I recently finished reading Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World, by Christopher Wylie. Wylie was the whistle-blower on Cambridge Analytica’s nefarious behaviour. Like most people I spoke to after reading it, I had a general idea that CA was a shady organisation that committed some crimes by using people’s social media data. What I learned from reading the book, however, was much more detail on what exactly they did, how they did it, and just how unscrupulous and dangerous it was.
CA was backed by billionaire Robert Mercer, who provided about 15 million dollars to develop the software tools to harvest users’ Facebook data en masse, and harmonize it with heaps of other data: credit card, census, etc. to build profiles of millions of people – 87 million Facebook users had their data ingested by CA’s software apps, without their knowledge of course. The profiles were also augmented by much face-to-face research (often using focus groups) to build up an understanding of and classify people into personality types. Apparently, according to sources Wylie quotes in the book, these personality profiles were so well-informed that the algorithms CA built from them could predict their users’ online behaviour better than the users’ spouses could.
Teams of psychologists were used to help classify these users’ personalities, and to help other teams of digital designers to create personality-specific content that formed the basis of a large-scale PSYOPs (military jargon for psychological-operations). The aim of CA was to shift enough users’ views of election-related topics, so as to sway the outcome of elections. This is how Trump became president. Steve Bannon, who was the White House’s chief strategist during the first seven months of Trump’s presidency, was intimately involved with CA’s operations. CA also worked to shift the outcome of Brexit.
A new word I learned from reading Mindf*ck was ‘perspecticide’, the meaning of which you can probably guess. Perspecticide is described as a “non-kinetic” weapon – unlike say, grenades, bullets, or missiles. Wylie defines perspecticide as “the active deconstruction of and manipulation of popular perception” (p. 48). I quote at length to give some insight to what CA did:
“The most effective form of perspecticide is one that first mutates the concept of self. In this light, the manipulator attempts to ‘steal’ the concept of self from the target, replacing it with his own [almost everyone Wylie describes as working in association with CA were men]. This usually starts with attempting to smother the opponents narratives and then dominating the informational environment around the target. Often this involves breaking down what are called psychological resilience factors over several months. Programs are designed to create unrealistic perceptions in the targets that result in confusion and damage self-efficacy. Targets are encouraged to begin catastrophising about minor or imagined events, and counternarratives attempts to remove meaning, creating the impression of confusing or senseless events. Counternarratives also attempt to foster distrust in order to mitigate communication with others who might hamper the target’s evolution. It is much harder to stay loyal to an existing hierarchy or group when you begin to think that you are being used in some unfair way, or when events seem senseless or purposeless. You become less willing to accept setbacks, take risks or comply with demands.
“But simply degrading morale is often not enough. The ultimate aim is to trigger negative emotions and thought processes associated with impulsive, erratic or compulsive behaviour. This moves a target from mild or passive resistance (e.g. less productive, taking fewer [p. 48] risks, rumours etc.)in to the realm of more disruptive behaviours (e.g. arguing, insubordination, mutiny, etc.). This approach has been take in South America, for example, to provoke disunity among members of narcotics operations, increasing the likelihood of information leaks, defections or internal conflicts that erode a supply chain. The most susceptible targets are typically the ones who exhibit neurotic or narcissistic traits, as they tend to be less psychologically resilient to stressing narratives. This is because neuroticism can make a person more prone to paranoid ideation, as the tend to experience more anxiety and impulsiveness and place more reliance on intuitive rather than deliberate thinking. People high on the narcissism scale are susceptible because they are more prone to feelings of envy and entitlement, which are strong motivators or rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying behaviour. This means these targets will be more likely to develop exaggerated suspicion of harassment, persecution, victimhood or unfair treatment. This is the ‘low-hanging fruit’ for initiating the subversion of a larger organisation. Later, this learning would serve as one of the foundations for Cambridge Analytica’s work catalysing an alt-right insurgency in America.” (p. 49)
What was unnerving about CA was the coordinated effort, involving the work of so many people working across disciplines to produce the desired result: shifting the results of the American election. As Wylie notes, not everyone whose data was harvested was propagandised: emphasis was on the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of people whose personality types were either neurotic or narcissistic. For this, teams of hackers and software engineers teamed up with psychologists and digital designers to micro-campaign personality-specific propaganda via social media to motivate them to act in the irrational manner described above.
One point in the book that was not well explained was CA’s connection to Wikileaks. Wylie more or less name-dropped Wikileaks and suggested some connection with CA without any clear explanation. Brittany Kaiser, who was hired by CA as its director of business development, was reported to have become “acquainted with Assange” (p. 149), but that’s not saying very much.
Commenting on Facebook’s algorithms to classify people and compartmentalise them with similar users for advertising purposes, Wylie notes “the segmentation of Lookalikes [Facebook’s term], not surprisingly, pushed fellow citizens further and further apart” (p. 226). Yet, Wylie goes on to note: “shared experience is the fundamental basis for solidarity among citizens in a modern pluralistic democracy” and instead “[w]hat we’re seeing is a cognitive segregation, where people exist in their own informational ghettos” (p. 227). This is not the mark of an enlightened society.
The book reinvigorated my interest in psychology, and how it might be used for progressive purposes: how to frame the messages used by the left, and defaming those made by the right, which appears to be very adept at this sort of thing.