The US has just elected a president who is an outright criminal – a man who cheats contractors, steals from investors, and assaults women. What on earth happened? Everyone has a theory, but let me add one more – his campaign made use of weaponized psychology. I noted in my review of the SF novel Affinities that large data sets and serious mathematical analysis were getting traction even in the most difficult of subjects like psychology. We’re now seeing real-world consequences of these advances.
To be specific, Trump used the services of a company called Cambridge Analytica to do his voter analysis and message management. They are a US subsidiary of a UK firm with the blandly sinister name Strategic Communications Laboratories. They’ve been conducting propaganda and disinformation campaigns all over the world for the last twenty years, often for the US DoD and UK MoD. They worked on the Leave side of Brexit.
Cambridge Analytica was backed in the US by one Robert Mercer, a right-wing hedge fund billionaire with a PhD in computer science from the University of Illinois. He was a major backer of Ted Cruz, but even CA couldn’t save that campaign. The standard joke was “Why do people take an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It saves time.” When Cruz folded up, Mercer shifted his funding to Trump. His daughter Rebekah is now a member of Trump’s transition team. Trump’s former campaign advisor Paul Manafort was apparently against hiring CA, but was overruled by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Mercer himself spends money on teenage-boy projects like huge model railroad sets, a collection of machine guns including that of the robot in “Terminator”, and enormous yachts. He believes the US should return to the gold standard. He was sued by his mansion staff for stiffing them on pay, and so should fit right in at the new Administration.
CA’s job was to find the narrow path to electoral college victory for Trump. Clinton had wrapped up the Northeast and Far West, and most of the South and the Mountain West was solidly Trump, but the upper Midwest could be exploited. CA signed up with Facebook and got access to the profiles of hundreds of millions of voters. They built models of each voter based on the OCEAN personality profile system. This stands for Openess to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. It differs from other systems such as Myers-Briggs in that it arose from factor analysis, of grouping people by common traits, instead of having an underlying theory. A nice feature of it is that the traits can be inferred from writings and links instead of requiring questionnaires.
Once you know the personality types you’re dealing with, you can judge the effect of political messages on them. Again, you use feedback from social media to estimate how well an approach is working. In the weeks before the election, CA saw that early voter turnout was higher among older, rural white voters and lower among blacks than expected. They reset their poll weightings and saw their opportunity. They did big ad buys in the northern Midwest and advised Trump to focus there. He changed his campaign schedule to include stops in Michigan. Pundits thought that was crazy, since Michigan was solid blue, but he actually took the state.
In the end it took only a hundred thousand votes to swing Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. That’s less than 0.1 % of the votes cast, but it will change the entire direction of the country for the next four years, and likely well beyond. That’s the point of leverage that this kind of analysis can find.
Now, the Clinton campaign had their own analytics firm, Timshel, founded by a veteran of Obama’s 2012 campaign, Michael Slaby. Obama’s campaign was also notable for its use of Big Data to try to capture the intent of every single voter. I remember some discussion about who Trump would use early in the campaign, and the consensus was that no serious technical would ruin their reputation by associating with Trump. The only exception was Peter Thiel and his mysterious Palantir Technologies, but they don’t seem to have gotten involved. What Trump’s victory showed is that this kind of technology can be used by either side. It’s not something that only sophisticated progressives can handle. Thinking that was snobbish.
Was it an important factor in his win? Maybe not compared to anti-Clinton misogyny, xenophobia, interference by Russia and the FBI, weariness with eight years of Dem rule or any of the other swirl of explanations. Any or all of them could have contributed. What’s likely, though, is that this level of manipulation will only increase. You may think you’re voting based on rational analysis of the issues, but what you see and hear will be adjusted for you personally by vast systems driven by models of your psyche. It may sound like wild conspiracy theory, but people are making businesses out of it.