What an odd piece of commentary based on social shunning. Is this actually possible? All sorts of behavioral social experiments are being conducted through the internet on unsuspecting individuals that would leave you preferring authentic human to human connections rather than spending time online only to find that you’ve been deliberately isolated and segregated because you don’t fit into some “category” that is socially acceptable. People with high neuroticism are excellent candidates for types of experiments especially for neurotechnology’s brainwave monitoring devices that employs the use of “neuro-nanite” chips that is meant to alter brainwave activity in unison with social engineering attacks and social conditioning propaganda video games as it provides rich data for those who are susceptible to emotional triggers.
The door is wide open for these types of human experimentation, for as of today there are no firm rules on what brain information can be gathered from people and with whom it can be shared with. We will tackle this issues in depth in another article, however, lets begin with another kind of social conditioning experiment that has far-reaching implications. It’s called data-mining.
The internet, one of the greatest invention of the 21st century is the new publisher of information owned by no one and shared by all. It is equally accessible to everyone and empowers people to build a more connected and collaborative world. But with each day the internet is becoming more of a vehicle for censorship, surveillance and fake news. Cerf and Robert Kahn co-parented the internet, with others, who crafted TCP/IP didn’t anticipate the dangers the net would face in the 21st century. “The benefit of [the internet] is that voices that might never have been heard are heard,” he says “On the other hand, we also hear from people whose messages we wish weren’t delivered—terrorism, misinformation, deliberate deception, and then there is malware and other kinds of things.” It’s getting harder to verify to what extent the news we read is authentic or deliberate misinformation even from the more reputable news outlets.
The following is a commentary based on my observations about online news mostly found posted in social media outlets and two peculiar news clippings about the US elections and Brexit I found published by the Guardian:
Deliberate deception. I fully agree.
One day I began to notice, something is definitely wrong with the internet, more specifically with our social media. I began to notice this, for example, not too long after the Brexit vote and evermore after the US elections. Two current events that had probable and likely outcomes went completely in the opposite direction sending citizens into a topsy-turvey leaving us to question what went wrong? How could we get it so wrong? Nobody saw it coming. What happened?
It’s called data-manipulation turned psychological warfare employed by data-analytics firms. The company, SCL Elections, bought by Robert Mercer (a Trump supporter), a secretive hedge fund billionaire, renamed the company Cambridge Analytica, and achieved a certain notoriety as the data-analytics firm that played a role in both Trump and Brexit campaigns. What’s clear is that the power and dominance of the Silicon Valley – Google and Facebook and a small handful of others – are at the center of the global tectonic shift we are currently witnessing.
This tectonic shift reveals a critical and gaping hole in the political debate in Britain. Because what is happening in America and what is happening in Britain are entwined. Brexit and Trump are entwined. The Trump administration’s links to Russia and Britain are also entwined. Russia’s “authoritarian surveillance state are being laid in the US and British democracy and was subverted through a covert, far-reaching plan of coordination enabled by a US billionaire. As mentioned in my previous article information is the new currency and we are in the midst of a massive land grab for power by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested and stored. Whoever owns this data owns the future.” [Guardian]
Cambridge Analytica is a central point in the right’s “propaganda machine” that employs Google algorithms that covering an entire “alt-right” news and information ecosystem. A Guardian article suggests that Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon, were on a strategic mission to smash the mainstream media employing computer science and artificial intelligence techniques “and replace it with one comprising alternative facts, fake history, and right-wing propaganda.” This has triggered two on-going investigations by the Information Commissioner’s Office into the possible illegal use of data and a secondly the Electoral Commission. Both investigations have Canadian connections to a data-analytical company out of Victoria, BC. AggregateIQ, which specializes in targeted Facebook advertising and profiling focused on the LeaveVote of the campaign.
This is a story that brings social psychology, data-analytics, mass data-harvesting by employing military psychological warfare techniques and strategies on a civilian population. “It brought psychology, propaganda, and technology together in this powerful new way.” says David Miller, a professor of sociology and an authority in psyops and propaganda, says it is “an extraordinary scandal that this should be anywhere near a democracy. It should be clear to voters where information is coming from, and if it’s not transparent or open where it’s coming from, it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy or not.”
Finding “persuadable” voters is key to any campaign and with its treasure trove of data, Cambridge Analytica could target people high in neuroticism, the key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter. Remember I mentioned something is wrong with our social media? Well it was Facebook that enabled Cambridge Analytica to target individuals to collect psychological insights by obtaining its vast data-set and “harvested Facebook data (legally) for “research purposes” and published pioneering peer-reviewed work about determining personality traits, political partisanship, sexuality and much more from people’s Facebook “likes”.
SCL/Cambridge Analytica then contracted a scientist at the university to harvest new Facebook data. And he did so by paying people to take a personality quiz which also allowed not just their own Facebook profiles to be harvested, but also those of their friends – a process then allowed by the social network”. The company also (perfectly legally) bought consumer data-sets – on everything from magazine subscriptions to airline travel, even [harmless] credit bureau information – and uniquely it appended these with the psych data to voter files. It matched all this information to people’s addresses, their phone numbers and often their email addresses. “The goal is to capture every single aspect of every voter’s information environment.. to craft individual messages.” Its key objective, according to a memo the Observer has seen, was “voter disengagement” and “to persuade Democrat voters to stay at home”, a profoundly disquieting tactic. It has previously been claimed that suppression tactics were used in the campaign.
Documents also seen by the Observer show that this was a proposal to capture citizens’ browsing history en masse, recording phone conversations and applying natural language processing to the recorded voice data to construct a national police database, complete with scores for each citizen on their propensity to commit a crime. Tamsin Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy at New York University, researched the US military’s funding and use of psychological research for use in torture. “The capacity for this science to be used to manipulate emotions is very well established. This is military-funded technology that has been harnessed by a global plutocracy and is being used to sway elections in ways that people can’t even see, don’t even realize is happening to them,” she says. “It’s about exploiting existing phenomenon like nationalism and then using it to manipulate people at the margins.
We’ve been always asking ourselves, “Are those “government surveillance” conspiracy theories in fact true?” While it is true, governments and businesses are naturally trying to look for a competitive edge over their competitors, it is natural for these institutions to look towards the internet and data -mining techniques to find answers on new ways to connect with existing and new consumers and voters. However the techniques described above is taking it to a whole new level. Are we that naive and so easily manipulated? The Internet was created for sharing and connecting, not for censorship, surveillance and deliberate misinformation.
And what of Canada? Are these tactics presently being employed within our political regimes? Canada is not immune to the problem of low voter turn out at elections. Considering there is about 40% of Canadian who choose not to vote means that parties and candidates need to become inventive in the ways in which they choose to connect with un-engaged voters. If it is not already in use, it seems it is only a matter of time for these data-harvesting and behavior-profiling techniques over social medias are employed and who knows employing, what we might call today, ‘dubious’ tactics might even become the norm.
Campaign Platform and Voters
A debate is raging. Can behavioral profiling involving big-data analytics to influence elections albeit with major consequences for privacy? Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns employed behavioral profiling companies. The focus of these strategies are about engaging with a campaign’s supporters and tailoring the message to them. “It’s about communicating with them in a timely and meaningful manner, not giving them too much content, and what you do give them is within the lines of what they want to hear.”
Political marketing is not just about selling policy ideas but also about carefully designing a political product that is informed by public demands about what voters want, often through market intelligence from focus groups and public opinion polling. In this case the political product would include the leader, candidates, the performance, behavior of the party, and the campaign platform among other things. In other-words, a market-oriented political party attempts to respond to and connect with voters in a way that helps the party design its policies and build a brand that voters have already told the party the want to see. Put differently, voter demands are actually informing the development and design of the party’s product.
Putting together winning coalitions means discovering who in the electorate either does support or is likely to support the party and second, finding out where those people are (in which province, cities, towns and ridings). The coalition must both be demographic and geographic and what easier way it would be to attain such information through social and website platforms. From bulletin boards to email, from websites to audiovisual content, from blogs to social media, most parties and candidates have hastened to establish a presence on any genre of digital communication that was available to them. Email-based mobilization is more inclusive than offline mobilization. With marginal costs of email communication that are practically null, a political organization can afford to send messages to any citizen who is on the list. As one employs these various means it is easy to see how attractive using data-harvesting and behavioral profiling techniques would be to influence voter perceptions.
Have you become annoyed with the barrage of emails and social media posts from a political party asking for donations? You provide your email and next thing you know you are receiving a barrage of emails of the same. Have you received or completed any of their polling surveys off or online? Did you notice the demographic questions they ask about yourself. (ie: age, household income, date of birth, nationality etc.) According to privacy laws, there are limits to the information requested from participants therefore researchers, pollsters and campaigners ought to be prudent and careful about the information that they request not only can it land them in trouble with Elections Canada and the privacy commissioner you could also stand to lose potential voters that once they leave, (or turned off by campaigning techniques) are hard to re-engage to win them back.
Nathan Cullen and Scott Reid mock Liberal Electoral Reform MyDemocracy.ca Questionnaire
What do they do with the information once received. “Under the vast rubric of the digital divide, some campaigners and scholars have used polling information to investigate a variety of topics relating to campaign issues to develop and enhance their platforms. With respects to online behavior, for example, one study found inequalities related to gender, age, race, education, income, urban density and computer and internet related skills. Research has also found that people who are male, younger white, better educated, more affluent, living in urban areas and more skilled tend to be more likely to access the internet, enjoy the benefits of high speed connections, and take advantage of a vast array of information and engagement opportunities online…The lone exception is age, as younger voters’ greater connectedness and superior internet skills translate to some degree into higher political engagement online whereas they tend to participate much less than older citizens offline.” [Digital Politics in Western Democracies]
Although many are connected through the internet be it through cellphone, laptop, tablet or through their computers at home, on the individual level not all citizens enjoy universal access to the internet, let alone high-speed connections, especially for those who live in remote areas. Providing affordable internet access to these areas are an ongoing concern. Funding through CRTC has recently become available for providers wishing to access that area of the market. Once implemented, imagine the increased opportunities to reach potential voters that was previously difficult to access through traditional campaigning methods.
For a candidate running a campaign is exciting, fast, busy and at times it could get bloody. “A political campaign is often viewed as a domesticated form of warfare, in which teams of combatants vie for control of the state. Military terminology abounds and are numerous. “To campaign” is a military expression, meaning to “to take to the field”. The physical headquarters of the campaign is called the “war room”, advertising and news coverage constitute the “air war”, while individual contact with the voters makes up the “ground war”. ” [Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law, p.166] When speaking and thinking in these terms it is not surprising that Brexit and the US elections turned to projects and ideas that brought social psychology, data-analytics, mass data-harvesting by employing military psychological warfare techniques and strategies on a civilian population. It’s worthy to note the company that helped Trump achieve power by using big data analytics, by employing these same tactics, have now been awarded contracts in the Pentagon and the US state department.
Make no mistake, they say “we are in an information war and billionaires are buying up these companies, which are then employed to go to work in the heart of government.” And judging by the outcomes of the Brexit and US Elections, that’s a very worrying situation for Canada as we approach our 2019 election cycle. For campaigners, adapting the use of the internet to communicate with potential voters does present some challenges as some individuals do not have skills needed to take advantage of digital media. Then there are others who are interested in politics and participate in offline political activities, they are easier to reach as they tend to be more involved online which may lead to reinforcement of political attitudes and behavior. Think – Psyops. Psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. Instead of winning ‘hearts and minds’ but instead it’s done with the aim to win elections by using “data modeling and psycho-graphic profiling [classifying people into personality types] to connect with people in ways that move them to action”.
Voters and Electoral Reform
Reaching voters have become increasingly difficult for political parties and candidates when employing traditional methods of focus groups, mail-in and/or telephone surveys since the average person is constantly on the go. Voters are more flexible and fickle and parties are left with the task of putting together new coalitions of support in every election.
It is difficult to identify what motivates an individual to vote. Some voters go out to the polls to affect election outcomes and then there are others who feel that it is their civic duty to vote and are most likely to show up at a polling station. A complex web of considerations influences those who vote which varies from election to election. These days voters are more flexible and fickle and because of declining rates of party membership partisan identification and political trust in parties and government, parties no longer have the same dependable base of support they used to. Meaning they no longer have strong partisans, who will vote for the party regardless of what’s in their platform. Instead voters tend to make their ballot box decisions on matters that have less to do with a party’s platform and more on their perceptions of the leader and the economy.
In the 21st century, people expect their democracy to be open and inviting. They expect their representatives to be available, and they want them to reach out and provide opportunities for citizens to take part in the governing of their country. When this is not the case, they check out. Alienation and disaffection are a more serious problem for Canada. It’s not that people don’t care – it’s that people have given up on a system that excludes them, institutions they see as unresponsive, and politicians they think care little about their voices. Political parties and candidates recognize this distance from voters and often struggle in finding ways to retain, recover and attract new voters.
In December 2015, Abacus Data released a landmark poll commissioned by the Broadbent Institute. 38% of respondents have either considered not voting or have stayed home because they felt that their vote wouldn’t change the outcome of their local election. Nearly half of Canadians surveyed 46% indicated that they voted strategically by voting for a party that wasn’t their first choice in order to prevent another party from winning. Our current system does a poor job at translating the votes of Canadians into a distribution of seats that matches the preference of voters. In stead, it produces distorted outcomes, perverse incentives and wasted votes. It’s unfair, it’s unrepresentative of certain populations and contributes to disengagement.
Because of our current use of FTPT, and the wasted votes it provides, it leaves campaigners to new ways to access voters and to fill the gap. Why do campaigners specifically hire pollsters? There are three outcomes. One, Campaigners want people to vote, so they hire pollsters and devise a variety of plans to increase voter turnout. Two, they want people to go out and vote and depending on who hires the pollsters message are crafted to persuade voters to vote in a particular way that favors their client. Three, Campaigners want to retain the voters they already have, pollsters craft messages that will help the political party to understand their issues and concerns of citizens. Keeping this in mind one can understand the different modes deployed to attract, retain and inform voters and unengaged citizens. Reaching unengaged citizens is key and they are also difficult to reach. By employing the methodology of data-harvesting and behavior-profiling through social media sites one is able to capture unique insights that haven’t been previously accessible by other modes of campaigning, information gathering and use it to their advantage.
By using these methods one has to wonder how these modes of information gathering tools threatens even to the point of hi-jacking our democracy; as it may help influence the outcome of public opinion within an election cycle. It also potentially infringes on our democratic rights as well as our Charter rights to privacy. Instead of rigging the system why not try fixing the system. Our electoral system, that currently uses FPTP is outdated and is badly in need of repair. We’ve been using the same system since Confederation in 1867. There are three main forms of proportional or mixed electoral systems. If Canada were to adopt a proportional system, where the number of votes won will equal the number of seats attained in the House. It’s highly likely that any of these three forms of proportional representation would be compatible with having multiple ridings and local representation across the country and there’s no wasted votes.
We’ve been advocating to change our FPTP system to some form of proportional representation since the early 1920s but nobody wants to change the system because it alters the balance of power which might not be to the advantage of the ruling Party of the day. In the Journal of Parliamentary Law, it states that in 2014, the NDP “came out with the strongest promise for a voting system in time to be used in the next election. Of course polling had put a revived Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau pulling ahead of the NDP since early 2013 so part of the policy commitment may have been a reaction to their slipping numbers. Depending on the outcome of the 2015 contest, voting system reform may continue to be mooted as a priority, particularly by the NDP and the Greens. If the NDP maintains its hold on the Official Opposition or secures a minority of a majority government, even Liberals will be taken to move voting system reform up the agenda. On the other had, if the Liberals return to Official Opposition or government, the issue will likely die on the vine.” Considering what happened to Electoral Reform early 2017, I am amused by the author’s incredible foresight since the book was written in 2014 and published before the elections in 2015.
We will have to see where the future take us in terms of engaging with of big-data analytics for electoral purposes. On the one side we don’t want tour democracy hi-jacked as we saw with the US elections and Brexit yet on the other recognizing that data-harvesting is an attractive method for outreach to learn more about voters to; a) get more people to vote; and b) to learn what’s on the minds of voters to create political platforms that are relevant. One can see the value in capturing data (hopefully) without interfering with citizen’s natural online discourse, to interfere with natural online discourse employs the method of trolling, its coercion, sedition conspiracies and the spreading of false information to influence the outcome of an election – that is where it becomes dubious in nature.
And how does one monitor the use of manipulative and exploitative strategies when the practice of data-harvesting is clandestine in nature. Would the average citizen who moderately engages in social media platforms know enough to recognize when they are being targeted and manipulated for the purpose of collecting psychological insights or to be mindful when expressing personal opinions that are perhaps being formed through news items and posts that aim to deceive by spreading disinformation?
Interestingly enough we have heard very little from the two on-going Brexit investigations and somehow the Trump-Russian investigations have some what [and conveniently] cooled off. Citizens need constant reminders of what’s lurking within our social media platforms and become more informed and knowledgeable about how our data and online communications are being captured and used for purposes other than what we intend. For those who are digitally naive will soon find themselves falling into a potential trap of either having their account surrveilled because their online expressions are too vocal and/or being targeted by a social engineering attacks aimed at learning and gathering more information about you. Which leads us to the dangers with another department of the a government. Security.
Bill C51 – Freedom of Expression
“Freedom of expression, association and assembly” in Canada have been eroded and violated in a variety of ways that have been both insidious and corrosive. Surveillance for security measures – now add another layer for behavior and psychological profiling as authorities seek to identity potential national security threats. While these operational surveillance variations may seem trivial, they carry significant normative weight.
For example, US intelligence agencies have permission to direct backdoor access to the servers of popular Internet companies, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, YouTube, Skype, and others, introducing the potentials for surveillance. Such access enables intelligence agencies to monitor and archive email, chats, search history, file transfers, and other online behaviors. The NSA also uses tools like upstream data collection via fiber-optic cables and malware to extensively track online viewing behaviors and keystrokes such that intelligence agencies can “literally watch your ideas as you type”. Sound familiar?
These are the same techniques presently employed by political elites for not only surveillance but also for data-harvesting providing a competitive political edge. It’s worthy to note the company that helped Trump achieve power by using big data analytics, by employing these same tactics, have now been awarded contracts in the Pentagon and the US state department. Who’s to say if one department while using its discretionary power to target individuals or a particular group seen no longer as a threat and find it acceptable to share citizens’ information with another department or even political party. Especially in which those communications, where political views are strongly expressed.
There is too much surveillance from government agencies and political entities. On the one hand users may be quiet or silenced out of fear of being targeted for voicing political views yet on the other through the clandestine manipulation nature of big-data analytics, we’re being encouraged to voice those same political opinions, with a purpose to \influence electoral and political outcomes. This can be dangerous especially if one is susceptible to the modes employed by behavior-profiling, social engineering attacks and “big data”. A citizen could attract the attention of both security agencies, that seeks monitor and to surpress forms of expression, and data-harvesting companies that distort and manipulate data to encourage online discourse almost to the point of sedition.
It’s unclear even to experts exactly what kinds of speech and protest activity may be considered threats to national security if the bill passes; the average Canadian has little hope of feeling confident that their legitimate political activity hasn’t inadvertently crossed the line especially within in the eyes of the government of the day especially if it was encouraged by electoral data-harvesting techniques. Bill C-51’s expansive language means that Canadians will likely choose not to express themselves even in completely legal ways rather than risk prosecution. Legitimate speech will be chilled, and our democracy will be worse off for it.
2019 Canadian Elections
We are approaching a unique moment in Canadian political history where our three major parties are finally in equal standings – neither of these parties, nor their leaders, have a leading advantage over the others – we also have a disaffected voters community who often feels alienated from its political system and a considerable amount of individuals who, for a variety of reasons, don’t even bother to vote. Parties, politicians and other political claims-makers are well aware of voter’s attitudes and how the press operates. They are constantly and actively seeking for ways to connect with citizens and un-engaged voters by making themselves publicly visible to their constituents.
With Democracy Week quickly approaching, it’s a time to pause and reflect on how citizens express their democratic will and how well the government responds. With the near fading and incomplete investigations into the US election and Brexit allegations, it is also a time to reflect if and how Canada is exposed to the same formula of data- harvesting that stands to infiltrate online citizenry for the purpose of tipping the scales to influence the upcoming elections. Perhaps it’s a time to pause, reflect and take note on the dissemination of political information that require the manipulation of data harvested through social engineering attacks yet let us focus and emphasize instead the weak links in our electoral systems and the implementation of good government.
Digital Politics in Western Democracies, A Comparative Study, Cristian Vaccari, John Hopkins University Press, 2013
Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law. The Informed Citizen’s guide to Elections. Electioneering Based on the Rule of Law, Chapter: Designing Campaign Platforms, Anna Lennox Esselment, University of Waterloo, Carswell, 2015 Special Edition.
The Politics of the Internet, Chapter 6, R.J. Maratea, Lexington Books, 2014
Digital Politics in Western Democracies – A Comparative Study, Chapter: Politics and the Internet
The Great British Brexit Robbery: How our Democracy was Hijacked, Carole Cadwalladr, The Guardian, 2017: A shadowy global operation involving big data, billionaire friends of Trump and the disparate forces of the Leave campaign influenced the result of the EU referendum. As Britain heads to the polls again, is our electoral process still fit for purpose?
Did Cambridge Analytica influence the Brexit Vote and the US Election?, Jamie Doward and Alice Gibbs, The Guardian, 2017: Nigel Oakes’s company is at the centre of a growing controversy over the use of personal data during elections. But is there any evidence that what it does works?