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View from Washington: The Cambridge Analytica story is really not complicated

Serious allegations about Trump, Brexit and Kenya are being poorly served by an unacceptably befuddled media.

My trade is suffering from a ‘My brayn hurtz’ outbreak unseen since Monty Python’s Gumby donned a knotted hankie. Despite its protests, the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal is not hard to understand. It will take me a few words, but they are all necessary.

Judging from much of the weekend’s press and TV coverage, journalists – especially the political kind – are doing the public few favours on a subject based around three easily explained issues:

  1. Electoral process
  2. Campaign strategy
  3. Rights to privacy

Let’s take each in turn.

Electoral process

Elections pick leaders and decide issues. But a democratic electoral process must do something else: it must prove to the losers that they lost.

The Bacofoil brigade whines after every vote. The integrity and authority of the winner, though, depends on most opponents accepting the result. And they usually do. But anything reasonably suggesting otherwise acts like a cancer on civil society. Unchallenged, it leads to social unrest, even revolution.

Allegations against Cambridge Analytica loom over electoral processes in the US (2016’s Presidential election), UK (the Brexit referendum), Kenya (national elections in 2017) and elsewhere. In each case, procedural irregularities have been claimed by inside sources.

Kenya’s Supreme Court overruled its country’s original August 2017 vote, requiring an equally controversial re-run last October. Unanswered procedural allegations about votes in the US and UK include:

  • The use of unlawfully, and possibly illegally, acquired personal data about US and UK voters to target campaign messages.
  • A breach of the campaign expenditure cap on the ‘Leave’ campaign in the Brexit referendum.
  • A breach of US election law by the Trump campaign because of CA’s related employment of foreign nationals.

On one level, whether you believe any of these influenced the results in two tight polls is beside the point. What matters to society as a whole is whether they make enough mainstream Hillary Clinton and ‘Remain’ supporters believe that. Do they feel cheated and, even if you disagree, can you see how whistleblowers’ claims give them good cause to think that?

On another level, the question is simpler, but just as important: were laws broken and, if so, shouldn’t the culprits be brought to account?

If you see ‘Yes’ answers to those questions, then this controversy requires immediate public inquiry and, potentially, criminal investigation.

Probably one that is not potentially compromised by it taking five days for your information commissioner to get a warrant or as ambiguous a player as Devin Nunes.

Simple as that.

Campaign strategy

When Robin Day, John Cole and Jeremy Paxman reported on Parliament, it is hard to imagine a polysyllabic stranding them in a Gumby fug. But confronted by ‘psychometrics’, their counterparts today are exhibiting exactly that.

Yet, in political terms, the term shouldn’t be unfamiliar. It represents evolution, not revolution, in political campaigning and marketing in general.

Some history.

In 1957, American author Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders, a classic analysis of advertising that highlighted agencies’ use of profiling by behavioural and motivational scientists beyond selling detergent toward the promotion of politicans. In the 1970s and 1980s, the political world marveled at how Saatchi & Saatchi used market research and targeted ads to help elect Margaret Thatcher. By the 1990s and 2000s, we were entranced by the impact of focus groups thanks to New Labour.

Social and data analytics – and their application – have been part of politics for decades. Moreover, many of psychometrics’ basic concepts were set out by Charles Darwin’s cousin and follower Francis Galton in Hereditary Genius, in 1869.

What has changed is that companies like Cambridge Analytica today claim to be able to undertake profiling by harvesting data from digital sources that run through super-duper algorithms rather than footslogging teams of pollsters and canvassers: The Song Remains the Same (remixed by Nix).

There is a big debate about how much more powerful this makes campaigning. Snake oil or democratic Viagra? Put that aside. For polls as close as those that delivered Brexit and President Donald Trump, you could argue that CA’s strategy need have had only a fraction of the impact its proponents claim for it to have swung the results, if applied within the rules.

That is tangential to the main questions that have arisen around this specific scandal because, tough luck, psychometrics is fair game. The questions today surround whether or not CA acquired data and used it lawfully according to the contracts under which it originated and national election law.

Again, simple stuff.

The right to privacy

Here, and only here, do things arguably get complicated, but only as much because of us as the corporate actors.

Any adult who hasn’t figured out that you pay for Facebook, Google, Twitter and others with personal information needs to get out from under that rock. More understandable, though, is surprise over how much data companies gather legally.

The standard answer that we should read the terms and conditions (T&Cs) closely isn’t enough. These frequently obfuscate even where written in ‘plain English’. For example, while one of the latest revelations is that Facebook logs users’ mobile call and SMS data, there probably haven’t been any laws broken.

What we need is clearer and stricter legal control over what data companies may harvest including some categories that cannot be signed away, regardless of what the T&Cs request - certain inalienable rights to digital privacy.

However, this demands a critical debate that is also getting lost in journalism’s Gumby fug. It raises complex questions over where you draw the lines and how you enforce them. Instead, the media has focused on the easy stuff: does CA represent an existential threat to Facebook?

Facebook deserves a kicking. I’ve said that many times for a long time. Say it does collapse, though. Won’t another player fill the void and eventually do much the same things? What about other big online players – won’t they carry on profiling you on a similar basis?

This is a big topic, but given the internet’s ubiquity, it is overdue a hearing – and the media needs to start helping society address it in a constructive way.

Not so hard, is it? You still think the CA story is that difficult to understand? Really?

Its essence comes down to whether or not companies broke rules, failed to enforce them and/or committed either criminal or unlawful acts.

There is enough evidence to suggest that formal investigations are required. It comes mainly from media that can hold their heads high over the CA saga: The Observer, The Guardian, The New York Times and Channel 4. This is not conspiracy theory guff, rather a set of credible allegations.

Beyond that though, suspicions are mounting around a set of critical democratic votes and their integrity. This does neither of the sides in these binary plebiscites any good. Indeed, Trump supporters and Brexiteers are likely those who should now be making louder calls for clarity.

Going back to electoral process, when the other side increasingly does not think it lost, the winners’ authority is undermined. That’s how elections work.

When things go as far as they have now, blithely insisting you won will only increase division such that, even assuming you personally were completely unaware of any skullduggery or that it did not indeed take place, your own goals will be deliberately made difficult, even impossible. You can’t just talk to your base, which is what too many Trump/Leave politicians are doing. Your base is not your problem.

Because, and this is where the issues specific to CA and the broader ones about privacy intersect, this problem is not going to go away. Millions of people – winners and losers in the votes in question – are also wondering about how their personal information is acquired and then used. That concern is going to persist far longer than a tale of dodgy Brit hangovers who’ve apparently escaped from a Freddie Forsyth novel – but every time it comes up the public will be reminded about the allegations.

That should be pretty easy to understand, too.

Well, assuming that the press does finally bloody well wake up. Truth to power, dudes.

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