Brendan O’Neill

The great Cambridge Analytica conspiracy theory

The great Cambridge Analytica conspiracy theory
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This Cambridge Analytica thing is starting to sound like a chattering-class conspiracy theory. We’re meant to believe that Donald Trump won the presidential election and Brexit was victorious in the EU referendum because sinister rich and right-wing people trawled social media, harvested our inner-most lives, and then planted messages that ‘mind-fucked’ us into voting for things we shouldn’t have voted for? This is straight out of the David Icke school of political thought (I say thought...) where it is always assumed that faceless malevolent actors are puppeteering public life and secretly controlling people’s minds and behaviour. This might be the moment when the paranoid style of thinking went mainstream.

It’s hard to think of any other recent journalist expose that has been as overcooked and overblown as the Observer’s feverish claims about Cambridge Analytica. Yes, there are questions for CA to answer. If it is true that it excavated people’s personal information on Facebook in a way that breached Facebook’s terms of agreement, as the Observer claims but CA denies, then some explanation will be needed. And video footage of CA people boasting about using dirty tricks to swing elections certainly casts them in a bad light. (Though some of us will suspect that these are hollow boasts, and that elections, and more importantly the voters who take part in them, are not as easily swung as these self-styled virtual overlords would have people believe.)

But the broader political narrative into which this alleged behaviour by CA is being folded by the Observer and others simply doesn’t add up. This is the narrative that says one of the main reasons there were two huge political upsets in the West in recent years — Brexit and Trump — is because people had been ‘got at’ on social media. They had been manipulated, in essence, their malleable minds bombarded with info by the likes of CA that made them robotically think: ‘Must. Vote. Trump.’ In the words of the Observer’s pink-haired, nerdish whistleblower, former CA employee Christopher Wylie, social-media trawling was used by Steve Bannon and others as a ‘psychological warfare mindfuck tool’.  In short they washed our brains, they programmed our minds, they made us a Manchurian-style army that ushered Trump into the White House and Britain out of the EU.

This is conspiracy theory 101. Every conspiracy theory is motored by confusion or concern about a political event and a corresponding search for some dark and scary actor who might be held responsible for said political event. What we have in the panic over CA, and also the increasingly harebrained claims that Russian trolls used memes to propel Trump into power and to programme the good people of Stoke and other parts of Brexit Britain to vote against the EU, is a dinner-party conspiracy theory. A desperate search by those broadsheet liberals and members of the Twitterati who are still reeling from Hillary’s loss and from the British revolt against the EU for some overarching, menacing and manically powerful force who might be held responsible for these political events.

The Observer’s articles have all the trappings of conspiratorial thinking. They are peppered with words ‘dark’ and ‘shadowy’. Their chief author, Carole Cadwalladr, who has spent months searching for the sinister, hidden groups that apparently made Trump and Brexit happen, often uses Icke-like language. She has written of the ‘shadowy global operation’ involving ‘big data and billionaires’ which brought about ‘the great British Brexit robbery’. The liberal Twitterati is full of hysterical claims that CA was in ‘control [of] worldwide elections’. They are ‘sinister puppetmasters’ of ‘global politics’. They ‘brainwashed’ the electorate, in the words of one of Hillary Clinton’s former advisers. Charming people, these Clintonites.

This paranoid, deep-web-style narrative doesn’t hold water. Anyone who is surprised that political groups or businesses or whatever are searching through our personal info on social media and targeting us with ads needs to have a word with themselves. Everyone knows this happens. It isn’t news. Indeed, as Freddy Gray pointed out earlier this week, the Obama camp used similar techniques to CA but it was never denounced as evil or dark, far less as a ‘shadowy global operation’. But the notion that CA’s messaging occupied people’s minds and made them vote in a particular way and actually led to a ‘Brexit robbery’ — that is, these sinister figures stole the EU referendum with their dastardly plots — is spectacularly unconvincing. Not one shred of evidence has been offered for this claim.

This scandal expresses a deeply and disturbingly patronising view of voters, as if we are putty in the hands of shadowy information peddlers. It is also historically and politically illiterate. To fetishise social-media gabbing as a key source of the victory of Brexit and Trump is to overlook huge political fissures in our society, particularly between the elites and ordinary people, that really contributed to these perfectly reasonable and rebellious votes. And it also exposes just how bitter and sore the liberal elite still is about its loss of both the US election and the EU referendum. These people are so entitled, they were so used to getting in their own way in politics, that as soon as something didn’t go their way they assumed that some massive, powerful, shadowy group must have warped the heads of us, the little people. Here’s a simpler explanation: We disagree with you. And that’s why we voted in the way we did. Deal with it.