Mindf*ck, by Wylie

Saturday October 29, 2022

Cambridge Analytica was a US brand for the UK's SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories) Group. They got Americans to fill out personality surveys and install an app that sent them Facebook information on likes, friends, etc. They used all this to advance the agendas of Steve Bannon and Bob Mercer, for example.

Facebook's crime in this seems to have been basically negligence. They let a lot of information be accessible at the time, and people did unsavory things with it. It's a little weird to call it a data breach, since the system was working as intended.

I wonder how (or whether) Cambridge Analytica evaluated their effectiveness... Trump became president, but was it because of Cambridge Analytica? Or were they just pushing in a direction that already had momentum? It is both horrifying and attractive to think that manipulative actors are responsible for massive unpleasant outcomes. But what share of the blame can be assigned?

"Our system is broken, our laws don't work, our regulators are weak, our governments don't understand what's happening, and our technology is usurping our democracy." (page 248)


"Bannon realized the power of cultivating the misogyny of of horny virgins." (page 62)

"It turns out that Republicans can accept a batshit insane candidate, so long as it's consistent insanity." (page 71, italics in original)

"This [idea to simulate behavior with computers] brought to mind experiments from the 1990s in a niche field of sociology called "artificial societies," which involved attempts by crude multi-agent systems to "grow" societies in silico. I could remember as a teenager reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, where scientists used large data sets about societies to create the field of "psychohistory," which allowed them to not only predict the future but also control it." (page 81)

"In 2012, Facebook filed for a U.S. patent for "Determining user personality characteristics from social networking system communications and characteristics." Facebook's patent application explained that its interest in psychological profiling was because "inferred personality characteristics are stored in connection with the user's profile, and may be used for targeting, ranking, selecting versions of products, and various other purposes."" (page 96)

"In fact, a 2015 study by Youyou, Kosinski, and Stillwell showed that, using Facebook likes, a computer model reigned supreme in predicting human behavior." (page 103)

"It contained complete profiles of tens of thousands of users—name, gender, age, location, status updates, likes, friends—everything. Kogan said his Facebook app could even pull private messages." (pages 104-105)

The private messages bit is quite the unsupported claim.

""Think about it," I said to Bannon. "The message at a Tea Party rally is the same as at a Gay Pride parade: Don't tread on me! Let me be who I am!"" (page 117)

"A select minority of people exhibit traits of narcissism (extreme self-centeredness), Machiavellianism (ruthless self-interest), and psychopathy (emotional detachment). In contrast to the Big Five traits found in everyone to some degree as part of normal psychology—openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—these "dark triad" traits are maladaptive, meaning that those who exhibit them are generally more prone to antisocial behavior, including criminal acts. From the data CA collected, the team was able to identify people who exhibited neuroticism and dark-triad traits, and those who were more prone to impulsive anger or conspiratorial thinking than average citizens. Cambridge Analytica would target them, introducing narratives via Facebook groups, ads, or articles that the firm knew from internal testing were likely to inflame the very narrow segments of people with these traits. CA wanted to provoke people, to get them to engage." (pages 119-120)

"As it happens, the most engaging content on social media is often horrible or enraging." (page 120)

Some of the Big Five personality traits stuff reminded me of what I've heard about The Righteous Mind: describing Republicans as low on openness and high on conscientiousness, while Democrats are the reverse.

"Cambridge Analytica's research panels also identified that there were relationships between target attitudes and a psychological effect called the just-world hypothesis (JWH). This is a cognitive bias where some people rely on a presumption of a fair world: The world is a fair place where bad things "happen for a reason" or will be offset by some sort of "moral balancing" in the universe. We found that people who displayed the JWH bias were, for example, more prone to victim-blaming in hypothetical scenarios of sexual assault. If the world is fair, then random bad things should not happen to innocent people, and therefore there must have been a fault in the victim's behavior. Finding ways to blame victims is psychologically prophylactic for some people because it helps them cope with anxiety induced by uncontrollable environmental threats while maintaining a comforting view that the world will still be fair to them.

"Cambridge Analytica found that JWH was related to many attitudes, but that it had a special relationship with racial bias." (page 129)

This idea—the just-world hypothesis considered harmful—is very interesting.

"In 1988, George H. W. Bush's campaign ran the infamous Willie Horton ad, terrifying white voters with visions of wild-haired black criminals running amok." (page 131)

"... Cambridge Analytica was merely a front-facing brand for American clients that was entirely staffed by SCL personnel." (page 134)

"In our invasion of America, we were purposefully activating the worst in people, from paranoia to racism." (page 144)

"To Moscow, civil rights and the First Amendment are the American political system's most glaring vulnerabilities." (page 153)

"Cambridge Analytica identified that many people in non-urban regions or in lower socioeconomic strata often externalized the notion of "the economy" to something that only the wealthy and metropolitan participated in. "The economy" was not their job in a local store; it was something that bankers did." (page 172)

Page 192 includes a reference to Zelig, which I hadn't known about.

"Later, it emerged that Facebook, in a panic about its PR crisis, had hired the secret communications firm Definers Public Affairs, which subsequently leaked out fake narratives filled with anti-Semitic tropes about its critics being part of a George Soros-funded conspiracy." (page 229)

Page 229 describes the 2013 "The Value of Science is in the Foresight" by Valery Gerasimov (PDF).

"Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist behind Facebook, Palantir, and Paypal, spoke at length about how he no longer believes "that freedom and democracy are compatible." And in elaborating his views on technology companies, he expounded on how CEOs are the new monarchs in a techno-feudal system of governance. We just don't call them monarchies in public, he said, because "anything that's not democracy makes people uncomfortable."" (page 237)

The quote is included in Thiel's "The Education of a Libertarian."

"Information Commissioner's Office ... eventually issuing Facebook the maximum fine allowable in law for data breaches." (page 247)

This appears to have been £500,000.