The World As It Is II

Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze), untitled (time_money), 1988.
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By GILBERTO LOPES*

Democracy hijacked by technology and data manipulation

“This is Great Britain”, said journalist Carole Cadwalladr four years ago in a long article published in the British newspaper The Observer: a democracy run, paid for by an American billionaire, using military-grade technology provided by Facebook and implemented by us, the voters and citizens. The referendum on Great Britain's exit from the European Union had just been celebrated in June 2016, and the mechanisms used by Brexit supporters to influence British opinion in their favor were beginning to be known.

The Brexit campaign is linked with a complex web of connections, but they all lead us to Cambridge Analytica, the company that an American billionaire, Robert Mercer, and former banker and media executive, Steve Bannon, were creating at that moment, said Cadwalladr. The company was the nucleus of an alternative information network and the documents show that other far-right billionaires were linked to it. Among them, Rupert Murdoch, one of the main shareholders of the conservative American television network Fox and media such as The Sun and the The Times.

Bannon later became the key player in the campaign that led Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, although they later separated. Bannon seemed to believe that, in this partnership, he was indispensable, something his boss did not agree with. This claim by Bannon was linked to another, much more ambitious one: that of establishing a strategy capable of changing the world order.

Britain has always been a key part of that plan, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told Cadwalladr. Bannon “believed that in order to change the political order, it was first necessary to change the culture. And Britain was key to that. The idea of ​​Brexit symbolically represented something very important to him,” he added. The referendum was too tempting a goal for them not to turn their attention to it.

 

democracy kidnapped

In May 2017, Cadwalladr wrote an article entitled “British Brexit’s Great Robbery: How Our Democracy Was Hijacked”. It was about how Cambridge Analytica became a company dedicated to “psychological warfare”. “Psychological warfare? Is that what you call it?”, he asked the former employee of the company. “Of course, absolutely,” he replied. “Psychological operations, the same methods the military uses to change the sentiments of the masses. That's what they mean when they talk about changing hearts and minds. We are doing exactly that to win elections in developing countries where the rules are not very strict”.

The psychological warfare waged by Cambridge Analytica meant capturing all aspects of the electoral landscape so that the company could craft election messages oriented to individual preferences. “Facebook was the main source of the psychological data that allowed them to address each individual. It was also the mechanism for the dissemination of information on a large scale”.

For Cadwalladr, this story has three threads. The first is that it laid the groundwork for an authoritarian state in the United States. The second is how British democracy was taken by surprise by an ambitious plan promoted by an American billionaire. The third is how these companies are silently hoarding our data to use it according to their interests. “Whoever controls this data controls the future”, he assures.

 

Democracy working

The investigations of this British journalist from the Observer are a careful study of how a company that works with the personal data of citizens was formed, studying their preferences to define policies that guide their decisions on matters of interest to the owners of these companies. Very rich people, with a very conservative tendency, willing to take advantage of the resources available on digital networks for their goals.

For some, the problem with this technology is that its use depends on who handles it. Cadwalladr highlights the role of particularly talented young people in handling this information, who were frightened by the uses being given to these resources. On the one hand, they said, there were “companies and governments that say: – You can trust us, we are good and democratic. But those same people can sell that information to anyone willing to buy it.”

Just a few months ago, in August, Eduardo Bolsonaro, congressman and son of President Jair Bolsonaro, participated in a virtual symposium, organized in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, by another billionaire, Mike Lindell, CEO of the company MyPillow. The theme was the theft of last year's elections, which Trump lost to current president Joe Biden. During his trip to the US, Bolsonaro's son met with Trump and invited him to visit Brazil. Bannon was also at the symposium and warned that another election could be at risk: that of Bolsonaro, in November of next year, which he described as “the second most important election in the world”. The first, of course, was the United States.

In 2018, in the election in which Bolsonaro was elected (while former President Lula, the overwhelming favorite, remained in prison, convicted of crimes he never committed, as Brazil's superior courts confirmed, overturning all convictions by a regional court), Bannon also met with Eduardo Bolsonaro, who announced the joining of forces to fight “cultural Marxism”. “These are not stories about abuse of loopholes in a country's legislation,” said Cadwalladr. “It's about,” he said, referring to Brexit, “how an American billionaire – Mercer – and his ideological leader – Bannon – helped to bring about the biggest constitutional change in Britain in a century”. “It is a scandal that such a thing could happen in a democracy,” writes David Miller, professor of sociology and an authority on psychological warfare and propaganda, co-director of the NGO Public Interest Investigations.

“Voters should know where the information given to them comes from and, if it is not clear, we should ask ourselves if we really live in a democracy. Here we have psychology, advertising and technology that together operate in a very powerful way,” he said. “And it was Facebook that made this possible. It was from Facebook that Cambridge Analytica first obtained its vast database”, it was the source of psychological information that allowed them to bring personalized information to each individual. Those who feared increasing migration in Europe, for example, could be influenced by showing them images of migrants flooding into the country. “Science's ability to manipulate emotions is very well studied,” said Tamsin Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy at New York University who has studied the military's funding of research into the use of psychology in torture.

Now these results are being used to influence elections, without people even realizing that this is being done. Cadwalladr elaborates a dilemma: in the United States there are strict laws about the treatment of personal information, although he recognizes that, for companies, this does not matter. “Is it absurd to think,” he asks, “that we are seeing the possible creation of an authoritarian surveillance state?”

 

Facebook on trial

The Cambridge Analytica story and Cadwalladr's investigations gained renewed interest in the wake of allegations by Frances Haugen, an engineer and former Facebook employee, who accused the company last month of putting its interests above those of society. Facebook had denied any responsibility for Cambridge Analytica's activities four years ago. But Haugen's accusations refer to the scenario of that moment.

It is clear to her that there is a conflict of interest between what is good for the public and what is good for Facebook. And Facebook, she says, makes the decisions it feels are best for its own business. It is, for example, information about hate, violence and misinformation. “Facebook realized that if they use a more secure algorithm, people spend less time on the page, see fewer ads and the company makes less money. The current version of Facebook, she added, "is tearing society apart and causing ethnic violence around the world."

For Cadwalladr, these new complaints are the beginning of the end for Facebook. In 2018, when 50 million profiles of its users were stolen, no one at the company was punished for the scandal. But the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook five billion dollars. Facebook, in any case, has once again denied Haugen's accusations and ensures that it makes a permanent effort to prevent the dissemination of false or harmful information on its pages.

 

De time to democracy

The treatment of information on the networks triggered a huge debate, with complaints about the dissemination of false news - the fake news – which, reproduced millions of times on the networks, end up shaping certain worldviews. The networks have made it possible to multiply these procedures almost infinitely, which, however, have always characterized the way in which it is decided what is or is not published in the mass media.

I can’t forget the words of the director of an important Costa Rican media outlet, when he explained his criteria for hiring people: “I don’t hire communists!” Naturally, who decided whether someone was a communist or not was himself. Surely they hired him for that. Katharina Pistor, professor of comparative law at columbia law school, said in an article published last week that pandora papers (a journalistic investigation that revealed huge capital investments in tax havens) were “a threat to democracy”. “Politicians, businessmen, sports stars and cultural icons have been found hiding their wealth and lying about it.” The difficulty of exposing this, she said, "shows how lawyers, legislators and courts have skewed the law in favor of elites".

But Pistor herself shows, in her article, that these current practices only update similar procedures from at least five centuries. Far from putting democracy at risk, both the pandora papers such as the psychological warfare denounced by Haugen only expose democracy in full operation. Today, virtually the entire political scene claims to be “democratic”, from the right – like the Spanish PP, which has Francoist roots – to various leftist proposals. Each refers to his own vision of democracy, the content of which is never made explicit.

To avoid further complications, Lincoln's old formula is used, which defined it in 1863 as "the government of the people, by the people and for the people". A formula so empty of content that it is remembered even today, as it allows anyone to get out of the way, instead of getting involved in complicated political or theoretical discussions. In any case, there is no need to go back to Federalist Papers to study democracy. It has been 233 years since then and the analysis of its actual workings is far more important to understanding it than reading Locke or Hamilton. And democracy, as it works in its country of origin – England – and in its most direct political offspring – the United States – is not how it is exposed in these texts. That's what they show pandora papers, or the denunciations of Frances Haugen.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). author of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves

 

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