Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, And Black Magic

Magic, according to a widely-cited definition by Dion Fortune, is “the science and art of causing changes in consciousness at will.”[Fuller]

Now, if when we’re doing magic we deliberately change our own consciousness, that suggests that there are other ways that our consciousness could change. It could change in a way that’s that’s accidental or involuntary — something I’ve taken to calling “anti-magic”. For example, when my claustrophobia flares up, it is a change in my consciousness, but not one that I will.

Or our consciousness could be changed in accordance with someone else’s will — which, given Fortune’s definition, would seem to be how we would define the black form of magick.

We have a whole industry and field of human endeavor devoted to changing our consciousness in order to influence our purchasing decisions — and our voting decisions. Call it marketing, call it advertising, call it propaganda…we might bluntly call it the mind control industry.

One of these firms, Cambridge Analytica, has been in the news lately over accusations that it improperly collected data about millions of Facebook users and used it to get people to vote for Donald Trump.[Hjelmgaard]

There are two separate issues here, and each applies more broadly than just to Cambridge Analytica.

There is the way that companies ranging from political mercenaries like Cambridge Analytica to tech giants like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft[Hachman] to credit reporting agencies[Bernard] to retailers like Target[Duhig; Lipka] sneakily snatch up every bit of data about you they can to build a profile of you. And then, related but distinct, there’s the way that they use that data model to attempt to influence your mind and your behavior.

CC0/public domain image via Pixabay

Digital Magical Effigies

That we are increasingly living in a “big data” driven surveillance society seems indisputable. The mavens of marketing and architects of habit have been micro-analyzing our behavior for decades, to the point where Target might know that a woman is pregnant before members of her own immediate family.[Duhigg]

Surveillance via social media, search history, and mobile device are the keys to the fortunes of Facebook and Google, and even “traditional” tech companies like Apple and Microsoft are sliding more into the surveillance business. Even if these companies had no exploitative intentions, we feel a natural unease about them constructing these digital doppelgangers.

There is something invasive about it, even if it goes on far away from us. It is as if these black magicians were crafting magical effigies, poppets or so-called “voodoo dolls”, of us in order to gain power over us.

Our legal structure doesn’t articulate a clear set of concepts for dealing with such data collection. Under current law, privacy rights and publicity rights are ad hoc patchworks lacking a consistent philosophical underpinning.

Years ago, wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann introduced the idea of “subjectright”.

Subjectright is a notion somewhat along the lines of copyright, in that both give people a right pertaining to some set of information. But where copyright gives rights to creators of those bodies of information that constitute creative works, subjectright could give rights to people who are the subjects of data collection: “Subjectright pertains to ownership of data by the subject depicted or described by the data.”

What is Subjectright (S)?

  • self ownership of body… (e.g. your own corporeal property).
  • distinct from copyright: performance versus captured creation in tangible media
  • subject rights versus object rights
  • right to access material about yourself (e.g. rights in articles written about you by others, or rights in data about you collected by others)[“Position Statement”]

Mann hasn’t written much on the topic, and his ideas are just a vague sketch. But just the idea that a person has rights in the data collected about them is a big step.

I think that “subjectright” is a good name for the idea that we have rights to the information collected about us by commercial entities, and could serve as a center for our thinking to coalesce around.

But then we have the other question: is all this data collection actually useful to the collectors? When marketing companies target us like this, do the spells they craft with these digital poppets actually work?

And the answer seems to be…it depends.

Magic is a subtle business. The magician creates a great result by applying a small force at just the right time and place. But apply that same force a minute later or a few inches away, and the result may be nothing.

The reason that marketers are desperate to gather so much data is because the opportunities to use their black magic are limited. Most of the time we make our decisions out of habit, and anyone who has ever tried to break a habit knows how immovable they are. In this case, that inertia is protective.

But major life changes — starting a new job, moving to a new city, having children — break us out of those habits. And in that unconditioned moment, we are vulnerable to their black magic. If they know when such moments occur, they know when to strike.[Duhigg]

Black Magic Politics

So what about the application of that magic to politics?

In 2008, the Obama campaign started using microtargeting models well beyond what had been used before. In 2012, motivated in part by their losses in the 2010 midterms,[Issenberg] they hired a habit specialist as their “chief scientist”[Duhigg], brought other social scientists on to their team, and sharpened their tactics. They learned to exploit supporter’s Facebook networks to find friends they could influence. They skirted privacy policies to get information from cable TV subscriber’s set-top boxes.

They took a long-standing practice of experimenting with variants of messages (A/B testing) and combined it with their extensive harvesting of personal data, to identify who responded to what.

At the center of their efforts, they developed a scoring system to predict the behavior of individual voters. According to author Sasha Issenberg, “The campaign didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be.”[Issenberg]

Heavy black magic, that.

The Obama campaign was trying to find people who were in that unconditioned space, where the momentum of habits like not going to the polls, or going and voting for a Republican, might be low enough to afford the possibility of change.

Cambridge Analytica has been working at this sort of thing since well before the Obama campaign. Their parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL), has worked for political and military clients in Afghanistan, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, and Somalia, and the U.S. for 25 years.[Hjelmgaard]

But they seem to be low-rent black magicians. Rather than boasting of the subtlety of their influence methods, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix was caught on tape claiming that his company could entrap politicians in compromising situations.

Sociology professor David Miller says that it’s clear that Cambridge Analytica has been trying to manipulate data but “[i]t’s not clear how good they are at doing it. The difficulty in understanding this organization is that a lot of what it says about itself turns out not to be to quite right.”

A top media strategist on the Trump campaign, Gary Coby, said Cambridge Analytica “helped on some surveying, some of the data sides, had multiple ad buying teams under me,” but downplayed their role. The Trump campaign focused more on direct-response marketing than the sort of “psychographic targeting” that Obama used and that Cambridge Analytica claims as a specialty.[Hjelmgaard]

Cambridge Analytica may have violated some laws and should be investigated. (And after my research, I have to wonder if the Obama 2012 campaign also may have violated some laws.) Their impact in the 2016 election seems to have been limited, but not because these techniques lack power, more because these people are buffoons.

Defense Against The Dark Arts

Product advertising has been with us since some Paleolithic guy boasted around the fire that his flint arrowheads were the best and so everyone should trade with him; and political hucksterism goes back to at least the Roman Republic.

But technology is allowing them to move from the realm of human interaction to the realm of mind-control black magic. So now is a good time to start thinking about shielding ourselves from this type of magic.

That means taking steps to preserve privacy: just as a shaman in a culture where “primitive” sympathetic magick holds sway might be careful to not let their hair or nail trimmings fall into the hands of an enemy lest they be used in creating an effigy for magickal attack, we must take care to not let our data fall into those who would create digital poppets.

Pay cash. Avoid “customer loyalty” schemes that are fronts for data collection. Use software like the EFF’s Privacy Badger to block spyware and trackers. Don’t install unneeded apps on your phone — you can often use your phone’s browser instead. If you must install an app, learn how to manage permissions to give it just what it needs for the functionality you want, and no more.

And it means blocking out their spells. Web ads are the most likely to be microtargeted: block them. (I recommend uBlock Origin.) If you choose to use Facebook, use the site’s “list” feature to take more control over what posts you see.

The same technology that enables the black magic of microtargeted influence, can enable the white protective magic of privacy and agency. But like all magic, it takes effort.


References

Bernard, Tara Siegel. “TransUnion, Equifax and Experian Agree to Overhaul Credit Reporting Practices”. New York Times. 9 Mar 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/10/business/big-credit-reporting-agencies-to-overhaul-error-fixing-process.html

Duhigg, Charles. “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.” New York Times Magazine. 16 Feb 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html

Fuller, Mike. “The Logic of Magic.” Philosophy Now: a magazine of ideas. Spring 1993, Issue 5. https://philosophynow.org/issues/5/The_Logic_of_Magic

Hachman, Mark. “The price of free: how Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google sell you to advertisers.” PCWorld. 1 Oct 2015. https://www.pcworld.com/article/2986988/privacy/the-price-of-free-how-apple-facebook-microsoft-and-google-sell-you-to-advertisers.html

Hjelmgaard, Kim. Cambridge Analytica active in elections, big data projects for years. USA Today. 22 Mar 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/03/22/cambridge-analytica-profile/437210002/

Issenberg, Sasha. “How Obama’s Team Used Big Data to Rally Voters.” MIT Technology Review. 19 Dec 2012. “https://www.technologyreview.com/s/509026/how-obamas-team-used-big-data-to-rally-voters/

Lipka, Mitch. “What Target knows about you.” Reuters. 23 Jan 2014. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-target-breach-datamining/what-target-knows-about-you-idUSBREA0M1JM20140123

Position Statement, World Subjectright Foundation. http://www.wearcam.org/subjectrights.htm
as of 26 Mar 2018

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