Are We Living In A Post-Truth World?

Following the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, James Hadley discusses the implications of a post-truth world

James Hadley
21st March 2018
Image: Flickr

The news of the apparent poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was almost immediately overshadowed by the current biggest scandal: that of Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica is the data analysts and communications group co-founded by Steve Bannon (the “alt-lite” mastermind now sliming his way into irrelevancy after his failed support of child predator Roy Moore) and secretive, shady American billionaire Robert Mercer. The CEO was, up until his very recent suspension, Alexander Nix. Nix has been described by Christopher Wylie, a former employee and now source for The Observer, as “an upper-class Etonian who expects people to follow him wherever he goes.” Shocker.

Wylie, a 28-year-old gay Canadian vegan and data specialist, helped create Cambridge Analytica and its methods. He was introduced to Bannon in 2013 through Nix, his boss at the time in Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group. SCL Group is a private contractor with branches into both defence and election processes, who self-describe their ultimate purpose as the conduction of “behavioural change programs” across the world. Their goal is to change minds, and the scale of the operation warrants an evil underground headquarters built into a volcano, at the very least. Using a Facebook ‘personality-quiz’ app, designed by researcher Aleksandr Kogan, Cambridge Analytica gained and retained the data of an estimated 50 million users, without their knowledge. The results of the personality quiz were combined by Analytica’s algorithms with Facebook activity such as likes and other sources including voter records. This meant Analytica had access to surprisingly in-depth psychological profiles of users, which could include information such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and even things like intelligence or childhood trauma. These profiles could then be utilised in “micro-targeting” campaigns of highly personalised online advertising, essentially turning everyone into either the aliens from They Live or the humans from Wall-E.

[pullquote] These profiles essentially turn everyone into the humans from Wall-E [/pullquote]

Along with our knowledge of the Russian state’s efforts to harness the power of American social media, more specific connections to this firm in particular exist. Kogan, for example, received grants from Putin’s government to research ‘Stress, Health, and Psychological Wellbeing in Social Networks’, and in 2014 Cambridge Analytica pitched their services to Lukoil, the Russian oil producer headed by CEO Vagit Alekperov, an associate of Putin.

While the story continues to unfold, I was surprised by the amount of Facebook friends I’ve seen sharing things seemingly sceptical of Putin’s involvement in Skripal’s poisoning, despite relatively fresh memories of Alexander Litvinenko and Russia’s singular access to Novichok. In trying to follow these back to a source, everything has so far come up to dead ends in the forms of just a picture on someone’s feed, or a misleadingly-worded headline. I’m not in any way calling for rushed assumptions, or a blind-willingness to follow Mrs May into World War 3, but in an information environment that is shaky and confusing at best, I’ll remain cautious of the info I’m getting, especially if it’s in picture format, or on the internet at all.

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