The numbers game

The numbers game

British MPs yesterday grilled Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, entirely sceptical of his claim that his firm did not retain any client during the Brexit referendum. They did get some answers on the firm’s work in the United States advising political candidates on how to “micro-target” voters through data emerging from records of their behaviour on line.

The Cambridge Analytica CEO defended episodes where their advice was to exploit fear of voters as in their project to gather support for Ted Cruz’s gun policies.

Cambridge Analytica advised Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party which was capable of exploiting individuals’ proclivities, fears, and village paranoia in order to push people to switch parties not out of reasons of politics and aspiration but reasons of fear and perceived imaginary needs.

The risk to our democracy is that, as with Trump’s United States and, though Cambridge Analytica deny it, Brexit Britain, voting behaviour is pushed in the direction of the party that can most afford to pay. Our democracy becomes oligarchic in a way as yet unknown.

Certainly rich people have always had a disproportionate influence on political processes since they could fund and support parties and politicians more than poorer ones. But every individual could make up their own mind and mass parties could bring about the mobilisation of enough voters from any band of society to reach an equitable outcome.

But in this Black Mirror dystopia of data mining and individualised marketing, rational choice by voters ends up having no role whatsoever. And the perpetuation of power to the highest bidder becomes a rock solid guarantee of the preservation of the status quo.

I hate sounding like a nineteenth century Marxist. It is not class envy that drives my logic. It is a genuine concern that as with the domination of military might and violence by the right wing of the 1920s and 1930s we are facing a situation where right-wing politics, such as Joseph Muscat’s, monopolises the means of winning elections.

There are two logical alternatives to this. The PN can step up and somehow manage to fund counter-intelligence campaigns. In other words, adopt the same contemptuous attitude towards voters and seek to manipulate them more and better than Labour. Instead of one party treating people like sheep and herding them to its pen, we would have two. A dualistic dystopia in place of one.

Alternatively we get to the bottom of these manipulative techniques and establish rules that respect individuality and limit the means of political parties to deceive voters by using technologies that surreptitiously condition their choices. After all we do not allow commercial enterprises an unlimited and unregulated hand when they market their products to consumers.

Let me give some familiar examples. We do not allow advertisers to fold their products into news or fiction without warning of a commercial interest. We do not allow surreptitious advertising to be hidden and sublimated to create unconscious perception. We do not allow advertisers to lie about facts. We do not allow advertisers to take over all space and create boundaries that allow people the free enjoyment of information at their own pace. We do not allow established producers to drown out competitors without rules of fair competition.

The same should apply to the democratic process. Especially if we are to accept what the Cambridge Analytica CEO told British MPs yesterday: that what they do for politicians is no different to what marketing consultants do for consumer products.

Well then let’s have some rules. And let’s understand what it is you really do and how you do it. Cambridge Analytica, a UK company, cannot be summoned to parliamentary scrutiny here in Malta. But its client, the Labour Party, can instruct it to make itself available to answer questions here.

Fat chance.