Oh, glorious democracy! The only system in the world where the people can think and express their opinions freely, debate and decide the issues based on facts, and rule themselves fairly and wisely. Those were my perceptions of democracy when I first immigrated to the United States. Not surprising, considering that until I was nine, my family lived in China, a totalitarian country ruled by a single political party. But now, years later, the democratic ideals that impressed me so much are in danger like never before.
Growing up in China, I had no concept of democracy—or monarchy, or totalitarianism. I just thought that there was only one party and one leader in each country, and mine was the Chinese Communist Party, and Xi Jinping. I remember the vivid image of President Xi on national television, paying a visit to China’s poor, rural villages. I remember how happy the villagers looked, how loudly the children cheered. I had been completely instilled with propaganda that said my president was a kind, loving man, and that China’s society was the happiest and wealthiest. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t express my every thought, or speak freely of my ideas, because there was nothing to discuss.
I was a little boy, living under a totalitarian government, with very limited access to information, so naturally I was easily swayed by propaganda! But what if even grown adults living in the United States, with access to all kinds of information, are being manipulated just as effectively? What if they’re oblivious to it, because “This is the United States! There’s no propaganda here” and because the outlet distributing much of the propaganda is a household name?
Everybody knows Facebook’s euphoric success story. The social networking company’s innovation provided a better, faster way for people to share moments and connect via the internet. Within three years, Facebook added a whopping 350 million users, and eventually it became the first online service to reach one billion monthly active users. Striving relentlessly for profitability quarter after quarter, Mark Zuckerberg transformed his company into the ultimate advertising machine by mining Facebook users’ personal information and data. This made ads on Facebook mind-bogglingly effective compared to traditional advertisements, since businesses could target their exact audience by age, interests, behavior, and location. Of course, Facebook is just one out of many tech giants, including Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, that utilize their user data for profit. But while using data to target consumers might be considered good business, using it to target voters and manipulate their beliefs and opinions is arguably immoral.
Yet an obscure private intelligence company out of London, UK enabled political campaigns to do just that. In 2010, Cambridge Analytica targeted and manipulated voters to shift the outcome of the 2010 Trinidad and Tobago general election, without anyone finding out until much later. Cambridge Analytica, for the first time, was able to demonstrate the staggering power of data to corrupt the democratic process. In the 2019 documentary, The Great Hack, Alexander Nix, the CEO of the company, described their involvement as follows:
“We were working for the Indians. We went to the client and we said, ‘We want to target the youth and we want to try and increase apathy.’ The campaign had to be non-political, because the kids don’t care about politics. It had to be reactive because they’re lazy. So we came up with this campaign that was all about being part of the gang, doing something cool, being part of a movement, and it was called the ‘Do So’ campaign. Do So, don’t vote. It’s a sign of resistance against not the government but politics and voting… We knew that when it came to voting, all Afro-Caribbean kids wouldn’t vote, cause they Do So, but all the Indian kids would do what their parents told them to, which is to go out and vote… The difference in 18-to-35-year-old turnout was like 40% and that swung the election about 6%, which was all we needed in an election that’s very close.”
Through voter suppression and misinformation, Cambridge Analytica disoriented young, vulnerable voters, and eroded their ability to act rationally and autonomously. Unfortunately, this was just one example of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in elections. In 2018, the company’s executives admitted that the company had worked on more than 200 elections around the world—like the 2016 presidential election in the Philippines, where it helped rebrand the image of Rodrigo Duterte specifically to target voters who were swayed by tough and decisive qualities in a candidate.
Duterte’s victory might not have been possible without 1,175,870 Filipino Facebook users’ data. Cambridge Analytica had been collecting data on people’s personalities to better predict their behaviors and then influence them accordingly. How did they do it? One strategy was a simple app called “thisisyourdigitallife” that offered personality feedback to users while branding itself as a research tool for psychologists. The person behind the operation, Aleksandr Kogan, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, then sent users’ results to Cambridge Analytica without permission, which was a violation of Facebook’s privacy policies. What’s more, since the 270,000 users who participated in the survey allowed Kogan to collect information on their friends as well, in total, more than 87 million Facebook users’ data was compromised. In 2016, Nix made the astonishing revelation that Cambridge Analytica had close to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters. With this massive amount of data, the company “bombarded them through blogs, websites, articles, videos, ads, every platform you can imagine, until they saw the world the way we wanted them to,” according to Brittany Kaiser, another executive at Cambridge Analytica. Their strategy was to flood people’s media feeds with highly biased content. From their first click on the targeted content, users targeted by this strategy are guided to similar content from that side of the political spectrum, again and again, decreasing the presence of alternative sources of information until it becomes impossible to see the other side. This never-ending cycle not only reinforces a person’s political ideologies, but also hinders the kind of discussion between opposing viewpoints that is fundamentally necessary in a democratic society.
Cambridge Analytica’s string of successful election manipulations might never been stopped, had evidence not emerged about fraudulent practices in the 2016 election campaign that helped Donald Trump win the presidency. The company’s powerful leveraging of data analytics into precise microtargeting proved ideal for deploying fear- and anger-based messages that undermine individual reasoning and rational choice by playing on people’s emotions. This proved both successful and destructive to democracy on a national level.
The situation today with consumer data, concentrating immense power in the hands of a few companies, is comparable to historical monopolies like John D. Rockefeller’s massive oil empire in the Gilded Age. Rockefeller controlled some 90% of all U.S. oil refineries and pipelines, enabling him to generate huge profits from what was then the world’s most lucrative commodity: oil. Antitrust laws eventually broke up Rockefeller’s monopoly, but unless the necessary legal infrastructure is put in place to protect users’ privacy and rein in companies like Facebook and Google, more Cambridge Analyticas will come along to exploit today’s most lucrative commodity: data.
What if powerful people who know everything about you are using that information to influence what you think, who you talk to, and how you vote? Doesn’t that sound a lot like totalitarianism? What if they use the latest technology to make their propaganda machine invisible, enabling them to manipulate people just like I was manipulated as a child, watching those images of Xi Jinping? Wouldn’t that endanger our ability to think and express opinions freely, debate and decide the issues based on facts, and rule ourselves fairly and wisely? Wouldn’t that be a major threat to glorious democracy itself?