Cambridge Analytica: It’s Much More Than Just Fake News

This is the time of year when my students–graduate and undergraduate–present the results of their research projects to their classmates (and, of course, me). One of my better undergraduate students focused upon the legal implications of the increasing use of household “personal assistants”–those sort of “Siri for home use” voice-activated electronic devices like Amazon’s “Echo.”

In addition to detailing the investigative uses of such devices by law enforcement, he pointed out potentials for informational mischief, especially when those devices are asked to conduct a search; unlike a google search performed on a computer screen, which yields pages of results and thus highlights inconsistent responses and the questionable credibility of certain of those responses, a virtual assistant simply responds with whatever information has been moved up in the response list by someone good at search engine optimization.

His example: responding to question “who won the popular vote,” one personal assistant read from a single (conspiracy) site reporting that Trump had actually won the popular vote.  No list, no context, no description of the source.

If the implications of his presentation weren’t troubling enough,a report from Medium gave me chills.

A data scientist and others had begun digging into so-called “fake news” sites after the election.  It soon became clear to them that they were dealing with a phenomenon that encompassed much more than just a few fake news stories. It was a piece of a much bigger and darker puzzle — a Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine being used to manipulate public opinions and behaviors to advance specific political agendas.

By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.

Most recently, Analytica helped elect U.S. President Donald Trump, secured a win for the Brexit Leave campaign, and led Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign surge, shepherding him from the back of the GOP primary pack to the front.

The company is owned and controlled by conservative and alt-right interests that are also deeply entwined in the Trump administration. The Mercer family is both a major owner of Cambridge Analytica and one of Trump’s biggest donors. Steve Bannon, in addition to acting as Trump’s Chief Strategist and a member of the White House Security Council, is a Cambridge Analytica board member. Until recently, Analytica’s CTO was the acting CTO at the Republican National Convention.

Analytica has declined to work on any Democratic campaigns,  and according to the story, is negotiating to help Trump manage both public opinion around his presidency and to expand sales for the Trump Organization.

Cambridge Analytica is now expanding aggressively into U.S. commercial markets and is also meeting with right-wing parties and governments in Europe, Asia, and Latin America….

There’s been a wave of reporting on Cambridge Analytica itself and solid coverage of individual aspects of the machine — bots, fake news, microtargeting — but none so far (that we have seen) that portrays the intense collective power of these technologies or the frightening level of influence they’re likely to have on future elections.

The article has much more detail on the way these “bots” work, and the ambitions of Cambridge Analytica. We are entering very uncharted waters, and it is by no means clear that we have the tools we need to deal with a challenge of this magnitude.

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on April 20, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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