Big Data versus democracy

March 28, 2018

Tyler Zimmer breaks down what's new and what's not so new about the strategies used by consulting firms like Cambridge Analytica to win elections at any cost.

BEFORE THE last couple weeks, most people had never heard of Cambridge Analytica. Now, the misdeeds of the high-powered "political consulting" firm are making headlines worldwide.

The revelations that instigated the current wave of negative press engulfing Cambridge Analytica broke when Channel 4 News in Britain sent an undercover reporter to set up a meeting with company executives. The reporter posed as a Sri Lankan business mogul hoping to influence a local election--and taped Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix offering a variety of illicit "services" to sway the election.

Some of these services included: digital smear campaigns based on false information, elaborate schemes to entrap competitors taking bribes, so-called "honey traps" in which sex workers would be paid to acquire compromising information about political rivals, and the list goes on.

For his part, Nix denies that the video shows any such thing: "I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment, bribes or so-called 'honey traps,' and nor does it use untrue material for any purpose."

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix (Sam Barnes | flickr)

In fact, the firm specializes in using "psychographic profiling" to use social media platforms like Facebook to target and influence individual voters. In pursuit of this goal, Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of some 50 million Facebook users without their permission.

To paraphrase a quip made about the "legislative process" in capitalist democracies: The inner workings of Cambridge Analytica are a little like how sausages are made--the less you know about it, the better for your appetite.

To begin with, the firm is partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, the hard-right hedge-fund mogul who was a strong backer of Trump's 2016 campaign and an early investor in Breitbart News.

Indeed, Cambridge Analytica was hired to work on Trump's presidential campaign as well as the Brexit campaign in the UK--but that's only the tip of the iceberg. The firm has also contracted with various British government agencies, including the Ministry of Defense, Home Office and Foreign Office.

The firm also managed four election campaigns for the reactionary Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. Cambridge Analytica's website boasts "of supporting more than 200 campaigns across five continents."

And on top of all this, a related scandal involving the use of data harvested from Facebook users is still unfolding.


SO WHAT does it all mean?

No doubt aspects of this story will appeal to some neoliberal, Democratic-leaning commentators who view the pre-Trump, pre-Brexit political situation as more or less ideal and in desperate need of restoration.

They will see in the shadowy dealings of Cambridge Analytica a confirmation of their suspicion that the rise of Trump was fundamentally caused by external meddling in an otherwise smoothly functioning democratic system of government.

But this narrative is premised on a pack of falsehoods.

The U.S. has never had a smoothly functioning democratic system. The political system is dominated by the rich--and that was true long before the Citizens United ruling helped usher in an era in which elections are fueled by unprecedented sums of corporate cash.

And contrary to the line coming from Hillary Clinton--who once countered Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" by declaring that "America is already great"--the pre-Trump status quo was no Garden of Eden. It was a crisis-ridden catastrophe marked by profound inequality and injustice.

This doesn't mean that we should overlook or underestimate the corrosive effects that forces like Cambridge Analytica have on contemporary politics.

Quite the opposite, in fact: We should view the dirty dealings of firms like Cambridge Analytica not as an exception to the rule, but as the norm in capitalist societies where elections are often little more than buying sprees for ruling-class forces jockeying for influence.

When it comes to data-driven political consulting and digital propaganda campaigns, Cambridge Analytica is hardly the only option for wealthy investors looking to steer politicians and influence elections.

Democratic Party operatives use many of these tactics as well. To cite only the most spectacularly disastrous example: Hillary Clinton's 2016 bid for president relied heavily on a big-data analytics algorithm called "Ada." The Clinton campaign made major decisions about resource allocation and messaging based on information gleaned from this data-mining operation.


THE COMMON thread linking together the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the "data-driven" campaigning that is now standard practice in both of the two pro-business parties in the U.S. is a neoliberal image of voters as consumers and politics as marketing.

According to this perspective, there is no meaningful difference between running an advertising campaign and running a political campaign. In one case, the aim is to sell a product to a consumer, in the other, to sell a politician to a voter.

Voters, in this view, are little more than passive objects tossed to and fro by various marketing and public relations campaigns that attempt to modify their behaviors in ways that are beneficial to private interests. Thus, politics becomes nothing but a game of public relations optics, without substance or organic connection to the interests of ordinary people.

Other ways of mobilizing people--by building mass movements in the streets, by organizing militant strikes, by empowering people to field their own candidates and voice their own demands--are off-limits because they fundamentally clash with the interests of people who run the two pro-business parties.

These strategies are risky because they can quickly become difficult or impossible to control--and they often require raising demands that the Nancy Pelosis and Paul Ryans of the world don't support in any case.

The left-wing alternative to this technocratic, elitist perspective is simple: build social movements, labor struggles and political campaigns that are controlled by and directly address the needs of working-class people.

Rather than seeing elections as arcane exercises in digital manipulation and data-driven marketing, we should see them as one opportunity--among others--for advancing political demands that benefit workers and challenge the ruling-class priority of profit maximization.

We should be alarmed by the shadowy maneuvering of firms like Cambridge Analytica. But so, too, should we deeply disturbed by the profound disdain for democracy harbored by the entire political establishment in the U.S.

To defeat both, we need to help build bigger, stronger social movements and a larger, more organized socialist left.

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