The case against the case against Cambridge Analytica

The Great Hack is very well-made documentary, engaging, articulate and … persuasive. But the (unintended, perhaps) effect of such an intensive focus on People Being Misled focussed me on (mis)leading in general. To wit, that the makers of this film were themselves leading (however unconsciously or innocently), girded by the assumed benevolence of a moral high ground. The good and best thing about this film is that it led me to think deeply, about persuasion – what kind of problem it is, if it is indeed a problem, and if it is, what is to be done. I came to conclusions different than the authors on every point, and as an independent and critical thinker I thank them for the opportunity. The film is a service to the necessary and democratic dialogue about our responsibilities to ourselves and others. Here I make the point that the film does not explicitly make: as deciders in a democratic society, we are responsible for critique, evaluation, and reasoning on every issue. We cannot simply accept any information at face value, but rather must parse every bit. And so even The Great Hack.

I have to spoil the film’s main tenets and offerings to discuss them. In the spirit of my main thesis I recommend you to watch it before reading my take, so that you have your own, unframed by mine.

The film exposes Cambridge Analytica’s surreptitious – though not (yet) illegal – mining of personal data, and the company’s use of data so gathered to create profiles of individuals, in order to target them with messages specific to their frameworks, tendencies, proclivities, and assumptions. CA’s work was done on behalf of political organizations (Brexit and the Trump campaign among them). To the firm’s purpose, the profiles it compiles are psychological analyses that identify a subpopulation of voters deemed to be persuadable. Cambridge Analytica’s strategy went so far as to use these profiles to encourage, create, and suggest behaviors and ideas that furthered their clients’ interests, all of which were political. It is an important tenet of the film that people are vulnerable, indeed that some are more vulnerable than others – exactly those that are persuadable. For the filmmakers, persuadable equals gullible rather than undecided or openminded. It’s hard to assess CA’s assessment without knowing their criteria and algorithms. The filmmakers, though, and the investigative reporters and whistleblowers they champion, see these tactics as wickedly predatory and unprecedented. Cambridge Analytica’s strategies are easily categorized as attempts to convince and manipulate – made ridiculously easy by social media – but are such attempts anything new?

Over the past two thousand years human beings have been subject to many technologies of persuasion, even though they may be hidden, or discounted by the very fact that they are usual, engrained so tightly within culture that they are shrugged off, mislabeled, or unseen. But consider them now, from old to new: storytelling, myth, rhetoric, fable, debate, catechism, law, cartoon, hierarchy, pamphlet, fiction, journalism, memoir, essay, photography, film, advertising, peer pressure, Talk radio and TV, celebrity, wise children, fake news, memes. Consider them again, by category: narrative, indoctrination/education, seduction, authority. Consider them a third time: as appeals to reason, appeals to spirit, or as appeals to emotion that, by design, bypass reason.

Roland Barthes wrote about photography in his essay The Photographic Message (1961), and he identified photography as a medium inherently unframed. To mean, that the photographer’s point of view is unknown to a viewer, or better yet, that the fact that a photograph even contains a point of view is hidden. I use point-of-view here both figuratively and literally: you do not know the photographer’s intent – that he/she has an intent – nor do you know what surrounds the image he/she captured. The latter is true for every representative visual art, but in these other visual media the viewer sees the artist’s hand, and so records the work as an interpretation. A viewer of visual art therefore has an authorial role, to think about, and accept or reject the maker’s meaning and/or intent. A photograph, however, hides the fact that it is an interpretation. In its verisimilitude it signals reality, not artifice. It cannot show you its context, either, and so does not reveal itself as a choice. But in photography choice/selection is the interpretive act. Without a signal of mediation a viewer’s critical agency is short-circuited. I like to say, “A photograph is a lie.” Newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst said it most succinctly and aptly, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Many of the technologies of persuasion I listed above are likewise unframed, including documentary film. Documentaries exploit the verisimilitude of photography to distract the gatekeeper of reason. Appeals to reason are generally less unframed than emotional appeals. All unframed media used with persuasive intent rely on a fundamental psychological understanding of this kind of emotional seduction.

Journalism has taken a turn from defining itself as a fact-based and objective report-making enterprise to one of story-telling. [reason v emotion] Narrative is now the journalistic means of persuasion, and so facts are curated, elided, and misrepresented in support of the/a story. As with visual art, the interpretive aspect of writing can be obvious, as in fiction, or hidden as in new journalism. All writers have technologies for hooking the reader, entraining him/her in a point of view (close-in and detailed descriptions, first person p.o.v., and adjectives, for a few examples). The difference is, in fiction, the reader chooses to go along for the ride, knowing it is a ride, while for new journalism the artifice is purposefully under the radar. Memoir sits somewhere in the middle, claiming truthfulness and disclosure, but relying too on craft and curation.

Another unframed technology of persuasion is the law. On the one hand fear of reprisal or punishment is the deterring ‘argument’ made by encoded community standards and consequences – a not so subtle play on emotion. On the other, law is educational, in so much as it outlines behaviors deemed healthy, protective, and sustaining for community members. Laws requiring seat belts, school attendance, vaccination etc. are some of these. They rest on reason for compliance, but still are a form of indoctrination, hard to question or change. Jury trials in the U.S. manifest hidden or unframed persuasive tactics, during jury selection and in the courtroom. The instant psychological profiles wrought by jury consultants, and the reliance on emotional ploys by both prosecution and defense are two obvious examples. These misleading attempts to persuade are evidenced as suspect by the well known caveat against having a case heard by a jury: ‘I wouldn’t have my fate decided by any twelve persons not smart enough to get out of jury duty.” The system relies on personalities deemed persuadable, here meaning gullible, emotional thinkers.

So, while the granularity central to Cambridge Analytica’s brand of profiling is certainly new (in both access and particularity), persuasive manipulation is not new, nor is exploiting human psychology. The outcry against Cambridge Analytica is really an objection is to the (assumed) superior effectiveness of The Opposition’s techniques. For the unacknowledged undercurrent of The Great Hack is that both electoral results –Trump elected, and Brexit passed – are wrong, and so therefore wrongly obtained. The claim of voter manipulation is also clouded by the very real fact that, although we know that CA’s clients’ goals were realized, we can never know the results that would have been without CA’s efforts. We simply do not know how many ‘persuadable’ voters’ minds were made or changed by any of Cambridge Analytica’s messaging. Neither do we know whether people who are at any point undecided are necessarily vulnerable. I am not sure either that persuasion is coercion, as The Great Hack implies. For these reasons I hesitate to brand CA’s work as interference in an election as the film does. As I see it the fix for the ‘problem’ of persuasive technologies is not legislative. The best defense against manipulation is capacity for critical reasoning. It is not suppression of technologies, which is tantamount to suppression of speech. Well-disciplined minds have no problem with all the noise; emotional thinkers do. As always, the solution to the problem of bad talk is more talk; likewise, the solution to bad thinking is better thinking. Rather than advocate for protections for mentally vulnerable persons (omg, how patronizing!), we should attend to educating critical thinkers. Use of the arts of persuasion is not a moral issue. Susceptibility to it is a human trait I see as a developmental lack, one that can and should be remedied.

To this exact purpose I once designed and taught a course in critical thinking, using scientific reasoning as a template. It is human nature to accept ideas and information that ‘fit’ preexisting mental models, but to live in a complex world one needs to have an open, flexible, questing mind. Yes, thinking is HARD, it takes a lot of energy and time.
Being yourself is hard. But who else can do it? The world thrives on, needs individuals, unique perspectives. It does not need sheep. (Copying is a constant irritant to me – I hate it. Be yourself, think for yourself! Authenticity, dammit!) The first exercise in my course was titled “How do you know what you know?” Some answers, good and bad: “what I’m told, what I read, what I’m taught, what I discover, what I teach myself, what I learn, what I research, what I vet. What I tear down, rebuild, invent, puzzle out, create”. I strove to develop a strong theory of mind in my students, to enable them to see their own frames, and to see and question the motives and frames of others.
In other words, to see the world unframed, with honesty.

The Great Hack leaves its viewers with a question:
“Can you be manipulated?”
Here’s mine:
How do you know what you know?


One Comment

  1. I enjoy reading your essays, just haven’t had an opportunity to visit your website these last couple of months. This month’s entry is particularly insightful and provocative, in my opinion. I haven’t watched The Great Hack, but I’ll find time.

    I read a bit about CA in 2017, and I have an opinion about why it believed it could sway votes, and the reason goes to a much deeper problem in American society than mass marketing and ad buys directed at the persuadables. In the sixties when we were growing up, our teachers, the vast majority of whom were women, would be doctors/lawyers/PhDs/scientists (even those teaching in “Small Town”, WV) in today’s world, but such a career path wasn’t open to them in large measure. We had great public school teachers! They’re uncommon now, except in private schools.

    CA could have done work for both major political parties; both have “low information” voters, and they’re the problem. Some simply don’t have the capacity to think critically even if their lives depended on it, while others are, well, I’ll be kind and say lethargic.

    I’ve read a number of books about the 2016 election, trying to understand it. All were an easy read if you’re interested and have time (and haven’t already read them). Devil’s Bargain (Joshua Greene), Shattered (Jonathan Allen), and Let Trump be Trump (Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie). The most interesting and insightful book by far, in my opinion, about the election and why Trump won the electoral college is The Great Revolt by Salena Zito and Brad Todd. In the end, I distilled the election results down to one of my simplistic observations about politics, which is the stiff always loses, and when you have two stiffs, the stiffer stiff loses, which brings us to 2020. Both parties will pander to, and seek in every media enterprise, the vote of the low information voter. I believe it will come down to my maxim. Trump is the most exciting politician on the planet. Hell, he’s a showman extraordinaire, and that’s where we are today, not much substance. No Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley or Pierre Salinger (whose father, by the way, was a mining engineer) to bring out the best in our political leaders or in us. Impeachment is Democrats’ shiny object from now until next year, but I just don’t see how “bots” or ad buys directed to persuadable voters will improve the stump demeanor of any of the primary candidates on the D side

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