Its “‘military grade’ data-driven psychometric micro-targeting”, stupid!

It is balm on to the liberal democratic wounds which recent election results have rub salt into. How could the UK vote to leave the European Union and the US vote for Donald J Trump be president? These decision cannot be based on reason, since most polls suggested another outcome and the broad bulk of analysts and public figures supported Remain and Clinton, can they?

Finally we have got an answer. It wasn’t reason that founded decision it was “military grade’ data-driven psychometric micro-targeting”. This is the use of big scale psychological data used to micro target information which may be true or not. That is of secondary importance.

A recent article in the Swiss newspaper “the magazine” portrays in the article “I have only shown that the bomb is existing” Michael Kosinski. The man who created a system that claims to be able to know people better than their working colleagues according to 68 likes. The idea is simple. It collects psychometric data of individuals, applies it to the big five personality traits and thus enabling a candidate to precisely know what an individual in front of an election campaigner desires or despises. It can predict the persons political views, sexuality, religion, alcohol as well as drug consumption.  He claims his model is able to predict the answers of a person before it gave answers and thus improving the systems accuracy exponentially. The systems possibilities have no ends; the dangers neither. Dramatically his former student colleague at Cambridge Alexander Nix, founder and CEO of Cambridge Analytics [CA], took his idea and used it for the wrong purposes – to advise anti establishments movement around the world. It collects emotional data and uses the press to stir these emotions up. Now we find ourselves waking up with Trump and Brexit even tough at the time we went to bed we were so sure the other side was winning. What a nightmare; thankfully tough it wasn’t due to the actual positions the candidates stood for it was due CA the narrative goes.

Simple narratives work. For everyone. According to the slogan of the republican communication strategist Luntz Global “IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAY. IT’S WHAT THEY HEAR.”

So why is it that anti-establishment parties have made so much more use of it in recent elections?

The use of data which people give away knowingly or not in personality tests, little Facebook games or friend networks or likes is all but new. Barack Obama’s first and second victory was due to the back then innovative use of social media. It concentrated on the connections of people though their friendship networks on Facebook. According to Sasha Issenberg he had the biggest structural advantage over his rival candidate who still relied on old school membership list from allies. David Carr has made the argument that as the first non-baby-boom candidate he actually understood the value of technology and could nearly completely do without the old school party machinery due to his innovative data collection.

Targeted election campaigning as old as democracy. In local elections fifty years ago a candidate also spoke with the local plumber about the difficulties of small enterprises and too high taxes, with a single mother about the expansion of kindergarten spaces and with the pensionser about what value old people wisdom is too society.

At the beginning of the any election campaign technological campaigning innovations are available to all candidates and indeed are used by all. So what is this CA conspiracy all about? It is nothing more than an ex-post exaggeration of facts. Yes, the Trump campaign has been successful. Was this predictable due to a strategy he used? No,  “You can’t model behavior without an outcome variable – especially so, with unique candidates like Donald Trump. CA has not been Trumps’ only data consulting company. Hillary Clinton has used similar concepts of how to use Big Data. If CA is the company with the secret key to any election win, why did Ted Cruz loose to Trump? He was the first to hire CA. There must be more to win an election.

So what is the military grade about? It’s the micro targeted spread of fake news. Is fake news then something new? Politics has never been a source of researched fact based positions. What others call propaganda and usually expect it from coming from a foreign country, is today mixed to a pot which makes nearly impossible to determine the source of “false, hyper-biased, and politically-loaded information” which instantly shapes public opinion. It is an old and reliable concept to deter the other candidates voters, however neither is this a enough to win an election.

As my colleague pointed out in his blog it has been an important factor in the election but ultimately the problem lies in the “see & share” approach. Social media has to find new approaches to tackle fake news. However to blame social media or even the internet itself would prioritise “the tool over the environment”[Morozov, 2011, xii]. Social Media is a way of communication not a factor of the voting decision. Ultimately we need to talk about the environment we hold our elections in. In the end its our personal decision to give our data to dubious companies as well as to vote for one or the other person. It is not the internet to blame. It is not a analytical company to blame, at most CA can claim to have a great advertisement run all around the world.

Morozov, E.V. (2011) The net delusion: The dark side of Internet freedom. New York, NY: PublicAffairs,U.S.


One thought on “Its “‘military grade’ data-driven psychometric micro-targeting”, stupid!

  1. stevencurtislm December 10, 2016 / 4:11 pm

    This is an interesting discussion of the ability of bid data analytics to facilitate the more refined targeting of individuals according to the sorts of messages to which they will be most receptive. I very much like the title you have chosen. Unfortunately your main examples are from the realm of domestic politics and therefore not related to the key themes and learning outcomes of the module. Can you extrapolate lessons for public diplomacy or find some examples from the field of international political communication? That some of the fake news stories in the US presidential campaign came from Macedonia and Russia might be worth exploring.

    You have not really made the most of the medium of blogging. There are no illustrations or photographs and few links to websites. In the concluding paragraph, you mention another blog post. Why not include a link to it? You did so for the Swiss news story towards the beginning.

    In terms of presentation, the first sentence of paragraph three needs rephrasing, as it doesn’t currently make sense. There are some missing apostrophes (e.g., it should be person’s and system’s in the third paragraph) and it should be Trump’s, not Trumps’. Finally, there are some spelling errors (e.g., you mean ‘though’ not ‘tough’).


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