Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2598

Did big data rig the votes?

This article is over 6 years, 3 months old
If you believed the liberal hype, you’d think that our vision of the world is decided by a handful of powerful nerds. Nick Clark argues the reality is far more complex
Issue 2598
Cambridge Analytica—not so smart after all
Cambridge Analytica—not so smart after all (Pic: Creative Commons/Wikimedia )

It’s a scary world out there. Powerful people are doing grubby things with personal information we may not even realise we’ve made available to them on the internet.

Cambridge Analytica harvested data from millions of Facebook users then sold it to the Trump and Leave campaigns to help them win.

Recent revelations regarding this have raised big questions about what—or who—decides the way we think and vote.

According to some commentary that’s followed, the revelations show how a shadowy cabal of millionaires, politicians and computer programmers are responsible for Trump and Brexit.

For the past week the Guardian newspaper has run stories claiming the Leave vote may never have happened if it wasn’t for Cambridge Analytica’s involvement.

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie—the Guardian’s star source—claimed the Vote Leave campaign won the referendum by “cheating”. It allegedly broke election spending rules to plough money into a Cambridge Analytica franchise that targeted certain voters with adverts.

The same argument is made about Trump’s election. Trump’s former adviser—the far right media mogul Steve Bannon—helped to set up Cambridge Analytica, which was then hired by Trump’s campaign.

Using data harvested from 50 million Facebook profiles, Cambridge Analytica claimed to be able to gain intimate insight into the personalities of individual users. Then it could “microtarget” specific sections of users with highly ­personalised adverts.

Wylie, who helped set up Cambridge Analytica, called this “psychological warfare”. Pundits say it gave Trump the edge he needed to win the election.

Much of this belief means taking Cambridge Analytica’s self-hype at face value.

While punting his wares about the US, chief executive Alexander Nix made fantastic claims about his company’s ability to read and influence people’s thoughts. It’s how he persuaded right wing multimillionaire Robert Mercer to stump up the cash for Cambridge Analytica in 2013.

Nix was determined to take credit for Cambridge Analytica’s “integral” and “pivotal” role in Trump’s election. His former clients aren’t so sure.

Before the scandal broke, Trump’s digital and media strategist Brad Parscale said of Cambridge Analytica’s ­technique, “I just don’t think it works”.

Even before Trump hired it, Cambridge Analytica had earned itself a reputation for making promises it couldn’t deliver. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort didn’t “want ’em anywhere near the campaign.

“They’re just full of shit, right?” The truth is there’s more to what shapes the way people think than smart advertising, slick propaganda and clever computer programming.

There’s a very patronising view that says some people were simply manipulated into voting for Trump or Brexit. Certain liberal commentators are happier to believe that and lump together the two results than seriously analyse them.


But there are much bigger changes happening in society that affect the way we think about it.

People’s ideas aren’t just pushed into their heads by the media, politicians, adverts or propaganda. They’re shaped by the reality of our everyday lives and the world around us.

The way that society is organised determines how we live our lives. It forms the basis of how we understand the world and our place within it, so most of the time this setup seems natural.

We can accept as common sense the ideas that justify the way society works. The idea that we should all worry about whether businesses, bankers and financiers can keep making huge profits is one example of this.

That means racist arguments—such as that immigration can cause lower pay—can also seem to make sense when bosses claim they can’t afford to give everyone a decent wage.

Despite this, when our experience brings us into conflict with the system we can become more open to ideas that challenge it. Arguments for years of pay restraint, for instance, have far less purchase when we see bosses raking in billions of pounds of profits.

Importantly, people can play a role in shaping their own ideas too—especially when they come into direct confrontation with the system.

Recently workers in universities have organised huge strikes in defence of their pensions.

Strikers, including many low paid and precarious workers, have found themselves leading a struggle in ways they wouldn’t have thought themselves capable of just a few weeks earlier.

The battle has meant many feel much more confident about what they can achieve.

The Egyptian revolution of 2011 is another event that liberal pundits tried to credit Facebook for. An endless amount of words were written about how social media had meant people could finally rise up against a 30 year dictatorship.

When the government shut down the internet just days into the uprising, people still managed to organise mass protests and strikes that brought the regime down.

Many who were there remember the fantastic debates that took place about the society people could build once the regime was gone.

As people fought to change the world, their ideas changed with it. That left a legacy so deep that the current regime has waged an incredibly brutal counter-revolution in a bid to destroy all memory of it.

The disaster of the Iraq war has made it harder for politicians to justify new invasions and interventions in the Middle East.

But the massive Stop the War movement in 2003 saw millions of people join protests against the invasion. That left a legacy of opposition to imperialism among a significant layer of people in society.

That’s something that fed into the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader—and which right wing politicians and pundits are still fighting to break down.

It’s just one aspect of a much bigger problem that they face.

When a society collapses into crisis, the ideas that justify it are challenged.

When a society collapses into crisis, the ideas that justify it are challenged.

For over three decades politicians have ruled over a ne­oliberal consensus—that’s meant privatisation, low wages and job cuts.

In Britain Tory and Labour politicians alike have counted on mainstream media outlets to broadly reflect and promote this worldview. But as people’s jobs, wages, services and lives have steadily worsened, trust in the media and politicians has fallen.

The financial crash of 2007 was the major turning point. The system was clearly broken.

This has led to major upsets across the world.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 was one of these. There have been major outbursts of ­anti-austerity protests on nearly every continent, and the rise of left wing political forces, such as Corbyn or Syriza in Greece.


That same process has facilitated the growth of far right forces—particularly across Europe—and the election of Donald Trump.

It’s also responsible for more complicated phenomena such as the vote for Brexit.

Workers’ ideas—changing through struggle
Workers’ ideas—changing through struggle
  Read More

There’s a constant battle for ideas that’s particularly sharp during periods of crisis. Mainstream politicians and media fight desperately to rescue their old ways of thinking. But that battle also takes place among those at the top of society.

Some very rich and powerful people, with a different vision for how capitalism should work, have noticed a space for their own ideas to grow.

The likes of Trump and Mercer have excelled at taking advantage of this —particularly in the US where distrust for politicians was highest among right wingers.

People such as Nix have made fortunes out of selling ways to help them do that.

For all that we shouldn’t buy into Nix’s bullshit, it is true that Facebook’s data and algorithms have helped to spread Trump’s right wing ideas among the right people. But to see Facebook as the problem is wishful thinking.

Facebook can be regulated and new data laws can be passed.

But Facebook is not to blame for the crisis of mainstream politics.


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