When examining the alleged role played by Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and “big data” in the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, it’s worth looking at a book which opens by declaring that “is an attempt to explore a strange and rather exotic area of modern life”. It continues:
“It is about the way many of us are being influenced and manipulated – far more than we realise – in the patterns of our everyday lives. Large-scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness, so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, ‘hidden’.”
The only thing is that the book was written before the elections, before the founding of Cambridge Analytica or Facebook, indeed before the birth of Mark Zuckerberg. It was published in 1957 – before even the period in which Mad Men, the television series set amongst pioneering advertising men, is set. Donald Trump was 11 when it came out.
It’s Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which sold more than a million copies and throughout the 1960s and ’70s was to be found, alongside Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Steppenwolf, on practically every middle-class graduate’s bookshelves. It’s a classic piece of pop sociology, but almost from its first appearance, it also incurred criticism from scholars (and advertising executives) who pointed out that it was sensationalised, wildly exaggerated and filled with unproven assertions.
Plus ça change. The same kind of breathless claims about dark arts, sinister influence and manipulation that Packard made about Madison Avenue now seem to be directed at Cambridge Analytica. Of course, like so many advertising, digital data and PR firms, the company has hardly helped itself by veering between claiming credit for unexpected successes and, at other moments, playing down its influence.
Nor do the latest allegations, in which undercover reporters appear to have obtained an admission from the firm that they are prepared to employ all sorts of dubious dirty tricks – such as entrapping political opponents with sexual honeytraps or fiscal misconduct – exactly paint them as straight dealers. (CA says that the report has been edited to misrepresent them, and denies any involvement in such practices.)
But perhaps not everyone will react like Captain Renault in Casablanca to the statement by CA’s chief exectutive Alexander Nix that: “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed.” Or perhaps you think that Carlsberg is “probably the best lager in the world”.
It’s not news to most people that in the world of advertising and electoral strategy, the truth gets exaggerated and that dirty tricks are employed. On the face of it – with the proviso that the claims that data was deleted when that was requested, or never employed in the first place, are true – the reports so far don’t offer much in the way of conclusive proof that the legal requirements in place at the time were breached. For its part, CA maintains that Facebook data was never used in its campaigning work for Trump, and flatly denies that it had anything at all to do with the Leave.EU campaign funded by Arron Banks (bar exploratory meetings which came to nothing).
Of course, if there were breaches, it will be a matter for the Information Commissioner, and potentially the Crown Prosecution Service.
But in one sense, all of that is beside the point that seems to be exercising most commentators. Potential breaches of the law should be investigated and, if proven, punished. What isn’t affected by that, however, is the question of whether targeted marketing – which is all, in the end, that this kind of data analysis is – is very different in type from the claims of one ad man in Packard’s book that the man who “drives a Studebaker, smokes Old Golds, uses cream-based hair oil [and] an electric shaver” is likely to buy a Parker 51 fountain pen.
Modern data analytics is no doubt a powerful marketing tool. But it doesn’t turn firms like Cambridge Analytics or Facebook into a combination of the Illuminati and Derren Brown. I’m sure it is interesting to discover, for example, that people who watch Chuck Norris movies and own a goldfish are, on the whole, more receptive to Trump’s messages (or whatever claim is being made), but it’s hardly witchcraft or mind-control.
It certainly looks as if Facebook, by dint of its overwhelming dominance in social media, has access to a quite staggering amount of information, and that it has been fairly cavalier – some might well think unethical – in selling it to all and sundry. That’s something that regulation has been struggling to catch up with – the General Data Protection Regulation, which becomes enforceable from May 25 and supersedes the Data Protection Act, is a response to those concerns.
But the fact remains that its users freely offered up that information and knew, or should have known, that that is how such media are funded. Indeed, traditional media are also (just less successfully) funded the same way, which is why you get payday loan and injury compensation advertisements on daytime television, and ads for cars during primetime action movies. And even if the behaviour of technology giants has enormous implications for our notions of privacy, it doesn’t thereby follow that it is some kind of full-scale assault on democracy.
Advertising presumably has an effect, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. It is, however, notoriously difficult to demonstrate what, if any, effect it has. As the entrepreneurer and US Postmaster-General John Wanamaker, generally regarded as a pioneering genius of merchandising, is said to have put it: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
It may also be true that the value of brands is built, as Packard claimed, on selling imagined lifestyles, but no one disputes the reality of the brand’s value. What no one has ever maintained is that an advert for beans, or toothpaste, or shampoo, exerts some mystical hypnotic power over individuals sufficient to destroy their free will, render them powerless to resist, and absolve them from any responsibility for their own actions.
If the same is not true, or even more true, of people’s ability to assess the qualities of candidates for election, then we’ve got more serious problems than digital firms to contend with. Whether or not Cambridge Analytics turns out to have done anything dodgy or illegal is irrelevant to that overwhelming truth. The central fact remains that it’s absurd to claim, just because you may not happen to like the outcome, that the responsibility for Trump’s election or the Brexit result lies with anyone other than the voters, or that data collection, advertising or election campaigning amount to some kind of Manchurian-candidate style brainwashing.