On Meet the Press this weekend, Virginia Senator and Intelligence Committee co-chairman Mark Warner weighed in on the controversy surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, bemoaning “the broad weaponization of information.” Weaponization was a notable choice of words. Substitute “effective utilization” for “broad weaponization,” and Warner’s words would have reflected common business school marketing wisdom rather than partisan political rhetoric.
Much is being made of Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data for the purpose of profiling the electorate for Steve Bannon and the Trump presidential campaign. “We broke Facebook,” asserted former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie, who claims to have created “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.” Once again the choice of words was incendiary; replace the words “warfare mindfuck” and with “profiling and persuasion,” and Cambridge Analytica’s services appear more benign.
“Behavioral micro-targeting” and “psychographic messaging” — the buzzwords preferred by Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix — are what Madison Avenue has long specialized in, dating back to when the Leo Burnett ad agency convinced Philip Morris that a cowboy on a horse was the best way to sell Marlboro cigarettes to young American men. Nor is there anything particularly new about applying marketing strategies to politics. That dates back at least to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968 when — as chronicled in Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President — the twenty-eight year-old Roger Ailes and J. Walter Thomson ad man H.R. Haldeman integrated corporate marketing techniques into candidate packaging and voter persuasion.
That was a half-century ago. In the intervening decades, micro-targeting and voter turnout strategies — the essence of any political campaign — have become increasingly sophisticated, as technology has enabled finer-grained voter identification and targeting. Clinton polling maestro Mark Penn’s “NeuroPersonality Poll” and “microtrends” model, which segmented the electorate into archetypal groups based on personality profiling (remember the soccer mom?) and targeted distinct campaign messaging to each group, was one forerunner of Cambridge Analytica’s “psychographic” modeling. In a similar vein, Karl Rove and Michael Dodd elected and re-elected Bush ’43 using voter segmentation strategies and “wedge issues” to motivate turnout among each of the social conservative voter groups that Grover Norquist had cobbled together fifteen years earlier as the base of the post-Reagan GOP coalition.
While people continue to lash out at Mark Zuckerberg for allowing Facebook data to fall into Cambridge Analytica’s hands — along with three Congressional committees and three dozen states attorneys general seeking to look into the matter — it is unclear what, if anything, either company did wrong. For all the company’s bravado, Cambridge Analytica’s “psychographic” profiling was just one more iteration of voter profiling efforts that have sought to integrate Myers-Briggs and similar personality tests into political campaign strategies. The real difference this time around was not the granularity of the data that landed in Cambridge Analytica’s lap or the techniques that it used to manipulate that data, but Steve Bannon’s recognition of the power of Facebook — and of social media in general — as a platform for galvanizing simmering anger across disparate communities into a cohesive political movement.
As Internet philosopher and critic Jaron Lanier has observed, the world of social media is built around emotional engagement, and negative emotional engagement has proven to be a more powerful force than positive emotional engagement. “I think a lot of people perceive a sort of arc of improving empathy and ethics in civilization.” Lanier commented late last year. “Recently, it’s been reversed. The Arab Spring turned into this terrible wave of terrorist nihilism. When women got together to try and improve their lot in the gaming world, it turned into Gamergate, which turned into the alt-right. Black Lives Matter preceded this normalization of racism and white supremacy that was just unthinkable a year before.
“All of these movements, that are so social media-centric, provide the fuel to the social media system. But to maximize the value of that fuel, it’s routed into negative purposes, so the people who are the most irritated by whatever is going on that’s positive are introduced to each other. The backlash is vastly more powerful than the initial attempt. My prediction is that #MeToo will create some kind of horrible social event through social media in about a year.”
What made Steve Bannon different was not the use of psychological profiling and voter targeting — or the availability of Facebook data — but how he tailored his messaging to a social media eco-system. Barack Obama’s data analytics and messaging began down that path. Obama’s message of Hope and Change was well-suited for emotional engagement in the social media world and energizing younger voters. Steve Bannon took things one step further, explicitly optimizing emotional engagement online — as Lanier suggests — through negative messaging, including, notably, building on the negative emotional backlash to Obama himself.
None of Bannon’s test phrases were particularly new. The “deep state” and “the NSA is watching you” and “build the Wall” were each themes of Alex Jones’ right-wing conspiracy mongering InfoWars in 2012, while “drain the swamp” dates back almost twenty years to Pat Buchanan’s 1999 acceptance speech as the Reform Party presidential candidate. What made Bannon different was that rather than starting with a candidate and then seeking to build messaging that might work — the traditional political campaign practice — his objective was to develop a basket of slogans which produced the greatest emotional resonance for the purpose of catalyzing a political movement, and then set about to find a candidate who could become the vessel to embody them. Donald Trump became Steve Bannon’s guinea pig; and it worked.
The delinking of emotional resonance from actual performance with respect to specific issues also set Bannon’s approach apart from older generations of GOP strategy. The strategies developed by Grover Norquist around the Reagan Revolution, Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America, Karl Rove for Bush’43, and the organizers of the Tea Party, each embodied the traditional premise that candidates be held accountable for delivering on specific policy issues — e.g. cutting taxes, cutting spending, banning abortion, opposing gay marriage, etc. In contrast, Bannon’s messaging was more aspirational — more blatantly Leninist, as he once noted — tied to bringing down the status quo and the establishment, untethered from accountability for any particular outcomes. To paraphrase Selena Zito’s famous observation, Bannon’s political messaging allows Donald Trump to be evaluated by his core supporters for what he says, not for what he does.
Public indignation and Mark Zuckerberg’s mea culpas notwithstanding, Cambridge Analytica’s access to Facebook data is not the critical issue people should be focused on. If people are upset about how Facebook data is being used, we have only ourselves to blame. Facebook did not give away any data that we did not give away first. Years ago, we made a deal: we would get free online services; in exchange, Internet service providers, social media platforms, apps, and the rest of the online world, would get our data — a few, if any, of us actually gave any heed to how they might use it. Perhaps Facebook violated its terms of service, allowing Cambridge Analytica access to data it should not have had, but that is not where the deeper problem lies. The real story — and it is one that cannot be litigated or regulated away — is how we behave on social media itself, where all of our worst instincts, our tribalism and hostilities, are amplified and played out to the extreme.
That is what Steve Bannon understood; it is what he has learned to exploit; and — as he is now taking his show on the road, and looking to do to Europe what he has done to America — it is not apparent that there is an easy way to deal with it. The problem is not data, but the larger issue of the culture of social media. To put it in Mark Warner’s terms, it is not the information that has been weaponized; it is us.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore.”
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.