008 book by Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein, full of bright technocratic ideas for using ‘choice architecture’ to ‘nudge’ the plebs to make the ‘right’ decisions. The Guardian’s reviewer called it ‘never intimidating, always amusing, and elucidating: a jolly economic romp with serious lessons within’.
On Saturday, the Guardian published a whistleblower’s account of how Cambridge Analytica used data originating from ‘tens of millions’ of Facebook profiles to construct choice architecture that could nudge the plebs to really vote the ‘right’ way, by using targetted adverts to swing marginal constituencies to the Republicans. This is not a jolly romp, but an intimidating and sinister business that runs on the exploitation of privacy, and tends towards the corruption of democratic process. There are serious lessons within.
Facebook, like all social media platforms, is incapable of protecting its users’ privacy. This is not accidental, but intentional. The social media business model monetizes user preferences for advertisers. So of course Facebook allowed Alexander Kogan’s ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ app onto its site, where 270,000 people allowed it to access their personal information and that of their friends while they took a personality test. Of course Alexander Kogan assembled million of individual profiles from the information. Of course he ‘passed’ it — or, given that he is clearly not stupid, sold it—to Strategic Communication Laboratories and its affiliate Cambridge Analytica.
A lot of money and processing power is going into ‘nudging’ the political choices of social media users. This is no secret. The Obama campaign of 2008, with Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes as a digital strategist, boasted of how it mobilized young voters through social media. In exit polls, Obama won nearly 70 per cent of the under-25 vote, the highest percentage since exit polling began in 1976.
In 2012, the Obama campaign again used Facebook as a data-gathering tool. Unlike Cambridge Analytica, it asked first. More than a million users allowed the Obama campaign to access their contacts, and target campaign advertising at millions of more people. The Guardian was delighted at Obama’s jolly and digitally-assisted romp to the White House.
Ten years’ on, the digital nudging goes both ways, and the greed and ineptitude of the social media companies is damaging democracy. The social media companies are treating us like idiots, and who can blame them? Only an idiot would trade private information to a social media company, and expect that the information would not to be passed onwards, either via aggregation to advertisers, or in raw form, for the perfecting of the infernal machinery of user profiling.
The social media companies have defended their trading of information with the National Security Agency’s defence of its snooping: when your information is aggregated into metadata, you melt into the digital herd. But the whole point of surveillance is to identify individual criminals. Aggregation can be unpicked without a warrant, through cross-referencing and location data. Similarly, the whole point of advertising is to direct preferred information to potential customers—or, in Cambridge Analytica’s parlance, ‘behavioral microtargeting’.
Read the 2013 study on which Cambridge Analytica based its model of ‘psychographic’ prediction, and you enter a world of idiocy. Fortunately, the idiocy is not limited to the contributors to the survey. The predictions are idiotic too. A liking for Hello Kitty correlates to personalities ‘high on openness and low on conscientiousness’. Such people are also ‘more likely’ to have Democratic political views and be of African-American origin, predominantly Christian, and slightly below average age.’
What kind of behavioral microtargeting would swing their votes to the Republicans—an image of Nancy Pelosi violating a Hello Kitty with a crucifix while its owner, a younger than average African American, cries with lower than average commitment?
Anyway, are African-Americans low on conscientiousness? Are Christians high on openness? Openness to what, exactly? Plush anthropomorphic kittens? The streak of paedophilia in Japanese culture? Nostalgia for the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the enslavement of lesser races in the name of the emperor?
No, just general slack-jawed, half-witted, credulous openness, and a general lack of mental conscientiousness. And that too goes both ways. At the moment, we are lucky that the snoopers are almost as dumb as the snooped. The methods and findings of the 2013 survey are risible in their crudity. A liking for curly fries indicates high intelligence. A liking for Sephora cosmetics indicates low intelligence. Liking the Wu Tang Clan is a strong predictor of male heterosexuality, even though there are few spectacles more camp than the all-male, pants-round-your-knees gang-bang that is hip-hop.
That said, the survey methods are sinister in intent. And its profiling technology is demonstrably good enough to violate people’s privacy. Only 5 per cent of survey participants described themselves as gay on their Facebook pages. So the researchers used ‘Likes’ that were ‘moderately indicative of being gay’, such as preferences for Britney Spears and Desperate Housewives. This allowed the survey to out participants as gay with an 88 per cent accuracy rate. So much for privacy.
The industry of digital nudgers that has grown up around politics only works if the voters accept the social media request to dumb down their mental and social lives to impulsive twitches of the ‘Like’ and ‘Dislike’ buttons. You could ask Congress to do something before the intrusion and profiling really gets bad, though I wouldn’t hold my breath. But you are still free, for the moment at least, to avoid social media like the plague that it is.
Dominic Green, PhD, FRHistS is a critic, historian and a former editor of The Spectator’s World edition. The author of four books, he writes widely on the arts and current affairs, and contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal and the New Criterion. His next book, The Religious Revolution, is forthcoming with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.