Tag: SCL

Defending disinformation against democracy: the Integrity Initiative

Inside the Integrity Initiative, the UK gov’s information war on the public with Journalists Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton and Professor David Miller.

The Institute for Statecraft and its offshoot, the Integrity Initiative, constitute a secret propaganda network tied to the UK security services. They bring together high-ranking military and intelligence personnel, journalists and academics to manufacture and disseminate propaganda serving the geopolitical and economic aims of the UK and those of its allies.

The Integrity Initiative is a self declared ‘charity’, funded by the UK Foreign Office, British Army and Ministry of Defence, which has been described by the Sunday Mail as a right wing infowars unit.

The Institute for Statecraft, which “led” the Integrity Initiative, was traced to this mill in Fife (Image: Sunday Mail.)

Created by the NATO-affiliated, UK-funded Institute for Statecraft in 2015, the Integrity Initiative was unmasked in November after Anonymous hackers released a volume of documents detailing a web of politicians, journalists, military personnel, scientists and academics involved in purportedly fighting ‘Russian disinformation.’

The highly secretive, government-bankrolled “network of networks” has found itself under scrutiny for smearing Her Majesty’s opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘Kremlin stooge’ – ostensibly as part of its crusade against ‘Russian disinformation.’ The Initiative has received more than £2.2million from the Foreign Office in two years to – in one minister’s words – “defend democracy against disinformation.”

The latest leaks indicate that the organisation played a central role in shaping media narratives after Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were mysteriously poisoned in Salisbury last March. It’s notable that many of the draconian anti-Russia measures that the group advocated as far back as 2015 were swiftly implemented following the Skripal affair – even as London refused to back up its blame frame with evidence.

Within days of the Skripal poisonings, the Institute solicited its services to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), offering to “study social media activity in respect of the events that took place, how news spread, and evaluate how the incident is being perceived” in a number of countries.

After receiving the government’s endorsement, the Integrity Initiative launched Operation Iris,’ enlisting the “global investigative solutions” company Harod Associates to analyse social media activity related to the Skripal incident. 

The latest release of hacked documents also revealed a curious link between the Integrity Initiative and Skripal himself – a connection made all the more suspicious by the group’s central role in coordinating a determined and evidence-free  campaign to implicate and punish Moscow for the alleged nerve-agent attack.

One document from July 2018 contains contact details for Pablo Miller, Skripal’s MI6 recruiter, handler and (conveniently) neighbour in Salisbury. Miller, it seems, had been invited to a function hosted by the Institute. The plot sickens.

I have wondered what happened to Yulia Skripal. Worryingly, she has dropped off the media radar.

David Miller, Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Bristol School for Policy Studies, has said that despite being ignored by the media, leaks from Integrity Initiative have paralysed the operations of this UK-funded covert influence network, and could ultimately lead to its dismantling.

Miller also believes that: “People have a right to know how the Government are spending their money, and the views being promoted in their name.”

I agree. I think it’s obscene that our money is being spent on covert military grade psyop operations designed specifically to micromanage our perceptions of reality and to stage-manage our democracy. 

He adds: “This [leak] has made a mess of [Integrity Initiative’s] operations, they are spending most of their time now trying to fire-fight on the coverage this is getting. And they are not doing essentially what they are being paid to do, which is to counter the Russians.

“The British government is getting bad value for money, if it was ever getting ‘better’ value.”

As part of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, which studies Western attempts to control media coverage of key international events, Miller has played a crucial role in studying the four tranches of data anonymously uploaded and sourced from the previously little-known group, which has been backed by the UK Foreign Office, NATO and Facebook, to the tune of over £1 million per year.

The documents, whose authenticity has not been denied by government, contain details of psyops against public figures, of the manipulation of media coverage from leading outlets, and have also revealed worldwide networks of prominent journalists and academics, secretly engaged to discredit, at every turn, pro-Moscow points of view and left wing political developments.

Despite the refusal by all of those named to either admit their connection or to say that there was nothing untoward in their activities, Miller believes that the exposure has made it more difficult for them to push and publish anti-Russian content.

The Integrity Initiative has waged an information and propaganda war on the public. Yet nothing has been done to address the scandal surrounding this McCarthyist UK government-funded think tank, which has attacked Jeremy Corbyn and the anti-war left and laundered disinformation through the corporate media under the guise of ‘countering Russia’. 

“Most of the people named are trying to pretend that this is not all of great significance, but the revelation of the involvement of the government in manipulating other countries, and the political process in the UK, is extremely damaging for them,”  Miller says. 

Miller has also said that Parliament needs to conduct a more sustained inquiry into Integrity Initiative, and Jeremy Corbyn smears. 

For Miller, the “cardinal sin” from a UK perspective was the smearing of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, as a potential ‘Kremlin ally’ in Whitehall, which means that a state-paid intelligence operation has been manipulating domestic politics.

Miller also points to the absence of coverage of what he calls a “real, genuine scandal” in top news sources, which, he says, are themselves implicated in the scandal fallout.

Miller also sates that, at the very least, this exposure should lead to a crucial national dialogue about the role intelligence agencies should play in public life and in influencing politics.

Why, it’s as if the role of MI6 in the faked Zinoviev letter has habituated the Establishment to maintain the status quo at all cost, including the stage-managing of our democracy, using anti-Russian sentiment as a template. It’s also apparently become such normalised behaviour that it’s hiding in plain view.

“Integrity Initiative are beyond the realms of sense. The activities they are engaged in are morally and ethically dubious, and will certainly – as we can see already – backfire on them,” Miller continued.

“This will result hopefully in the ending of this operation, and if we are lucky, a sensible discussion in parliament about controlling the future of British covert operations.”

Funding shot up to £2.6 million in 2018-19, with £1.96 million from the FCO and the rest from the US State Department, NATO and the American neoconservative Smith Richardson Foundation. Facebook, which plays in integral role in imposing censorship on behalf of the US, donated £100,000. See: UK Integrity Initiative heavily involved in Skripal affair.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has said: “It is one of the cardinal rules of British public life that official resources should not be used for party political purposes.

“So, it is simply outrageous that the clearly mis-named ‘Integrity Initiative’ – funded by the Foreign Office to the tune of £2.25 million over the past two years – has routinely been using its Twitter feed to disseminate personal attacks and smears against the Leader of the Opposition, the Labour Party and Labour officials.”

Andrew Fisher, an aide to the Labour leader, said: “This astonishing story really deserves attention.”

Labour MSP Neil Findlay said: “Such clear political attacks and propaganda shouldn’t be coming from any charity.

“We need to know why the Foreign Office have been funding it.”

Isn’t it obvious?

Surveillance capitalism: citizens as a means to an end

So far I haven’t seen anyone make the connection between the exposure of the Integrity Initiative and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Or the fact that the government hired several murky companies plying the same methods as Cambridge Analytica in their election campaign, spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of citizens’ money so the Conservatives could target them with personalised dark ads and psyop-crafted strategic comms

As soon as the Conservatives casually announced their ‘behaviour change’ agenda back in 2010, and instituted the ‘Nudge Unit’, a scandal of the type surrounding  Cambridge Analytica/SCL was inevitable. How could anyone expect that an increasingly authoritarian government, somewhat defined by resistance to change, would resist the temptation to draw on ‘behavioural science’ techniques to manipulate citizens’ perceptions, cognitions, behaviours, choices, and ultimately, their voting decisions?

‘Surveillance capitalism’ was the term coined in 2015 by Harvard academic Shoshanna Zuboff to describe this large-scale surveillance and modification of human behaviour for profit. It involves the predictive analysis of big datasets describing the lives, choices and behaviours of tens or hundreds of millions of people, allowing correlations and patterns to be identified, information about individuals inferred and analysised, and future behaviour and decisions to be predicted. This is then used to influence behaviours through personalised and ‘dynamic’ targeted advertising. 

This whole process is refined by an experimental approach – testing a range of variations of adverts on different demographics to determine what works best. Every time we log on we potentially become the unwitting and thus non consenting subject of trials designed to determine how to most effectively extract money from us or to persuade us of something. The common denominator is the covert use of powerful behavioural modification strategies: psyops. 

Our personal data is being used to construct ‘persuasion profiles’, using sets of estimates – based on probabilities – on the effectiveness of particular influence-strategies on individuals, which are also based on past responses to these strategies. Some of these companies are also experimenting with biometrics.

We are led to believe that it is other states that seek to meddle in the UK’s elections. The use of data analytics and psychological profiling to target people on social media with political content, has had a profound political impact, but it remains largely unappreciated. Political campaigning has shifted from being a public process to being a private, personalised series of micro-monitoring strategies, enabled by access to the apparatus and mechanisms of surveillance capitalism. It’s a process that has led to the government regarding citizens as a means to an end – that being simply maintaining power, upholding the status quo.

The Snowden leaks in 2013 concerning GCHQ and the NSA’s covert activities made controversial headlines around the world. GCHQ’s stated aim was to compile a profile of the internet habits of every user on the web.  The Investigatory Powers Act, commonly known as the “snooper’s charter, permits the security and intelligence agencies legal authority to acquire personal datasets from technology companies in bulk, and the UK government is reported to be exploring an agreement with the US that would give British intelligence agencies better access to these databases.

Data sharing between surveillance companies and state security and intelligence agencies is well established. In the US, tech companies have been forced to hand over data about their users to the NSA for some time. When Yahoo refused, they were threatened with a $250,000 fine, every day, with the fine doubling every week that their non-compliance continued, faced with the prospect of financial ruin, they acquiesced.

Clearly, monitoring and surveillance practices have changed the relationship between the citizen and the state, shifting the balance of power and distorting democracy.

It cannot be right for either private companies or governments to use citizens as Pavlovian dogs. Such personalised psychological persuasive strategies seriously undermine the human autonomy that is central to human dignity and democracy.  

Related

 Documents of the “Integrity Initiative” Part 4  – Anonymous (4 January 2019)

The chilling manipulations of the Institute for Statecraft are straight out of the cold war playbook – Chris Williamson, Morning Star Online

Social media is being used to stage manage our democracy using nudgebased strategies

Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Repor–  House of Commons
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee 

The Art of Deception: Training for a New Generation of Online Covert Operations – The Intercept

Controversial GCHQ Unit Engaged in Domestic Law Enforcement, Online Propaganda, Psychology Research – Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman

The government hired several murky companies plying the same methods as Cambridge Analytica in their election campaign


 

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Cambridge Analytica try to dismiss Chris Wylie’s evidence as ‘conspiracy theories’ and ‘false evidence’

Image result for Chris Wylie

Christopher Wylie told a select committee earlier that the pro-Brexit campaign had a “common plan” to use a network of companies to get around election spending laws and said he thought there “could have been a different outcome had there not been, in my view, cheating”.

He added: “It makes me so angry, because a lot of people supported leave because they believe in the application of British law and British sovereignty. And to irrevocably alter the constitutional settlement of this country on fraud is a mutilation of the constitutional settlement of this country.” 

Of course, Vote Leave has repeatedly denied allegations of collusion or deliberate overspending. When they first surfaced over the weekend, Boris Johnson, who fronted the campaign, ranted: “Vote Leave won fair and square – and legally. We are leaving the EU in a year and going global.”

Wylie, who sparked the scandal around alleged misappropriation of Facebook data by his old employer, has also said that its micro-targeting efforts were 10 times more effective that those of rival companies. However, the framing of the debate ought to include the intent that motivates the use of those methods, and the implications for democracy.

Wylie gave his evidence in a four-hour session before the digital, culture, media and sport select committee. He made a number of remarkable claims about Brexit and Cambridge Analytica, including that his predecessor, Dan Mursean, died mysteriously in a Kenyan hotel room in 2012 after a contract in the company “turned sour.”

Wylie commented that it was striking that Vote Leave and three other pro-Brexit groups – BeLeave, which targeted students; Veterans for Britain, and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party – all used the services of the little-known firm Aggregate IQ (AIQ) to help target voters online. 

Cambridge Analytica have responded:

“Today the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee heard false information, speculation, and completely unfounded conspiracy theories from a witness regarding Cambridge Analytica.

Chris Wylie has misrepresented himself and the company to the committee, and previously to the news media. He admits himself that what he says is speculation and therefore we feel it is important to set out the actual facts which are as follows.

Chris Wylie was a part-time contractor who left Cambridge Analytica in July 2014 and has no direct knowledge of the company’s work or practices since that date. He was at the company for less than a year, after which he was made the subject of restraining undertakings to prevent his misuse of the company’s intellectual property while attempting to set up his own rival firm. He was not, as he claims, a founder of Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica does not hold any GSR data or any data derived from GSR data. We have never shared the GSR data with Aggregate IQ, Palantir or any other entity. Cambridge Analytica did not use any GSR data in the work that we did for the Donald J. Trump for President campaign. 

Cambridge Analytica subcontracted some digital marketing and software development to Aggregate IQ in 2014 and 2015. The suggestion that Cambridge Analytica was somehow involved in any work done by Aggregate IQ in the 2016 EU referendum is entirely false.

Beyond an early-stage sales pitch to Vote Leave, Cambridge Analytica had no interaction with that group or any of their vendors. We have never had any contact with Eldon Insurance. We played no role in the UK referendum on EU membership.

We are disgusted that Mr Wylie would use the tragic death of a member of our team as a means to further his own agenda. An investigation by Kenyan authorities concluded that there was nothing suspicious about our colleague’s death, and we as a company were deeply saddened by the loss. 

Cambridge Analytica has never worked with or been in contact with Black Cube in any capacity. 

Attempts by Mr Wylie to link a prospective commercial pilot project, for a small number of gas stations in Turkey, with politics and Russia are absurd.

We take allegations of unethical practices in the past by our former global (non-US) political consultancy very seriously, and they are currently the subject of a full and independent investigation which we have instigated to establish the facts. Its findings will be made available in due course.

The facts above also apply to Cambridge Analytica’s affiliate companies.”

CA blag.png

CA and affiliates are now busy trying to discredit some of their own previous claims.

CA’s political research entails “The process of collecting valuable information on voters, opposition, and trends. This provides the fullest possible picture of voter behavior”.

The company describe themselves as “the market leader in the provision of data analytics and behavioral communications for political campaigns, issue groups and commercial enterprises. With cutting-edge technology, pioneering data science, and over 25 years of experience in behavior change, CA provides advertisers with unparalleled insight into their audiences.” 

The normalisation of manipulation and ‘behavioural modification’

Last year, CA were announced as a winner in the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) 2017 David Ogilvy Awards. The company’s campaign “Make America Number One” took the Gold honor in the “big data category” for its “successful work targeting undecided voters during the 2016 presidential election.” (A pro-Trump propaganda campaign using ‘behavioural science’, which was designed from the detailed data that was held, on millions of unsuspecting US citizens). ARF have basically endorsed Cambridge Analytica’s (CA) general corporate practices of data mining and psychographic modeling. 

This indicates just how normalised data mining and behavioural modification techniques have become within the PR/consultation/strategic messaging/advertising industry. As someone on the outside of the industry, it’s only possible to get a glimpse of the methods used, as the language use is  kind of coded, in a context-dependent sort of way – and therefore, operates as a sort of closed system to people who don’t get the references in managementspeak acronyms and behavioural economics. Many sites don’t permit full access to information unless you are one of their members. 

It struck me during Chris Wylie’s commentary about the use of “behavioural science” that his language reflected the central ideas of nudge theories, he was using words like “heuristics”, “cognitive bias” and so on. He outlined the basic premise of nudge, too – the idea that humans are fundamentally ‘irrational’. (Yet curiously, those ‘choice architects’ claiming that they know what is best for society and individual citizens are exempt from that theory).

It resonated with something I said a few years ago: that it was only a matter of time before governments started using nudge to influence citizen voting. It was pretty reasonable, as it turns out, to believe that sooner or later, we were going to see widespread manipulation of people’s decision-making, including in elections.

Back in 2016, Wired wrote an article called 25 GENIUSES WHO ARE CREATING THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS, in which it says: “Alexander Nix wants to turn mad men into psychologists. For too long, he says, demographics and purchasing behavior have been the primary guideposts of the marketing industry, used to guess what a target audience might want. 

“Nix’s company, Cambridge Analytica, can provide psychological profiling to help advertisers tailor their messages to specific personality types.

“The firm groups people according to where they fall on the so-called OCEAN scale, which psychologists use to measure how open, conscientious, extroverted, agreeable, or neurotic they are. Cambridge surveyed hundreds of thousands of people across the US to generate a statistical model to predict these traits in the broader population.

Using Cambridge’s data, marketers combine a key trait with generic demographic information and then craft a message that’s more likely to appeal to that type. So for someone who’s neurotic, the message would play to fears about a subject. Agreeable people, on the other hand, gravitate toward information about how a given product or idea will benefit society.”

Even IPSOS are now defining themselves as a ‘behavioural data group’, the head of the company, Nicolas Brézet, says, earlier this year“Marketers seek a holistic understanding of consumers’ multi-platform digital behavior, touchpoints, activities, and content consumption. Single-source data can’t tell the whole picture, so new approaches are needed.

This presentation discusses how Ipsos combined survey data with behavioral data, found an actionable framework, and then made client recommendation. Case studies illustrate how they used their approach with five different clients.

The presentation also indicates what’s coming next: appending multiple behavioral sources to survey data for an even more holistic, unified picture that can be done today.”

So this is a research and polling company that is gathering data on citizens, including behavioural data, that may will be used by paying clients. Details of citizens’ psychological and behavioural profiles are being sold as a commodity. To anyone who wants them, apparently.

No-one seemed to mind when David Cameron instituted the Nudge Unit back in 2010. Suddenly people were bandying about the phrase “behavioural change” casually.  I was horrified precisely because of what I saw as the dire implications for democracy, back then – techniques of psychological manipulation in the hands of an authoritarian government. What could possibly go right?

Contemporary behavioural science “aims to exploit our irrationalities” since choice architects – which quickly included government ministers – view us “as manipulable subjects rather than rational agents.” Hardly anyone asked back then who was nudging the nudgers. Few questioned that the government really had our “best interests” at heart. 

It’s only now that we are getting a glimpse of new behavioural economics discipline evolving into forms of social control that make the frightful 20th-century totalitarianism regimes seem like a primitive and crude method of governance by comparison. This all-pervasive control is hidden in plain view. It’s a subtle and stealthy form of totalitarianism. Someone described behavioural science and its various applications as a new “cognitive-military complex” – it originated within intelligence and state security agencies – I think that is an apt description.

The consequences of governments acting upon citizens to meet political aims, and to align behaviours with a totalising neoliberal ideology, turns democracy completely on its head. We are left with a form of inverted totalitarianism, or facade democracy, where direct methods of oppression are not required, as citizens are far easier to control and better “nudged” when they continue to believe themselves free and autonomous. 

Opaque and interrelated operations

Aleksandr Kogan founded Global Science Research in 2014, after the Cambridge university’s psychology department quite properly refused to allow him to use its own pool of data for commercial purposes. The data collection that Kogan undertook independent of the university, where he worked as a lecturer, was done on behalf of a military contractor called Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL). The company’s election division claims to use “data-driven messaging” as part of “delivering electoral success.” 

The purpose of Kogan’s work was to develop an algorithm for the “national profiling capacity of American citizens” as part of SCL’s work on US elections, according to an internal document signed by an SCL employee describing the research. In 2016, In September 2016, Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, said that the company built a model based on “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans” filling out personality surveys, generating a “model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” CA, as we know, is a front for SCL.

Lynton Crosby an Jim Messina

Listening to Chris Wylie’s evidence yesterday to the parliamentary committee, I realised that many companies of this ilk (offering PR, data anaysis and segregation, strategic communications, consultancy, behavioural change and ‘conversion’) are probably fronts, shells or opaque partnerships. I researched the Conservatives’ spending on similar companies in the run-up to last year’s general election. Jim Messina, for example, set up a company called Outra, which also employs Lynton Crosby.

The company was hired by the government in the last General Election, along with Messina Inc and the CrosbyTextor Group. You have to wonder what that process is hiding. Outra were paid £120,000.  Crosby Textor (listed as CTF) also earned £4,037,400 for market research/canvassing. Messina Group Inc were also paid £544,153.57 for transport, advertising, market research and canvassing. This company uses data analytics and ‘intelligence’ services(There is a lot more research into the companies used and 

The company conducts “Targeted Ads Programs [….] ensuring precise targeting via Facebook, geo-targeting, zipcodes, IP addresses, and other tactics”. 

The company also says:MGI.png

The Messina Group are in a ‘strategic partnership with Outra serving as one of Outra’s primary advisors on data, analytics, and ‘customer engagement.’

(See alsoWorld leaders across 5 continents trust TMG with the highest stakes in politics.)

British electoral law forbids co-ordination between different campaign groups, which must all comply with strict spending limits. If they plan tactics or co-ordinate together, the organisations must share a cap on spending. (I’ve written more about what private data, communication and advertising companies the government used for their election campaign last year, and the costs here. 

Wylie said yesterday: “When you work in a lot of countries, it is beneficial to have different billing names on invoices… the paperwork looks confined”. The companies share their data with each other, too. If one of those companies breaches data laws, technically, they all do, but by listing front companies with different roles, it isolates a potential problem. On the surface, that is. It’s a mafia-styled co-ordinated franchise.

Subcontracting, ‘strategic partnerships’, alliances and front companies hide the dubious processes these companies use, very well. The way the companies are set up and their interconnected relationships is deliberately confusing. The way governments present them in their expenses declarations is also purposefully opaque. Combobulate, which is listed as a management consultancy, earned £43,200 for research/canvassing and for ‘unsolicited material to electors’, yet I could not find any website for the company.

The director is listed as Nicholas Jack Walton Mason, also listed as the director of Uplifting Data. Mason is also listed as Director of Mason Investment Consultants Limited, which was dissolved via compulsory strike-off .

Wylie said: “AggregateIO was just a money laundering exercise”.

He also said: “You have to remember this is a company that’s gone around the world and undermined democratic institutions in all kinds of countries. They couldn’t care less if their work is compliant because they like to win.”

Money talks, bullshit walks. Welcome to the marketisation of democracy itself.

Wylie continued “It’s not just the data or psyops”, it’s the implications for global democracy.”

However, if it wasn’t for the data mining and psyops, democracy wouldn’t be in such peril. 

From THE BAD BOYS OF BREXIT by Arron Bank, ironically, written with the help of Isabel Oakshott

When asked what Wylie thought the legal implications of a European Company processing raw data on a population at an ISP level were, he basically said that it would be a breech of data protection and privacy laws. Privacy and data protection are part of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in Europe. Being established in Delaware does not exempt you from Data Protection. If Data is processed in Europe then data protection and privacy laws apply. 

Wylie also links SCL to the Home Office Prevent Programme. I bet my entire collection of ‘Behaviourism, theory, practice and how to cover your tracks’ and ‘How tyrants misuse psychology’ that they will be linked to other many Conservative policy programmes too.

You can watch the full parliament evidence session here.

The video below shows a series of some of the key moments.

 

Related

The government hired several murky companies plying the same methods as Cambridge Analytica in their election campaign

Calibrating Academy- Hubert Huzzah

The revelations about Cambridge Analytica indicate clearly that western governments are subverting democracy

 


 

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The government hired several murky companies plying the same methods as Cambridge Analytica in their election campaign

Lizard ofOz

From left to right: Lord Feldman, (in March 2016, Feldman was questioned by journalist Michael Crick about election expenses that may have broken the law); Lynton Crosby (longstanding ‘campaigner’ and expert dog whistler, dead cat strategist and wedge tactician for the Conservatives); Jim Messina (a former Obama campaign chief also hired by the Conservatives) and then party chairman Grant Shapps.  Photograph: David Hartley/Rex

The political and corporate economy is driving the implementation of ‘behavoural science’, including ‘nudge’, by self-interested (and boundedly rational) incumbent governments, policy makers, bureaucrats and corporations has been largely neglected, though a few of us have been raising concerns about the implications of the microregulation of citizen perceptions and behaviour for democracy for a few years.

In their haste to portray populations as irrational and cognitively flawed, behavioural economists, governments, bureaucrats and the murky underworld of the big corporate lobbying, PR, ‘strategic communications’ and ‘consultancy’ industry seem to have overlooked a couple of whopping ‘cognitive biases’ of their own. These are their strong inclination towards profit and power, regardless of any ethical boundaries. 

As soon as the Conservatives casually announced their ‘behaviour change’ agenda back in 2010, and instituted the ‘Nudge Unit’, a scandal of the type surrounding Cambridge Analytica/SCL was inevitable. How could anyone expect that an authoritarian government, somewhat defined by resistance to change, would resist the temptation to draw on ‘behavioural science’ techniques to manipulate citizens’ perceptions, cognitions, behaviours, choices, and ultimately, their voting decisions? 

Cambridge Analytica’s commercial vice-president Richard Robinson once said that there is no fundamental difference between getting someone to vote and persuading them to swap toothpaste brands. He added: “It is about understanding what message is relevant to that person at that time when they are in that particular mind-set.”

Robinson claimed that using data to profile citizens, overlaying “the person” on data – a method that has previously been available to advertisers –  is “humanising marketing.” 

I don’t agree. I see this level of surveillance, intrusion and micromanagement of citizens decision-making as a form of commodifying and marketising humans for commercial behavioural modification. Without our consent. Or a share in the profits generated. It is profoundly ‘dehumanising marketing.’

Our personal data is being used to construct ‘persuasion profiles’, using sets of estimates – based on probabilities – on the effectiveness of particular influence-strategies on individuals, which are also based on past responses to these strategies. Some of these companies are also experimenting with biometrics. Many businesses in marketing openly admit that they aim to achieve behavioural change. It cannot be right for private companies and governments to use citizens as Pavlovian dogs. Such personalised persuasive strategies seriously undermine the human autonomy that is central to human dignity and democracy. 

The internet has rapidly become an environment in which citizens and populations are being sorted, profiled, typed, categorised, ranked and “managed”, based on data mining  mass surveillance and psycho-profiling.

It was only a matter of time before the powerful tools of digital tracking and corporate surveillance, including techniques designed for  manipulating opinions and behaviours, shifted from the realm of PR, product and service marketing to politics and voter targeting. The markets for personal data have always been markets for behavioural control also. And markets of behavioural control are composed of those who sell opportunities to influence behaviour for profit and power, and those who purchase such opportunities.  

Screengrab taken at 2pm on Tuesday from AIQ’s homepage

Screengrab taken at 2pm on Tuesday from AIQ’s homepage. By Thursday, after the company was contacted by the Observer, it had been taken down. Photograph: AggregateIQ

The Observer first disclosed connections between the firms a year ago when it published details of an intellectual property licence that linked AIQ and Cambridge Analytica.

The leaked intellectual property licence document that shows a link between AggregateIQ and SCL Elections (the company behind Cambridge Analytica).

The leaked intellectual property licence document that shows a link between AggregateIQ and SCL Elections (the company behind Cambridge Analytica). Photograph: Observer

From the Telegraph in February 2017: Exclusive: How a tiny Canadian IT company helped swing the Brexit vote for Leave 

The overlap between behavioural economics, PR and techniques of persuasion

Last month, the government’s procurement service widened the public sector’s choice of ‘behavioural insight’ experts to call on. Previously the Behavioural Insights Team (Nudge Unit) were the single suppliers, but the new Crown Commercial Service Behavioural Insights framework expands the number to six. The framework retains the Nudge Unit, and the new suppliers are CFE (Research and Consulting), Kantar Public, McKinsey, and Ipsos Mori. There is a sixth supplier that has not yet been named because it has not yet formally signed up to the new contract.

The PR industry, with it overlaps in marketing, consultancy, strategic communications,  behavioural economics, nudge and so on has been using behavioural analytics, psychographic profiling and targeted communications for years. Many corporate practices are kept as secret as possible, which places some limitations on research. 

‘Data-intensive’ companies communicate in a vague and ambiguous way, however they are more bold when it comes to selling their services and in this context they reveal internal practices through public statements, occasionally.

The Hunting Dynasty a “behavioural insight and communications agency,” say on their site: “WE IMPROVE THE WAY YOUR WORLD BEHAVES BY DISCOVERING YOUR AUDIENCE’S UNTAPPED DESIRES AND EFFORTLESSLY INCREASING YOUR EFFICIENCY USING ROBUST SCIENCE, PSYCHOLOGY, AND NUDGE TECHNIQUES”, and go on to say “welcome to the first step in eliminating damaging behaviour.”

“Our unique combination of deep applied and academic behavioural knowledge, and experience working in the world’s largest advertising agencies makes us supremely qualified to deliver robust, full-stack, out-of-the-box, A+ projects and retained services, every time.”

The company received the gold retail ‘Nudge award’ in 2015, and were shortlisted for the award in 2016 and last year. 

BeWorks, another example of  a company adopting the nudge approach to communications and marketing, describe themselves as “The first management consulting firm dedicated to the practice of applying behavioral science to strategy, marketing, operations, and policy challenges”, also “harness the powerful insights of behavioral economics to solve your toughest challenges.”

They work for the government, the energy industry, financial service sector, insurance industry and retail sectors “helping organisations to embed behavioural economics into their culture”. 

The company says: “The team combines leading academics from the fields of cognitive and social psychology, neuroscience, and marketing with management consulting experts. Our multi-disciplinary expertise allows us to arm our clients with the latest in scientific insights coupled with a strategic business lens”.

They also wrote this article among others: How Science Can Help Get Out the VoteThey claim “Our team of scientists and business experts offers a powerful methodology that analyzes and measurably influences the decisions consumers make”. 

They go on to say “Neuromarketing studies, which measure brain activity and other biological indicators, are another way to gauge true emotional reactions instead of relying on how people say they feel. EEG caps and biometric belts are the most common tools used, though other techniques, ranging from reading facial expressions to measuring tiny differences in reaction time, are also used.”

Over a six-year period, Ogilvy Public Relations Global CEO, Christopher Graves, digested more than 800 pieces of primary research to connect emerging findings in behavioral economics, neuroscience and narrative theory in order to ‘craft a new point of view on narrative effectiveness in communications.’

The findings overturn much of what communications professionals believed through conventional wisdom. The company concludes that “Emotional narrative beats analytical messaging. All human decision making depends heavily on emotion. Our efforts to persuade or explain need to also be rooted in emotion-triggering narratives.” 

Linstock Communications consultancy say they are: “AN AWARD-WINNING COMMUNICATIONS CONSULTANCY THAT SPECIALISES IN THOUGHT LEADERSHIP AND CRISIS MANAGEMENT UNDERPINNED BY BEHAVIOURAL SCIENCE.”

Rolph Merchant of Instinctif Communications DMCC, says:

“Public relations exists to influence and to effect change. To do so more successfully, the industry needs to find ways to target audiences, those it wishes to move, more scientifically. The PR industry clearly recognises this and I think the adoption of a more surgical targeting strategy will become incumbent on PR companies. 

A very positive development for the PR industry would be to embrace the more advanced approaches to targeting using techniques based on behavioural economics. The pioneering work of The Behavioural Insights Team to understand what influences the public’s decision making, and design ‘nudges’ to get desired results for government, could certainly be replicated in the private sector. 

These techniques have been touted for use in measuring campaign success, a perennial issue for PR. To give a simple example of its application, by measuring peoples’ behaviour or sentiment before and after a period of communications activity, it is possible to gain a clearer idea of how successful a campaign has been. In turn, this insight can be channelled to improve communications strategy and tactics. 

“Though in its infancy, behaviour change is nonetheless a fascinating area of communications, which could well see significant attention and growth in the next decade.”

Instinctif offers “strategic insight, and creative solutions; government relations, and public and corporate affairs services that include lobbying, strategic information, analysis and advice, media and reputation management mandates, and public affairs training services.”

At the moment, the media is focused on the sins of Cambridge Anaytica/ SCL and Facebook. However, there are MANY other private companies involved in stage managing our democracy, employing the same deeply unethical and antidemocratic methods. Crosby Textor is just one example. 

Cambridge Analytica are not the only company that are being employed by governments to stage-manage our democracy

While the government’s controversial ‘dark ads’ campaign attracted some concerned commentary last year, in part because it used data and psychographic profiling to manipulate individual traits and characteristics, it seems like no-one is joining the dots, still.

textor

From the Crosby Textor Group site

The government claims that they haven’t used Cambridge Analytica for their election campaigns. However, in 2017, the Conservatives used several similar shadowy private companies that peddle data analytics, psychological profiling and ‘behavioural change’  to research, canvass, advertise and target message voters with ‘strategic communications’ – which also exploit their psychological characteristics and tendencies.

I trawled through the Conservatives’ campaign expenses listed on the Electoral Commission site to find the following: the government spent an eye-watering total of £1502,3516•79p on ‘campaigning’, to persuade people to vote Conservative.

Here is a breakdown of that sum:

The government used Experian (paid £683,636.34), Reed Consultancy (paid £178,558.03), Google Analytics (paid £1,020,232.17), Facebook (paid £3,177,416.68), Twitter (paid £56,504.32), among others, to research, canvass and advertise their party ‘brand’. And £76,800 was spent advertising through Express Newspapers.

Blue Telecoms were paid £375,882.56 for ‘unsolicited material to electors’ and ‘advertising’. It says on their site that Blue Telecoms is a trading name for Direct Market Solutions Ltd. The company director is Sascha Lopez , a businessman who stood as a local council candidate for the Tories in the 2017 local elections. He is also an active director of the Lopez Group, although that company’s accounts are very overdue, there is an active proposal to strike off on the government’s Companies House page. If directors are late in filing their company accounts, and don’t reply to warnings from Companies House, their company can be struck-off the Companies House register and therefore cease to exist. Other companies he was active in have been liquidated (3) and dissolved (2).

An undercover reporter working for Channel 4 News secured work at Blue Telecoms, in Neath, South Wales. In an area plagued by unemployment and low wages, the call centre hired up to a hundred people on zero-hours contracts. For weeks, they contacted thousands of potential voters in marginal seats across the UK. 

The hired callers were told to say they were working for a market research company called “Axe Research”. No such company is registered in England and Wales. Furthermore, callers were instructed to say that the call centre was situated in Cardiff, rather than Neath.

The investigation uncovered underhand and potentially unlawful practices at the centre, in calls made on behalf of the Conservative Party. These allegations include:

● Paid canvassing on behalf of Conservative election candidates – illegal under election law.

● Political cold calling to prohibited numbers

Misleading calls claiming to be from an “independent market research company” which does not appear to exist

The Conservative Party have admitted it had commissioned Blue Telecoms to carry out “market research and direct marketing calls” during the campaign, and insisted the calls were legal.

A Conservative spokesman said: “Political parties of all colours pay for market research and direct marketing calls. All the scripts supplied by the party for these calls are compliant with data protection and information law.” 

However, I discovered that the record of funds paid to Blue Telecoms were not listed under ‘market research.’ They were listed under ‘advertising’ and ‘unsolicited material to electors’. 

(See also: More allegations of Tory election fraud, now we need to talk about democracy)

Much of the ‘advertising’ was based on data collection, data analytics and psychological profiling, which were used to target people with communications according to their hopes, fears, anxieties, degrees of conformity and other general dispositions. Without their consent.

Another company that the Conservatives used and paid £120,000 out to for market research and canvassing during their general election campaign is Outra. Jim Messina is the executive director, and the team includes Lynton Crosby.

outra.png

Crosby Textor (listed as CTF) also earned £4,037,400 for market research/canvassing.

Messina Group Inc were also paid £544,153.57 for transport, advertising, market research and canvassing. This company uses data analytics and ‘intelligence’ services.  The company conducts “Targeted Ads Programs [….] ensuring precise targeting via Facebook, geo-targeting, zipcodes, IP addresses, and other tactics”. 

The company also says:

MGI.png

The Messina Group are in astrategic partnership’ with Outra serving as one of Outra’s primary advisors on data, analytics, and ‘customer engagement.’

(See also: World leaders across 5 continents trust TMG with the highest stakes in politics.)

British electoral law forbids co-ordination between different campaign groups, which must all comply with strict spending limits. If they plan tactics or co-ordinate together, the organisations must share a cap on spending.

Combobulate Limited, which is listed as a management consultancy, earned £43,200 for research/canvassing and for ‘unsolicited material to electors’.

The director is listed as Nicholas Jack Walton Mason, also listed as the director of Uplifting Data. Mason is also listed as Director of Mason Investment Consultants Limited, which was dissolved via compulsory strike-off .

However, I couldn’t find an information site for Combobulate, the only site I found bizarrely took me here. I can’t find any other website.

combob

Another similar company, An Abundance Limited, which is listed as a ‘behaviour change agency, were paid £2,400 for market research and canvassing by the Conservatives in the run-up to the election last year. 

Populus Data Solutions, who say they provide “state of the art data capture”, were paid £196,452 for research/canvasing and ‘unsolicited material to electors’. This company have also developed the use of biometrics – facial coding in particular.

St Ives management services were paid £3,556,030.91, for research/canvasing, ‘unsolicited material to electors’, advertising, overheads and general administration, media and rallies, and manifesto material.

sims

Edmonds Elder Ltda digital consultancy, were paid £156,240.00 for advertising. The site  says the company also provides services in vague sounding ‘government affairs: “We use cutting-edge digital techniques to help government affairs teams make the case for their policy and regulatory positions – harnessing support from communities across the country to ensure a positive outcome.”   

Craig Elder is also the Conservative party’s digital directorTom Edmonds was the Conservative party’s creative director between 2013 and 2015.

Hines Digital  who is a partner of Edmonds Elder Ltd, is a conservative digital agency that builds strong brands, huge email lists, and big league fundraising revenue for our clients, helping conservative campaigns & causes, and companies, achieve their goals.”

It says on the site that “Hines worked with conservative campaigns & causes in fifteen U.S. states and nine countries.” The company designed the ‘digital infrastructure’ of Theresa May’s leadership campaign launch in 2016, they built her website (but aren’t listed in election expenses.) Hines says: 

That timely initial website launch proved invaluable. Approximately 35% of her overall email list signed up on that first day, a significant shot in the arm on Day One made possible because her team — led in part by our partners at Edmonds Elder—was prepared to capitalize on the day’s earned media through effective online organizing.

Overall, the initial holding page saw a 18% conversion rate on day one — meaning nearly 1/5 people who visited the website signed up to join the campaign. That’s a fantastic response to a site optimized for supporter recruitment.”

eldre

And: “We are experts at identifying people online – and targeting them to drive the activity your organisation needs.”

With political adverts like this, which aren’t fact checked and only the person targeted gets to see them:

Anti-Labour ‘attack’ ad

Walker Media Limited are a digital marketing and media company, they facilitate Facebook adverts and campaigns, among other services. They were paid £798,610.21 from the Conservatives’ election campaign. One of their other social media marketing campaigns listed on their site is for “The Outdoor and Hunting Industry”.

Simon Davis serves as the Chief Executive Officer at Walker Media Holdings Limited and Blue 449. Davis served as Managing Director of Walker Media at M&C Saatchi plc, a global PR and advertising company, who have worked for the Conservatives before, designing campaign posters and anti-Labour adverts – including the controversial ‘New Labour, New Danger’ one in particular.

There are a few subsidaries of this company which include “harnessing data to find, engage and convert customers efficiently through digital media.” M&C Saatchi acquired the online media ‘intelligence agency’ Human Digital, whose “innovative approach marries rich behavioural insight with robust metrics.”

There is a whole submerged world of actors making huge profits from data mining and analytics, ‘targeted audience segmentation’, behaviour change techniques, ‘strategic communications and political lobbying. Much of the PR industry is built upon the same territory of interests: financial profit, maintaining power relations and supporting the vested interests of the privileged class. The subterranean operations of the surveillance and persuasion industry and citizen manipulation has become the establishment’s norm, hidden in plain view.

Neoliberalism has evolved into a form of surveillance and microregulation capitalism. Traditional mass marketing has become much more focused, using precise target marketing, techniques which psychologically profile, sort, segment, categorise and target all forms of advertising to individual consumers. From behavioural targeting to mobile messaging apps sharing conversation data for adverts, target marketing requires personal data and a behavioural profile of ‘consumers’ .

Neuroliberalism

Surveillance strategies and targeted marketing also include the use of biometrics. Endless gain, for example, uses biometrics and psychology and “to understand human emotions and behaviour, and Psychology to optimise human emotions and behaviour. Our way helps our clients convert more customers, keep them for longer, and have them spend more.” 

Endless Gain claim on their site to “optimise conversions” in the same way that behavioural economists at the Nudge Unit claim to “optimise decision-making”, in their quest to align citizens’ choices with neoliberal outcomes.

The company uses eyetrackingfacial expression recognitiongalvanic skin response,  EEG and pupil dilation – biometrics, in addition to conventional psychological research, “bringing together biometric research with findings from decades of academic psychology – particularly on emotional decision-making and the psychology of persuasion – to make changes to your site that increase both revenue and conversions.”  

Other companies, such as the hugely influential Crimson Hexagon, use AI.  The company is based in Boston, Massachusetts and has also a European division in London.  Edelman Intelligence, a massive PR company, are a client of this company, as are Twitter. The company’s online data library consists of over 1 trillion posts, and includes documents from social networks such as Twitter and Facebook as well as blogs, forums, and news sites. 

The company’s ForSight platform is a Twitter Certified Product. (See also: The anti-social public relations of the PR industry, which details the intrusive ‘360 degree’ social media listening and monitoring posts used by companies to gather data and intelligence and to formulate ‘strategic communications’ to discredit critics)

This level of surveillance and persuasion is deeply intrusive form of commodification and control that effectively exiles citizens from their own characteristics, perceptions, behaviours and choices, while producing lucrative markets aimed at data mining, behavioural analysis, prediction and modification.

Furthermore, the data collection, analysis and profiling is likely to build in discrimination, reflecting and reinforcing material and power inequalities. Credit reference agencies, insurance companies and the financial sector have previously demonstrated this point only too well. 

The data mining, analytics and persuasion market exists because large corporations and governments want to micromanage and psychoregulate citizens. However, such intrusive surveillance and micromanagement poses fundamental challenges to our democratic norms and personal autonomy.  

Tailored and targeted ‘strategic communications’ and persuasions are based on behaviour modelling and presupposed preferences, which may or may not be accurate or comprehensive. However, such an approach forecloses the possibility of citizens seeing alternative choices and developing new preferences: of accessing a full range of choices, learning and developing. It reduces citizens, commodifying their biology, psychology and decision-making, and transforming human nature into profits for big businesses and maintaining the power of the establishment.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlights the erosion of democracy because governments are paying to use these sophisticated techniques of persuasion to unduly influence voters and to maintain a hegemony, amplifying and normalising dominant political narratives that justify neoliberal policies.

‘Behavioural science’ is used on every level of our society, from many policy programmes – it’s become embedded in our institutions – to forms of “expertise”, and through the state’s influence on the mass media, and other social and cultural systems. It also operates at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narratives. Repetition is an old propaganda technique that sometimes works. The ‘Strong and Stable’ ideological motif of the government, however, was a tad overused, and led to ridicule because it became so visible as a ill-conceived technique of persuasion. But what about all of the psycholinguistic cues that remain opaque?

The debate should not be about whether or not these methods of citizen ‘conversion’ are wholly effective, because that distracts us from the intentions behind the use of them, and especially, the implications for citizen autonomy, civil rights and democracy. 

As I said in my last article, profit-seeking private PR companies are paid to brand, market, engineer a following, build trust and credibility and generally sell the practice of micromanaging the spread of information between an individual or an organisation (such as a business, government agency, the media) and the public.

Most of these companies use ‘behavioural science’ strategies (a euphemism for psychological warfare) to do so. It’s a dark world where governments pay to be advised not to talk about “capitalism,” but instead discuss “economic freedom” , “business friendly policies” or the “free market”. Austerity is simply translated into “balancing the budget” or “living within our means”. The political coercion of sick and disabled people to look for work by cutting their lifeline support is “equality and social justice” or “helping to move them closer to employment”. Propaganda and deception is “strategic communications” and “PR”. Psychological coercion is “behavioural science”. The democratic opposition are described as “virtue signallers”, “snowflakes”, “Marxists”, “militants” and “the hard left.” 

On the Institute for Government website, the section called MINDSPACE Behavioural Economics  discusses “behaviour change theory” and “influencing behaviour through public policy.” Using a language of managementspeak and psychobabble. A lot.

But surely, in democracies, public policies are supposed to reflect and serve identified public needs, rather than being about the public meeting specific policy outcomes and government needs. And surely governments ought to be elected on what they offer citizens in terms of policy, not on the basis of what they pay for PR, strategic communications, behaviour modification techniques and spying on populations.

We have nothing in place to prevent powerful and wealthy interlopers – such as Robert Mercer, from making an end run around election laws, either. Mercer played a key role in the Brexit campaign by donating data analytics services via Cambridge Analytica to Nigel Farage. 

The company was able to advise Leave.EU through its ability to harvest data from people’s Facebook profiles in order to target them with individualized persuasive messages to vote for Brexit. However, Leave.EU did not inform the UK electoral commission of the donation despite the fact that a law demands that all donations valued over £7,500 must be reported.


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Hubert

Cambridge Analytica, the commodification of voter decision making and marketisation of democracy

CA data

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of profiles. And built models to exploit that and target their inner demons”. Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower, Christopher Wylie.

Neuroliberalism 

It’s been a longstanding major area of concern, of course, that neurotechnologies and ‘behavioural change’ techniques may be used to redirect citizen decision making without their explicit permission. After all, neuromarketing – the idea that the brain, behaviours, emotions and preferences can reveal hidden and profitable truths – is founded on the development of strategies of persuasion in order to profit.

This doesn’t just raise ethical concerns in the market place, since neuromarketing strategies are being used in wider contexts, such as in shaping political narratives and communications, election campaigning, policy making and within the media. The motive for employing these techniques is nonetheless about gaining a profit, if not financially, then certainly in terms of advantage and power. 

I have criticised behavioural economics extensively and frquently on previous occasions, for precisely the same reasons. Since 2010, it has somehow become acceptable for governments to exercise an influence on the decision-making and behaviours of citizens. Libertarian paternalism, under the guise of ‘behavioural science’, has normalised a manipulative, authoritarian approach for state micro-management of the perceptions, decisions and behaviours of populations. However, being a political doctrine itself, libertarian paternalism is not value-neutral or ‘objective’.   

Behavioural economics is a flagrant political misuse of psychology, a form of manipulation without the publics’ knowledge and consent. This of course has profound implications for democracy, as the state is ‘acting upon’ citizens in ways that they won’t recognise to change their behaviours and to manipulate their decision-making. In fact the government’s use of behavioural economics turns democracy completely on its head.

It’s accepted uncritically that people can pay companies and organisations to change people’s minds and persuade them to change their decisions and behaviours, be it simply aimed politically at individuals’ perceived ‘faulty’ decision-making, allegedly involved in their circumstances of poverty, claiming welfare support, or voting for a party that hasn’t paid a PR company to manipulate your voting decision.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, (co-author of “Nudge” and one of the founders of behavioural economics), wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-independent advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.

Sunstein also proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the government. Ironically, the very same Sunstein was  named by Obama to serve as a member of the NSA review panel created by the White House, one that – while disputing key NSA claims – proceeded to propose many cosmetic reforms to the agency’s powers (most of which were ignored by the President who appointed them).

Back in 2014, GCHQ documents released from the Edward Snowden archive by Glenn Greenwald, were the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online and harm the reputations of targets. The ultimate aim, of course, is to shape public perceptions, decisions and behaviours.

Under the tactics they use, the state is deliberately spreading lies and misinformation on the internet about whichever individuals it targets, including the use of what GCHQ itself calls “false flag operations” and emails to people’s families and friends. The Snowden archive outlines how western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction.

Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?

Then there is, as I’ve discussed, the political misuse of psychology and other social sciences to not only understand, but shape and control, how online activism and discourse unfolds.

Glenn Greenwald’s published document on the Intercept touts the work of GCHQ’s “Human Science Operations Cell,” devoted to “online human intelligence” and “strategic influence and disruption.” Under the title “Online Covert Action”, the document details a variety of means to engage in “influence and info ops” as well as “disruption and computer net attack,” while dissecting how human beings can be manipulated using “leaders,” “trust,” “obedience” and “compliance”.

It’s not such a big inferential leap to conclude that governments are attempting to manage legitimate criticism and opposition while stage-managing our democracy.

I don’t differentiate a great deal between the behavioural insights team at the heart of the Conservative cabinet office, and the dark world of PR and  ‘big data’ and ‘strategic communications’ companies like Cambridge Analytica. The political misuse of psychology has been disguised as some kind of technocratic “fix” for a failing neoliberal paradigm, and paraded as neutral “science”. 

However, its role as an authoritarian prop for an ideological imposition on the population has always been apparent to some of us, because the bottom line is that it is all about influencing people’s perceptions and decisions, using psychological warfare strategies

The Conservatives’ behaviour change agenda is designed to align citizen’s perceptions and behaviours with neoliberal ideology and the interests of the state. However, in democratic societies, governments are traditionally elected to reflect and meet public needs. The use of “behaviour change” policy involves the state acting upon individuals, and instructing them how they must be.

Last year, I wrote a detailed article about some of these issues, including discussion of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in data mining and the political ‘dark’ advertising that is only seen by its intended recipients. This is a much greater cause for concern than “fake news” in the spread of misinformation, because it is invisible to everyone but the person being targeted. This means that the individually tailored messages are not open to public scrutiny, nor are they fact checked.

A further problem is that no-one is monitoring the impact of the tailored messages and the potential to cause harm to individuals. The dark adverts are designed to exploit people’s psychological vulnerabilities, using personality profiling, which is controversial in itself. Intentionally generating and manipulating fear and anxiety to influence political outcomes isn’t a new thing. Despots have been using fear and slightly less subtle types of citizen “behaviour change” programmes for a long time. 

About Cambridge Analytica: political psyops approach verified by a whistleblower

Controversy has arisen concerning Cambridge Analytica‘s use of personal information acquired by an external researcher, who claimed to be collecting it for “academic purposes”. The use of personal data collected without knowledge or permission to establish sophisticated models of user’s personalities raises ethical and privacy issues.

In a somewhat late response, Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica from advertising on its platform. The Guardian has further reported that Facebook had known about this security breach for two years, but did nothing to protect its millions of users.

It is well-known that Cambridge Analytica (CA) collects data on voters using sources such as demographics, consumer activity and internet activity, among other public and private sources. It has been reported that the company is using psychological data derived from millions of Facebook users, largely without users’ permission or knowledge. In short, the company operates using political voter surveillance and strategies of psychological manipulation.

The data analytics firm is a private company that offers services to businesses and political parties who want to “change audience behaviour”. CA combines data mining and data analysis with ‘strategic communication’ for the electoral process. It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories Group, to participate in US politics. 

The company claims to use “data enhancement and audience segmentation techniques” providing  “psychographic analysis” for a “deeper knowledge of the target audience”. The company is known to use the ‘big five’ OCEAN scale of personality traits, among other methods of psychographic profiling. 

The company also claims to use “behavioural microtargeting” and indicates that it can predict ‘needs’ of subjects and how these needs may change over time. Services then can be individually targeted for the benefit of its clients from the political arena, governments, and companies providing “a better and more actionable view of their key audiences.”

CA, who worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the Brexit campaign, has harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the technological giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to psychologically profile, predict and influence citizens’ voting choices. The managing director of CA’s controversial political division is Mark Turnbull, who spent 18 years at the communications firm Bell Pottinger before joining Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), which is a British ‘behavioural science’ company.

The SCL Group, that once advised Nato on so-called ‘psy-ops’, is a private British behavioural research and strategic communication company. The company describes itself as “global election management agency”.  SCL’s approach to propaganda is based upon a methodology developed by the associated Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDI). 

Nigel Oakes founded the latter and also set up SCL and using the new methodology from BDI, ran election campaigns and national  communications campaigns for a broad variety of international governments.

BDI say: “The goal of the BDI is to establish Behavioural Dynamics as a discipline for the study of group behaviour change.”

There isn’t much information around about BDI’s connection with military operations, though links with NATO are well-established – see Countering propaganda: NATO spearheads use of behavioural change science, for example. From the article: “Target Audience Analysis, a scientific application developed by the UK based Behavioural Dynamics Institute, that involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behaviour.”

SCL on the other hand, has a clearly defined defence and military division who: “Target Audience Analysis, a scientific application developed by the UK based Behavioural Dynamics Institute, that involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behaviour.”

SCL has different ‘verticals’ in politics, military and commercial operations. All of those operations are based on the same methodology (Target Audience Analysis) and, as far as can be discerned from the outside, SCL and affiliates have very obscure corporate structures with confusing ownership.

In the United States, SCL has gained public recognition mainly though its affiliated corporation Cambridge Analytica. It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company (the SCL Group,) to participate in US politics. In 2014, CA was involved in 44 US political races.

Their site says: Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior.” 

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of political will or respect on the right when it comes to the publics’ privacy, autonomy in decision making, citizens’ agency and civil liberties.   

The current controversy

Working with a whistleblower and ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica, the Observer and Guardian have seen documents and gathered eyewitness reports that lift the lid on the data analytics company that helped Donald Trump to victory. The company is currently being investigated on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is a key subject in two inquiries in the UK – by the Electoral Commission, into the company’s possible role in the EU referendum and the Information Commissioner’s Office, into data analytics for political purposes – and one in the US, as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump-Russia collusion.

Previous articles by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer and Guardian newspapers, respectively published in February and May 2017, speculated in detail that CA had influenced both the Brexit/Vote Leave option in the UK’s 2016 EU membership referendum and Trump’s 2016 US presidential campaign with Robert Mercer’s backing of Donald Trump being key. They also discuss the legality of using the social data farmed. CA says it is pursuing legal action over the claims made in Cadwalladr’s articles.

The whistleblower, Chris Wylie, claims that the 50 million mostly American, profiles were harvested in one of Facebook’s biggest data breaches has caused outrage on both sides of the Atlantic, with lawmakers in both the UK and America, and a state attorney general calling for greater accountability and regulation. The profiles were harvested by a UK-based academic, Aleksandre Kogan, and his company, Global Science Research (GSR).

Wylie said the personal information mined was used to build a system to influence voters. The Canadian, who previously worked for Cambridge Analyticahas lifted the lid on this and other practices at the company, which he describes as a “full-service propaganda machine”.

Shortly before the story broke, Facebook’s external lawyers warned the Observer that it was making “false and defamatory” allegations and reserved Facebook’s legal position. Facebook denies the harvesting of tens of millions of profiles by CA, working with Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan and his firm GSR, was a data breach. 

While Facebook insists that it wasn’t a data breach, claiming it was a violation by a third party app that abused user data, this responsibility offloading speaks volumes about Facebook’s approach to its users’ privacy.  

Private companies benefit from a lack of transparency over how profits are made from our personal data. Their priority seems to be to silo and hoard our data, prioritising its more commercial uses. Yet we need to think about data differently, moving away from ideas of data as a commodity to be bought and sold, and used to generate profit for a few people – be it financial or political profit.

The internet, and later the World Wide Web, was originally intended to be a democratising force, accessible to all and without walls or ownership. But the reality today is rather different. The inequalities in wealth and power inherent in neoliberalism have seeped online, marketising and commodifying our personal details, choices, views, dispositions, likes and dislikes.  

Personal data has become the driving force of the online economy, yet the economic and social value which can be generated from data is not remotely fairly distributed. In fact it isn’t being redistributed at all.

Facebook shoot the messenger

Facebook have also suspended the whistleblower Chris Wylie from the platform “pending further information” over misuse of data, along with his former employer, CA and its affiliates, and the academic they worked with, Aleksandr Kogan.

The public attack on Wylie came after he had approached Facebook about the data breach, offering to help investigate. He described it as a “chilling attack” on someone acting in the public interest.

“They acknowledged my offer but then turned around and shot the messenger. I’m trying to make amends for my mistakes and so should Facebook,” he told the Guardian.

“Facebook has known about this for at least two years and did almost nothing to fix it. This is not new. And it’s only by coming forward that Facebook is now taking action. People need to know this kind of profiling is happening.”

Kogan assembled the harvested information through an app on the site – it collected details of American citizens who were paid to take a personality test, but also gathered data on those people’s Facebook friends.

Kogan apparently had a deal to share this information with CA. But according to Wylie, most of this personal information had been taken without authorisation. He said Cambridge Analytica used it to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.

Last month, both Facebook and CA CEO Alexander Nix told the parliamentary inquiry into fake news that the company did not have or use private Facebook data, or any data from Kogan’s firm, GSR.

But in its statement on Friday night, explaining why it had suspended CA and Wylie, Facebook said it had known in 2015 that profiles were passed to Nix’s company. 

“In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our platform policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica,the statement said.

CA is heavily funded by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund billionaire. I’ve mentioned Mercer in a previous article about the right’s undue influence on the media and on voting behaviour. Mercer made his money as a pioneer in the field of Computational Linguistics.

The company was headed by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon. CA used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with ‘personalised’ persuasive  political ‘advertisements’.

It’s scandalous that documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by the Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the Facebook had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale and failed to alert users, taking only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.

Last year, Dr Simon Moores, visiting lecturer in the applied sciences and computing department at Canterbury Christ Church University and a technology ambassador under the Blair government, said the Information commissioners Office’s recent decision to shine a light on the use of big data in politics was timely. He said:

“A rapid convergence in the data mining, algorithmic and granular analytics capabilities of companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is creating powerful, unregulated and opaque ‘intelligence platforms’. In turn, these can have enormous influence to affect what we learn, how we feel, and how we vote. The algorithms they may produce are frequently hidden from scrutiny and we see only the results of any insights they might choose to publish.”

He goes on to say: ”They were using 40-50,000 different variants of an ad every day that were continuously measuring responses and then adapting and evolving based on that response.”

The head of the parliamentary committee investigating fake news has accused CA and Facebook of misleading MPs in their testimony. 

After Wylie detailed the harvesting of more than 50 million Facebook profiles for CA, Damian Collins, the chair of the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee, said he would be calling on the Facebook boss, Mark Zuckerberg, to testify before the committee.

He said the company appeared to have previously sent executives able to avoid difficult questions who had “claimed not to know the answers”.

Collins also said he would be recalling the CA’s CEO, Alexander Nix, to give further testimony. “Nix denied to the committee last month that his company had received any data from [his firm] GSR,” he said. “We will be contacting Alexander Nix next week asking him to explain his comments.”

Collins has attacked Facebook for appearing to have been “deliberately avoiding answering straight questions” in to the committee.

“It is now clear that data has been taken from Facebook users without their consent, and was then processed by a third party and used to support their campaigns,” Collins said. “Facebook knew about this, and the involvement of Cambridge Analytica with it.”

CA claimed that its contract with GSR stipulated that Kogan should seek “informed consent” for data collection and it had no reason to believe he would not. 

GSR was “led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally renowned institution who made explicit contractual commitments to us regarding its legal authority to license data to SCL Elections”, a company spokesman said.

The Observer has seen a contract dated 4 June 2014, which confirms SCL, an affiliate of CA, entered into a commercial arrangement with GSR, entirely premised on harvesting and processing Facebook data. CA spent nearly $1m on data collection, which yielded more than 50 million individual profiles that could be matched to electoral rolls. It then used the test results and Facebook data to build an algorithm that could analyse individual Facebook profiles and determine personality traits linked to voting behaviour.

The algorithm and database together made a powerful political tool for the right. It allowed a campaign to identify possible swing voters and craft messages more likely to ‘resonate’.

“The ultimate product of the training set is creating a ‘gold standard’ of understanding personality from Facebook profile information,” the contract specifies. It promises to create a database of 2 million ‘matched’ profiles, identifiable and tied to electoral registers, across 11 states, but with room to expand much further.

CA responded to the Observer story on Twitter before Collins had said Nix would be recalled. “We refute(s) these mischaracterizations and false allegations,” it said:

“Reality Check: Cambridge Analytica uses client and commercially and publicly available data; we don’t use or hold any Facebook data,” the company said. “When we learned GSR sold us Facebook data that it shouldn’t have done, we deleted it all – system wide audit to verify.”

CA

CA not coercive

In response to the series of  defensive Tweets put out by CA, I quoted several claims from CA’s own site, which I had cited in an article last year. 

For example, the company offers to: “More effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate.”

And boasts:Leveraging CA’s massive team of data scientists and academics, CA is able to provide optimal audience segments based on big data and psychographic modeling. Then, using a sophisticated electronic data delivery system, CA is able to provide TV advertising campaign data that may be used to inform media buyers about shows that have the highest concentrations of target audiences and the least amount of waste; all of which leading to higher media ROI [return on investment] and more voter conversions.”

“Psychographic Modeling”? “Conversions”?  “[…] specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate” ?

That language doesn’t sound like “advertising” to me. It sounds like microsurveilance and psychological manipulation, using the vulnerabilities that make us susceptible to all kinds of manipulations, including the intentional manipulations performed by the political machinery of our culture.

If CA genuinely thought “people are smarter than that”, then their boasts about their service of psychographic modeling, behavioural science; “understandings of the electorates’ behaviour”, “changing voter behaviours” and increasing “conversions”, “driving” voters to the polls to win campaigns and so on is nothing more than an eloborate  scam. Why bother attempting to manipulate people you think are not susceptible to manipulation?

Either way, this company has transgressed ethical boundaries, either as snake oil merchants, or as peddlers of snake oil on behalf of governments and other clients, while exploiting our personal data.

CA Political will equip you with the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign. We offer a proven combination of predictive analytics, behavioral sciences, and data-driven ad tech.”

“With up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters, we build your custom target audience, then use this crucial information to engage, persuade, and motivate them to act.”

And offers to help to: “More effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate.”

One of our fundamental freedoms, as human beings, is that of owning the decision making regarding our own lives and experiences, including evaluating and deciding our own political preferences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

When David Cameron said that “knowledge of human behaviour” was part of his vision for a “new age of government” I was one of a few who didn’t see behavioural economics as the great breakthrough in social policy-making that it was being hailed as. Even the name ‘behavioural insights team’ suggests secrecy, surveilance and manipulation. It was only a matter of time before libertarian paternalism morphed into authoritarianism, hidden in plain view. 

We are being told what our ‘best interests’ are by a small group of powerful people whose interests are that want to stay powerful, despite being dogmatic, self-righteous and wrong. Despite the fact that they need specialists in techniques of persuasion, rather than rational and democratic engagement, to appear credible to the electorate.  

CA pivotal role
It seems that the overarching logic of New Right neoliberalism has led to the privatisation of citizens’ decision making and behaviour and a new form of exploiting the population by misuse of their trust and their personal information.

Also, it seems democracy has been commodified and marketised.

Update

Cambridge Analytica are trying to stop the broadcast of an undercover Channel 4 News report in which its chief executive talks unguardedly about its practices. Channel 4 reporters posed as prospective clients and had a series of meetings with Cambridge Analytica that they secretly filmed — including at least one with Alexander Nix, its chief executive.

Channel 4 declined to comment. Cambridge Analytica’s spokesman also declined to comment on the undercover Channel 4 report. The company is under mounting pressure over how it uses personal data in political and election campaign work. It was banned by Facebook on Friday, which claimed it had violated the social network’s rules by failing to delete Facebook user data collected by an app supposedly for ‘research purposes’.

Facebook is now investigating ties between one of its current employees and Cambridge Analytica. Joseph Chancellor, currently a researcher at Facebook, was a director of Global Science Research, a company that provided data to Cambridge Analytica.

The nature of Chancellor’s role as a director of Global Science Research and his knowledge of Kogan’s data collection practices are not clear. A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica said “there was no recollection of any interactions or emails with” Chancellor.

Facebook didn’t mention Global Science Research. But Cambridge Analytica said on Saturday that it contracted the company in 2014 to “undertake a large scale research project in the United States.”

Global Science Research was incorporated in May 2014 and listed Kogan and Chancellor as directors, according to UK government records. (The records show that Global Science Research was dissolved in October 2017.) 

Channel 4 News went ahead to broadcast the Cambridge Analytica exposé despite the legal threat.

From Channel 4Revealed: Trump’s election consultants filmed saying they use bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians 

Watch Channel 4′s excellent undercover documentary.

Related 

Cambridge Analytica questioned on fake news  – UK parliament

Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach

Cambridge Analytica: links to Moscow oil firm and St Petersburg university

More allegations of Tory election fraud, now we need to talk about democracy

The anti-social public relations of the PR industry

The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations – Glenn Greenwald

Controversial GCHQ Unit Engaged in Domestic Law Enforcement, Online Propaganda, Psychology Research – Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman


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More allegations of Tory election fraud, now we need to talk about democracy

The Conservative Party are facing another investigation from the Electoral Commission following evidenced allegations that they operated a secret call centre during the general election campaign, breaching electoral law, an undercover investigation by Channel 4 News has revealed. 

An undercover reporter working for Channel 4 News secured work at Blue Telecoms, a company in Neath, South Wales. In an area plagued by unemployment and low wages, the call centre hired up to a hundred people on zero-hours contracts. For weeks, they contacted thousands of potential voters in marginal seats across the UK. 

The hired callers were told to say they were working for a market research company called “Axe Research”. No such company is registered in England and Wales. Furthermore, callers were instructed to say that the call centre was situated in Cardiff, rather than Neath.

The investigation has uncovered underhand and potentially unlawful practices at the centre, in calls made on behalf of the Conservative Party. These allegations include:

Paid canvassing on behalf of Conservative election candidates – illegal under election law.

● Political cold calling to prohibited numbers

● Misleading calls claiming to be from an “independent market research company” which does not appear to exist

The Conservative Party have admitted it had commissioned Blue Telecoms to carry out “market research and direct marketing calls” during the campaign, and insisted the calls were legal.

A Conservative spokesman said: “Political parties of all colours pay for market research and direct marketing calls. All the scripts supplied by the party for these calls are compliant with data protection and information law.”

Under the Representation of the People Act, it is illegal to employ someone “for payment or promise of payment as a canvasser for the purpose of promoting or procuring a candidate’s election”.

Call centre employees working on behalf of the party used a script that certainly appeared to canvass for support on film, rather than conduct market research. On the day of the election, call centre employees contacted voters to promote individual candidates.

Anya Proops, a QC specialising in information law, told Channel 4 that political parties had to ensure that third parties working on their behalf followed the law.

“It’s an illegal practice, it’s prohibited under the legislation and in so far as it’s something which has tainted the overall result in favour of a political candidate, then it can void that result.” 

Blue Telecoms is run by Sascha Lopez. He told The Guardian: “In relation to the Conservative party project, I am unable to comment on the content of the scripts or calls to TPS [Telephone Preference Service] numbers, as the scripts and lists of who to call and when to call were given to us by Conservative campaign HQ in London and were not influenced by my team.”

However, a whistleblower at the call centre told Channel 4 News that they had been making potentially unlawful phone calls to voters. 

Undecided voters were fed key Conservative campaign messages, including references to the Brexit negotiations and warnings about a hung parliament.

On the day that voters went to the polls, undecided voters were told that: “the election result in your marginal constituency is going to be very close between Theresa May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party”. Callers were also recorded quoting media articles that were pro-Conservative. Operating from a script, the staff claimed they were carrying out calls for “market research” and “polling”. 

One caller is recorded saying: “It was reported in the Daily Mirror in September last year that Jeremy Corbyn is not concerned about the numbers of people coming to live in the UK and it was reported on Sky News this year that Theresa May has restated her pledge to reduce net Migration.”

People were then asked: “Just thinking about these reports in the media and the reports that you live in a marginal constituency that may determine who is prime minister. So does knowing that you live in a marginal constituency that will determine who is prime minister for the Brexit negotiations, does that make you a lot more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate or a little more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate, or are you still unsure, or does it not make a difference?”

The broadcaster’s evidence suggests that on the day of the election, staff called voters in 10 marginal seats, including Bridgend, Gower, Clwyd South and Wrexham.

As the election campaign started, the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, wrote to all the major political parties reminding them of the law around telephone calls and data protection. She said that calling voters to promote a political party was “direct marketing” and was regulated by law.

A week before the election, the same call centre staff started saying they were calling on behalf of Theresa May’s Conservatives.

The Conservative party said the call centre was conducting “market research” on its behalf, and was not canvassing for votes. The call centre confirmed it was employed by the party, but has so far denied canvassing on its behalf. 

The Channel 4 undercover reporter has captured evidence that certainly seems to refute that claim. 

The use of ‘big data’ and psychographic targeting

Teams of statisticians and behavioural psychologists who subscribe to the burgeoning practice of “psycho­graphic targeting” have designed their own version of a Myers-Briggs personality test. The original test explores “the basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgement.”

The test data is supplemented by recent issue surveys, and information from online surveilance, together they are used to categorise political supporters, who then receive psychologically tailored canvassing messages, social media targeting, phone calls and doorstep visits. The micro-targeting of voters has been around for a while, but the Conservative operation has deepened the intensity of the effort and the use of vast resources of psychological data.

This is the campaign approach from a government that claims to advocate a “small state” and “minimal interventions”. However the methods being used which entail the manipulation and management of public perceptions and voting behaviours resemble those of authoritarian regimes, not a healthy liberal democracy. 

Authoritarian propagandists attempt to convey power by defining reality. The reality they portray is usually very simple. The account of reality is offered with the primary goal of switching voters’ value systems to align with the authoritarian value system.

This whole approach is the logical conclusion of the libertarian paternalists‘ “behavioural change” agenda that has been embedded in policies designed by the nudge unit since 2010 in the UK. The political misuse of psychology has been disguised as some kind of technocratic “fix” for a failing neoliberal paradigm, and paraded as neutral “science”. However, its role as an authoritarian prop for an ideological imposition on the population has always been apparent to some of us, especially given the more visible evidence of political narratives and the stage management of our democracy via an extremely manipulative mainstream media over recent years.

The Conservatives’ behaviour change agenda is designed to align citizen’s perceptions and behaviours with neoliberal ideology and the interests of the state. However, in democratic societies, governments are traditionally elected to reflect and meet public needs. The use of “behaviour change” policy involves the state acting upon individuals, and instructing them how they must be. This is profoundly undemocratic. In fact it turns democracy completely on its head. 

A dark message for democracy

Political “dark” advertising that is only seen by its intended recipients is a much greater cause for concern than “fake news” in the spread of misinformation, because it is invisible to everyone but the person being targeted. This means that the individually tailored messages are not open to public scrutiny, nor are they fact checked.

A further problem is that no-one is monitoring the impact of the tailored messages and the potential to cause harm to individuals. The dark adverts are designed to exploit people’s psychological vulnerabilities, using personality profiling, which is controversial in itself. Intentionally generating and manipulating fear and anxiety to influence political outcomes isn’t a new thing. Despots have been using fear and slightly less subtle types of citizen “behaviour change” programmes for a long time. 

The right wing media’s blatant propaganda approach to election campaigning on behalf of the Tories had already contributed significantly to a serious erosion of democratic norms in the UK, the undermining of public trust, to such an extent that profoundly anti-democratic alternatives suddenly seem perfectly acceptable here.

The reality is that often, authoritarians construct an incongruent, flimsy and meaningless language of democracy in order to erect a fact proof screen around an undemocratic reality.  They offer a lot of glittering generalities to the public. However, those apparently incoherent, meaningless slogans are especially designed to signal intents to groups from which the government wants to gain approval. Dog whistling and wedge issues are used extensively by the right.  

Dog whistling is closely associated with a broader wedge strategy, whereby the political party introduces a divisive or controversial social issue into a campaign, aligning its own stance with the dissenting faction of its opponent party, with the goal of causing vitriolic debate inside the opposing party, defection of its supporters, and the legitimising of sentiment which had previously been considered inappropriate. Political campaigns use wedge issues to exploit tension within a targeted population, and undermine unity. 

In light of this, it’s hardly a shocking revelation that an authoritarian government is also using highly tailored and underhanded “dark adverts” to target individuals online, on the basis of information gathered about them and then applied to a process of extensive psychological profiling in order to influence voting behaviours, and the election outcome.

UK voters are being targeted with highly specific and manipulative messages in an attempt to influence their vote.

The shadowy world of online political advertising has until recently gone largely unmonitored, despite the huge power and reach of Facebook and despite social media messaging now thought to have contributed to the election of Donald Trump and the Vote Leave victory.

The new forms of psychological electioneering are invisible to all but the individual people they are designed to reach and influence. 

During the EU referendum, Vote Leave spent a whopping 98 per cent of its £6.8m budget on digital advertising, mostly via Facebook. In the 2015 election, the Conservatives spent £1.2m on digital campaigning, compared with Labour’s £160,000. This meant that the Conservatives reached 17 million people per week, while Labour reached only 16 million in their best month. Facebook claimed that the Conservatives had been able to serve adverts to 80 cent of the site’s users in key marginals. It also boasted that the company “played a part on a highly targeted campaign, helping the Conservatives to speak to the right people over and over again.”

The private companies and individuals who are stage managing our democracy

Dr Simon Moores, visiting lecturer in the applied sciences and computing department at Canterbury Christ Church University and a technology ambassador under the Blair government, said the Information Commisioners Office’s recent decision to shine a light on the use of big data in politics was timely. He said:

“A rapid convergence in the data mining, algorithmic and granular analytics capabilities of companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is creating powerful, unregulated and opaque ‘intelligence platforms’. In turn, these can have enormous influence to affect what we learn, how we feel, and how we vote. The algorithms they may produce are frequently hidden from scrutiny and we see only the results of any insights they might choose to publish.”

He goes on to say: ”They were using 40-50,000 different variants of an ad every day that were continuously measuring responses and then adapting and evolving based on that response.”

Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) is a British behavioural science company. The SCL Group, that once advised Nato on so-called “psy-ops”, is a private British behavioural research and strategic communication company. The company describes itself as “global election management agency”.  SCL’s approach to propaganda is based upon a methodology developed by the associated Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDI). Nigel Oakes founded the latter and also set up Strategic Communication Laboratories and using the new methodology from BDI, ran election campaigns and national communication campaigns for a broad variety of international governments. BDI say: “The goal of the BDI is to establish Behavioural Dynamics as a discipline for the study of group behaviour change.”

There isn’t much information around about BDI‘s connection with military operations, though links with NATO are well-established – see Countering propaganda: NATO spearheads use of behavioural change science, for example. From the article: “Target Audience Analysis, a scientific application developed by the UK based Behavioural Dynamics Institute, that involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behaviour.”

SCL on the other hand, has a clearly defined defence and military division who: “Target Audience Analysis, a scientific application developed by the UK based Behavioural Dynamics Institute, that involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behaviour.”

SCL has different “verticals” in politics, military and commercial operations. All of those operations are based on the same methodology (Target Audience Analysis) and, as far as can be discerned from the outside, SCL and affiliates have very obscure corporate structures with confusing ownership.

In the United States, SCL has gained public recognition mainly though its affiliated corporation Cambridge Analytica (CA). It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company (the SCL Group,) to participate in US politics. In 2014, CA was involved in 44 US political races. Their site says: Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior.” 

And:

PERSUASION

“More effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate.”

And: “Leveraging CA’s massive team of data scientists and academics, CA is able to provide optimal audience segments based on big data and psychographic modeling. Then, using a sophisticated electronic data delivery system, CA is able to provide TV advertising campaign data that may be used to inform media buyers about shows that have the highest concentrations of target audiences and the least amount of waste; all of which leading to higher media ROI [return on investment] and more voter conversions.”

The company is heavily funded by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund billionaire. I’ve mentioned Mercer in a previous article about the right’s undue influence on the media and on voting behaviour. Mercer made his money as a pioneer in the field of Computational Linguistics.

Mercer later became joint CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money by using algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets. 

One of its funds, Medallion, which manages only its employees’ money, is the most successful in the world – generating $55bn so far. And since 2010, Mercer has donated $45m to different political campaigns – all Republican – and another $50m to non-profits – all right wing, ultra-conservative. This is a billionaire who is trying to reshape the world according to his personal interests, beliefs, wishes and wont. He is an advocate of the neoliberal right, who seek to combine a market economy and economic deregulation with the traditional right wing beliefs in patriotism, élitism, and law and order, delivered within an authoritarian framework. Mercer is known for his anti-welfare and right libertarian views.

To give you a flavour of Mercer’s interests, you only need to follow the money trail: he funds a climate change denial thinktank, the Heartland Institute, and he likes to disrupt the mainstream media. In this aim, he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, self-declared “economic nationalist”, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. The money he gives to the Media Research Center, with its paranoid, anti-progressive mission of correcting “liberal bias” is just one of his pet media projects. He has also worked as vice president of Cambridge Analytica‘s board, the private data-analytics that is owned largely by the Mercer family

Mercer and his family are major donors to Conservative political causes such as Breitbart News. He is the principal benefactor of the Make America Number 1 political action committee (Super PAC). Around 2012, Mercer reportedly invested $5 million in the British data science company, the SCL Group. Most political campaigns run highly sophisticated micro-targeting efforts to locate voters. SCL promised much more, claiming to be able to manipulate voter behaviour through psychographic modeling. This was precisely the kind of work Mercer values.

SCL claimed to be able to formulate complex psychological profiles of voters. These, say the company, would be used to tailor the most persuasive possible message, acting on that voter’s personality traits, hopes or fears.

Of course Mercer was a major supporter of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for president and Brexit in the UK. Mercer donated the services of the data analytics company Cambridge Analytica to Nigel Farage and UKIP. The company was able to “advise” and influence Leave.eu through harvesting data from people’s Facebook profiles in order to target them with individualised persuasive messages to vote for Brexit. However, Leave.eu did not inform the UK electoral commission of the donation, contrary to the law which demands that all donations valued over £7,500 must be reported. 

When SCL Elections formed Cambridge Analytica in 2013, the company hired researchers from Cambridge University, hence the name. CA collects data on voters using sources such as demographics, consumer behaviour, internet activity, and other public and private sources. CA is using psychological data derived from millions of Facebook users, largely without users’ permission or knowledge. The company is also trying to change people’s perceptions and behaviours without their consent.

The company maintains offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., and London.

Cambridge Analytica claim to predict not just peoples’ voting intentions and preferences, but also their personality types. The company is proprietorial about its precise methods, but says large-scale research into personality types, based on hundreds of thousands of interviews with citizens, enables them to chart voters against five main personality types – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. With its head office in London, the company is “A global election management agency, skilled in applying behavioural modeling and microtargeting solutions to political campaigns.”

The marketisation of democracy: the highest bidder wins all, while claiming to speak for the “ordinary person”

Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and the intellectual force behind his nationalist agenda, said in February that the new administration is locked in an unending battle against the media and other globalist forces to “deconstruct” an “outdated system of governance”. Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post writes:

“’They’re going to continue to fight,’” Bannon said of the media, which he repeatedly described as ‘the opposition party,’ and other forces he sees as standing in the president’s way. ‘If you think they are giving you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.’

Atop Trump’s agenda, Bannon said, was the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’ — meaning a system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president and his advisers believe stymie economic growth and infringe upon one’s sovereignty.

For those who doubted Trump-Bannon’s determination to destroy the liberal international order that has kept world war at bay and promoted global prosperity since the end of World War II, this will come as a rude awakening. Bannon’s simultaneous attack on the media suggests that it is not simply about trade or immigration policy.”

So data technology, surveilance, psychology and social media and manipulative messaging campaigns are being combined in a powerful new way to sway opinions and win elections without people’s knowledge. In essence, a new, dark, subliminal propaganda war is being waged against citizens by those who wield power, serving the narrow interests of those who do and who are funded by a hidden few who want to weild power also.

Lynton Crosby has been a close advisor in the Conservative election campaigns of Australia, Canada and the UK, and is well known for his racist dog whistling and wedge strategies, influential at an international level.

“In a campaign, what you try to do is either change or reinforce some perceptions that people have in order to influence their behaviour,” says Crosby. 

Crosby’s emphasis is on “below the radar” campaigning, and the targeting of marginal constituencies with highly localised campaigning, latching on to local issues and personalities. To find such divisive and potentially diversionary issues, Crosby’s business partner Mark Textor runs focus groups to find which social groups to target with what questions. Crosby is said to focus on delivering simple messages, targeting marginal constituencies and the use of lots of polls and data. 

 Lynton Crosby, second left, at the party’s annual conference in 2015 with, from left, Lord Feldman, Jim Messina (former Obama campaign chief also hired by the Tories) and then party chairman Grant Shapps. Photograph: David Hartley/Rex

“In a campaign, what you try to do is either change or reinforce some perceptions that people have in order to influence their behaviour,” Crosby says.

Their site commentary highlights whose “democratic” interests Crosby and Textor serve:

“We combine decades of experience in research, political campaigns, strategic communications, media, and corporate intelligence to deliver winning strategies at the highest levels of business and government.

Having worked on successful election campaigns across four continents, we understand the need for timely, actionable intelligence, so our clients can focus the right message and resources on their most persuadable ‘swing voters’ to get the results they want.”

Note the reference to “behaviour changing messages”.

textor

Crosby Textor also claim that: “the team are specialists in advising major companies in how to position themselves to ensure they are integral to government decision-making.”

It was Crosby that created the campaign for the Conservatives with the slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”: a series of posters, billboards, TV commercials and direct mail pieces with messages such as “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration” and “how would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter?” focused on hot-button issues like “dirty” hospitals, landgrabs by “gypsies” and restraints on police behaviour.

In April 2016, Mayor of London and Conservative, MP Boris Johnson, was accused of “dog whistle racism” by Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Labour MP John McDonnell, when Johnson suggested US President Barack Obama held a grudge against the United Kingdom due to his “ancestral dislike of the British Empire” as a result of his “part-Kenyan” heritage after Obama expressed his support for the UK to vote to remain in the European Union ahead of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. Crosby also tried to link Sadiq Khan with terrorist organisations –  the Conservative mayoral candidate’s campaign, was run by Crosby Textor

Mark Textor, co-founder of the private company, was mentored by the late Richard Wirthlin, a pollster who was chief strategist to US President Ronald Reagan. Someone else with past connections to the Wirthlin Group is Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s election campaign manager and now counsellor to the president, serving alongside Steve Bannon, assistant to the President and White House chief strategist.

All singing from the same crib sheet.

Since Trump’s inauguration, Conway has been embroiled in a series of controversies, including using the phrase “alternative facts, making reference to a “Bowling Green massacre” which never occurred, (Conway “cited” it as justification for a travel and immigration ban from seven Muslim-majority countries enacted by Trump), claiming Michael Flynn had the full confidence of the president hours before he was dismissed, and publicly endorsing commercial products associated with the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump. As a result, a number of media outlets have called her credibility into question, with some refusing her requests for one-on-one interviews.

When such manipulative tactics are exposed from time to time, it’s like a curtain shifting temporarily to give you a glimpse into another dimension, populated by billionaires and a handful of mercenary henchmen who drew up the machinations of a war being waged on democracies, in order to terraform political landscapes to suit the dystopic interests of one percent of the global population, at the expense of the needs of the ninety nine percent. You would be forgiven for thinking that the world and the media are being run almost exclusively by a small number of elitist, pan-nationalist aliens. It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s a reality.

Jim Messina is a political adviser who was the White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011 and served as the campaign manager for Obama’s highly successful 2012 re-election campaign. Messina was hired as a campaign strategy adviser to the UK Conservative Party in August 2013. Messina operated from the US during the 2015 general election campaign. He has made statements about his personal admiration for David Cameron. Theresa May has also added him to her team of strategists. 

Gone are the days when it was expected that the public decided who to vote for because of the policies on offer from each party. Now the government focuses on the use of private political masters of the dark campaign arts, who use “political-voter surveillance” techniques, along with a combative and emotional approach to messaging, rather than a rational and reasonable one, and a level of cunning that most definitely treads around the very outer edges of ethics. 

One of Messina’s key strategic methods is finding and targeting swing voters through the meticulous gathering and monitoring of voter information using private polls, and the use of social media “targeting”.  He uses social networking techniques and social media, having sought and received advice from top names in the tech world including Steve Jobs.

Messina uses micro-targeting based on online data. His approach is based on the in-depth psychometrically profiling of people, using publicly available data, including their Facebook “likes” and group memberships. This information is used to create effective and directed digital dark advertising to target millions of voters and manipulate their psychological tendencies and play to their traits.  

Messina has developed a private consulting firm –The Messina Group, which “works with organizations in the private, public, and social sectors to achieve their strategic goals.” The company has an office in London, on Old Park Lane. It says on the site says:

“Using state of the art data and analytics, The Messina Group can harness and amplify the reach of your social network. We accurately model your organization’s likely supporter, voter, or consumer, and – by overlaying that with your existing social media base – we can develop a targeted list of potential new supporters. This targeted, person-to-person sharing is the future of advertising in a fundamentally digital and social world. The Messina Group will ensure that your organization is ahead of the competition.” 

One tactic integrated in this method is aimed at generating a bandwaggon effect, which I have discussed at length elsewhere. The bandwagon effect occurs in voting: some people vote for those candidates or parties who are likely to succeed (or are proclaimed as such by the media). The bandwagon propaganda technique has been applied to situations involving majority opinion, such as political outcomes, where people alter their opinions to the majority view. 

Such a shift in opinion can occur because individuals draw inferences from the decisions of others, which shapes an informational cascade. A cascade develops when people “abandon their own information in favour of inferences based on earlier people’s actions, regardless of how irrational that may be. Bandwaggon propaganda draws on our natural tendency towards social conformity.

During the 2015 general election, the government were accused of trying to “buy the general election” by quietly raising the legal spending limit by £6.2 million to £32.7m in the face of concerns from the Electoral Commission over “undue influence”. The party has reportedly amassed a war chest of more than £70 million. The change to the law on candidates’ election spending, passed without parliamentary debate.

A new project called Who Targets Me, has been attempting to address the lack of transparency of targeted election messaging, by recruiting social media users to share information on what political adverts they are seeing.

It says on their site: “Analysing the aggregated data will allow us to draw out insights about exactly which demographics are being targeted and the exact media and language that campaigners are using to influence your vote.”

In an effort to do something about the lack of transparency, Who Targets Me built a browser extension for Facebook users to download that will then report live to that individual when a political advert is being targeted at them. It also tracks that information in its database. You can sign up to be a Who Targets Me volunteer here.

Given the instability of the government, following the general election delivering a hung parliament, it’s likely that political advertising will continue. You will need to use the Chrome browser and install the Who Targets Me extension.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has already launched a wide-ranging investigation over possible breaches of UK data laws. The Conservatives have so far refused to supply examples of adverts the party is sending to individual voters on Facebook, despite the growing concern over unregulated online election activity.

One problem is money. There are no spending limits on digital advertising and, put simply, the more you spend the more people you reach. Until now, that means it is primarily the wealthier, Conservative campaigns that have benefited.

Another is that psychological influences are different from transparent attempts at rational, reasoned and material persuasion, because they operate outside of conscious awareness. Hiding in plain sight, they trigger involuntary emotive responses in the human subconscious that most people are powerless to resist – and that happens even when they know they’re being influenced. Much of the material being used to “persuade” is dishonest, and aimed at simply smearing the opposition and generating irrational and unfounded fears, rather than open discussion, about political and socioeconomic alternatives to neoliberalism and social conservatism. 

Such tactics are nothing less than a political micro-management of the public’s beliefs an behaviours and are ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions to maintain a profoundly unbalanced, increasingly pathological and authoritarian status quo. Such tactics deployed in manufacturing consensus are widely used, and combined, they also serve to reduce public expectation of opposition and in doing so establish diktats: it’s a way of mandating acceptance of ideology, policies or laws by presenting them as if they are the only viable alternative.

There is a much needed public debate to be had about the distinction between political “persuasion” and “manipulation”.

And another about undue political influence. In their summary of electoral offences, the electoral commission says: “A person may also be guilty of undue influence if they impede or prevent any voter from freely exercising their right to vote – even where the attempt is unsuccessful.

Also: “It is an illegal practice to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of a candidate in order to affect the return of a candidate at an election.”

“Certain offences relate specifically to election campaign publicity material. Election campaign publicity material must contain an imprint, not resemble a poll card and not contain a false statement as to the personal character or conduct of another candidate.”

The Conservatives have certainly taken advantage of our basic tendency to be more motivated by the threat of something presented and subsequently perceived as “bad” than by the presented opportunity for examining positive alternatives.

This is not just a story about the political and commercial misuse of social psychology and data analytics. It has to be understood in the context of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. The public.

David Miller, a professor of sociology at Bath University 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.”

Related:

Social media is being used to stage manage our democracy using nudge-based strategies

EXPOSED: CONSERVATIVES IN HOUSE ‘SURVEY’ TEAM

The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked

Negative campaigning, emotions and political participation

Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberalism

What I don’t understand about Conservatism

‘Tory Election Fraud’ Investigation Sees Conservatives Fined £70,000 By Electoral Commission

Political polls, think tanks and propaganda: the antidemocratic writing on the wall

Strategies and motives for resistance to persuasion: an integrative framework

How To Use 10 Psychological Theories To Persuade People

CONTROVERSIAL GCHQ UNIT ENGAGED IN DOMESTIC LAW ENFORCEMENT, ONLINE PROPAGANDA, PSYCHOLOGY RESEARCH

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations – Glenn Greenwauld

Theresa May pledges to create new internet that would be controlled and regulated by government 


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