Chris Wylie’s appearance before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday was explosive; I happened to catch a tweet about it as it was about to start, and ended up sitting through all 2–3 hours of it. The Cambridge Analytica story is way bigger than Brexit alone, but nobody who values UK democracy can trust the EU Referendum result now.
Wylie testified that Cambridge Analytica identified 5–7 million people from their Facebook profiles as being susceptible to Leave messages, and then blasted them with targeted advertising to increase the chances of their turning out to vote Leave. The conversion rates that he reported for these ads, of 5%–7% of targets performing a substantive action in response to them (such as donating or signing up to an event), far exceeded the norm for online advertising, especially for people the campaign had never contacted before.
The problem here isn’t only whether people were being fed false information, though obviously that is a problem. It’s about the fairness of a system of non-compulsory voting, where everything hinges on turnout. Non-compulsory votes are susceptible to being skewed by anything that causes one side’s supporters to turn out more than the other’s. You can’t claim that something is “the will of the people” unless it’s all the people, or a fair and representative sample.
Wylie and fellow whistleblower Shahmir Sanni describe themselves as supporters of Brexit, but that hasn’t prevented Leavers on Twitter from dismissing their claims out of hand. Many are calling these revelations an example of Remainer desperation to overturn their “democratic vote”, which only shows how desperate they are to ignore them.
Some argue that the whistleblowers’ accusations don’t matter because the Liberal Democrats were also fined for overspending in the referendum by the Electoral Commission, even though more evidence of rule-breaking doesn’t make the result more reliable, it makes it less reliable.
Or they argue that Wylie, as part of Cambridge Analytica’s operations, is equally culpable of their crimes, and therefore must be lying. This is surely one of those philosophical conundrums, like the Cretan poet who said that all Cretans are liars: he’s only culpable if you trust that what he said is true; if it isn’t true, he isn’t. Given their Leave sympathies, why would either Wylie or Sanni lie in order to discredit the entire basis of the EU Referendum?
One of the more popular ripostes is that because the government distributed a leaflet to every household in Britain setting out its argument in favour of remaining, Remain outspent Leave and therefore none of Leave’s overspending or targeted Facebook ads mattered.
But this goes to the heart of it. Targeting 100% of households is absolutely fair. Targeting 5–7 million people specifically because their Facebook profiles identify them as the people most susceptible to your tailored message isn’t. Amazon pitch their “you might also like” ads to us based on our buying history with them, rather than showing ads for random items, because targeted advertising is far more effective than blanket advertising.
Psychological manipulation of this kind distorts our decision-making, and any of us is vulnerable to it, as Tversky and Kahneman demonstrated years ago. The fact that Cambridge Analytica’s targets probably already agreed with their Leave ads isn’t evidence that they made no difference, it’s one of the reasons they will have done. Bombarding people who ordinarily might not have bothered to vote with ads tailored to push their personal buttons will have led them to vote in unrepresentatively high numbers.
The entire point of democracy, and especially a referendum, is that it’s supposed to reflect the will of the people. Advertising can distort that, which is why there are spending limits, and why targeting on the basis of insider knowledge is such a problem. Facebook data enabled Cambridge Analytica to do the kind of targeting that has never before been possible in UK politics; it could infer the views of people who had never even expressed a political opinion on Facebook, just from their Likes—an amazingly powerful tool.
Our political systems aren’t built to cope with these new tools, and 2016 broke them. Leavers might enjoy the results, and figure that all’s fair in love and war, but their refrain of “17 millions votes” is meaningless now, because we’ve lost the ability to tell what that actually means. Because of that, half the country can’t trust the democratic institutions of the country any more. Which means we should stop calling it a democracy and start calling it something else.
Sadly, the signs from Parliament aren’t good. Despite the objections of a principled few, Britain’s parties are poised to gain similar data powers to work out how people are likely to vote. What good will Wylie’s and Sanni’s whistleblowing do if MPs can’t see the fundamental threat to democracy that this represents? In response to questions about Cambridge Analytica during Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday, Theresa May said, “If anyone is suggesting these claims call into question the referendum, I say to them that the referendum was held, the vote was taken and we will be delivering on it.”
Pack up the democracy box, folks, it’s anything goes. Enjoy your representative oligarchy.
This analysis, mostly developed in an exchange with a young Leaver who replied to my initial tweet on the subject, prompted him to label me “a good example of someone who just doesn’t understand the world of data or digital—much like the committee today in the hearing”.
He may have concluded this because I didn’t immediately respond to one of his tweets about Facebook developer APIs, as if I didn’t know what an API is. Or perhaps it was because I replied to his point that this “microtrargetting has always been available via Facebook using their own systems” with the observation that some of us remember a time before Facebook. Later, he tried to catch me out by asking “do you even know the name of Wylie’s company incorporated in the US and the UK?”, as if whether or not I’d heard of Eunoia Technologies made a difference to anything Wylie said in Tuesday’s hearing.
I’m tempted to wear “someone who just doesn’t understand the world of data or digital” on my Twitter profile like a badge of pride, but I fear that not everyone would get the irony. Certainly not him.
Added by Rory on 31 March 2018.