There’s enough going on, I’d have thought – including the global computer-hack that brought down part of the NHS system, and an operation, probably Russian, that infected the Twitter accounts of 10,000 Pentagon workers – to make laughable the claim that in leaving the EU Britain will be taking back control of anything other than the colour of its passports. But now there’s this.

“We are talking about the most powerful mind-control machine ever invented in the history of the human race,” said Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. “And people don’t even notice it.”

The “machine” is a project to influence the minds of Facebook users. In three deeply-researched articles in the Observer by Carole Cadwalladr1, it is alleged that it was used to influence the outcome of the EU referendum. In February Cadwalladr started an investigation into Robert Mercer (“the money behind Donald Trump”) and his links with an American data analysis firm called Cambridge Analytica, which was involved in the Leave campaign in the UK. In May that investigation ended up in a place whose outlines will be clear to anyone who has ever innocently volunteered a piece of information and then had it used against them. Not in a terribly bad way, some may think. It’s just used to change their minds. Without their noticing it.

The Observer articles referred to here are the subject of a legal complaint on behalf of Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections Ltd, its parent company. Cambridge Analytica denies it worked for Leave.EU or had any involvement in British politics; however, Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s communications director, said that it had. There’s also a video, from which the Observer published a clip (14 May), showing Brittany Kaiser, an executive of Cambridge Analytica, on the podium at Leave.EU’s launch event.

Is this already sounding complicated? It gets far worse. Cadwalladr’s articles painstakingly join the dots between people and organisations that have gone to a lot of trouble not to be linked. However, what they’ve been doing seems to me considerably more frightening than their attempts to conceal it.

Andy Wigmore described Facebook as the key to Leave.EU’s operation, and the “like” button as its “most potent weapon” (Observer 26 February). From the “likes” a user clicks, a picture can be built up of that user’s personality, preferences and sympathies. The more the clicks, the more detailed the profile. With 150 Facebook “likes”, the model “could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse,” said Michal Kosinski, lead scientist of Cambridge University’s Psychometric Centre, on whose research Cambridge Analytica built its psychometric model. “With 300, it understood you better than you understood yourself.”

I am not a button-clicker, and was inclined to doubt this until I started to think about it. Three hundred casual, impulsive, sent-into-the-ether-without-a-second-thought clicks of the mouse. Anonymous, apparently. Not a commitment to anything. Not public.  Yet, at the same time, social. You like this photograph, you agree with that opinion, you admire what this person did? Go on, click the button. Be part of things.

Three hundred times. Over months, perhaps years. A direct route to the unconscious.

It’s very clever. If I were theologically minded, I would be inclined to say it was devilish.

The next step is obvious. There is the personality, with its foibles and weaknesses and sad little dreams. Now, target it! Send it, to its Facebook page, information which you calculate will nudge it in a particular direction. The information may be true or false, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s convincing to that target. The target has already told you how it wants to be talked to. Nuance is important. The process must be invisible.

Whether this has actually been done on the individual level is disputed, although it could be. It has certainly been done on the group level, focusing on people thought to be vulnerable to influence. In the case of the UK referendum, it’s estimated that only 600,000 votes needed to be swayed. In the USA, Cambridge Analytica claims to have psychological profiles based on data from 220 million American citizens.

Computers amass the data. But people determine the direction in which targets are to be nudged. The basic direction is towards the right. This technology is a tool of the rich.

Robert Mercer is a billionaire who made his money in computer science and is joint owner of one of the highest-performing hedge funds in the world. He is a friend of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, and an associate of Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to whom he gave $10 million when Bannon was running Breitbart News. Mercer funds the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial think-tank.  Since 2010 he has donated $45 million to Republican campaigns, and another $50 million to right-wing non-profit organisations. Though reclusive, he has a fun side: he likes yachts, and owns a $2.9 million train set.

He has a 90% stake in Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot of a British defence company called SCL, which contracts at a high level (to NATO, the State Dept., etc) for military psychological operations. SCL has specialised in “election management strategies” in places like Afghanistan. “It models mass populations and then it changes their beliefs” (Observer 26 Feb.).

Mercer introduced Cambridge Analytica/SCL to his friend Farage’s Leave.EU campaign.  During the referendum period, Cambridge Analytica’s Vice President was Steve Bannon, who wanted to “change the culture” in Britain. The data firm, which had worked on Ted Cruz’s campaign, transferred to the Trump camp when Cruz pulled out of the race. Leave.EU’s campaign director Andy Wigmore told the Observer that the Trump and Leave.EU campaigns had “massive parallels.”

At the same time, the “official” Leave campaign, Vote Leave, fronted by Boris Johnson, was going down the same route: it hired a data analysis firm based in Canada called AggregateIQ and spent half its campaign budget on it. Three other minor campaigns affiliated to Vote Leave – Veterans for Britain, the Democratic Unionist Party and BeLeave – also hired Aggregate. This was a very obscure company, and where it had come from remained mysterious for some time. However, it is now known that AggregateIQ’s intellectual property is owned by Robert Mercer.

A source who worked for Cambridge Analytica told the Observer, “The Canadians were our back office. They built our software for us. They held our database” (Observer 7 May). But the connection was never supposed to come to light. It is still denied, although there is documentary evidence (Observer 14 May). So is any accusation of meddling in British politics.

It’s important to remember the kind of psychological techniques and models that are being used in the project. They come from the military .2  They were developed inside the defence establishment for use against a hostile or potentially hostile population. They were turned against a friendly population in a democratic country. (It is horribly easy to imagine them being used to turn a population against one of its minorities: ethnic, religious, sexual…)

The secrecy is also important. Openness is crucial to a democracy. The fact that Robert Mercer was connected with AggregateIQ  had to be followed through companies that did not exist and links that appeared on a web page one day and were gone the next. Connections between the various players were buried and had to be diligently unearthed. A diagram of them was published in the Observer on 7 May and it is not comforting: all of them end up in the White House.

British electoral law was certainly broken. Campaigns must not be co-ordinated unless their expenditure is declared jointly; Vote Leave and the smaller affiliated campaigns that employed AggregateIQ did not do this.  If work is “donated” by a foreign organisation to a campaign, it must be declared to the Electoral Commission. The work done by Cambridge Analytica for Leave.EU was not. It is against the law for a foreign national or foreign company to interfere in a British poll.

What redress do we have?

Not much. The use of data analytics “for political purposes” is being investigated by the Information Commissioner. But the most important evidence is offshore. AggregateIQ is beyond British jurisdiction. And the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office are, by all accounts, toothless. The worst they can do is impose a fine, which is not going to make much impression on a man who can spend $2.9 million on a train set.

We are now in the middle of yet another election, this one called to shore up the power base of a Prime Minister who wants extra muscle with which to implement the Brexit of her choice, which presumably is Mr Mercer’s choice as well. Data analysis is still at it. Thomas Borwick, Vote Leave’s chief technology officer, was on the BBC’s The World at One today (26 May), talking blandly about it and its democratic credentials.

The Observer asks whether Mrs May knows “something she isn’t telling us” about all this. If she does, and has the grace to be uneasy about it, she is not the woman to take a stand against a power that is working in her interests.

Goering liked train sets, too. He had one in the attic of his mansion at Karinhall. Presumably it’s to do with control. And being interested in the workings of a complex mechanism.

By the pricking of my thumbs/ Something wicked this way comes. 

1 “Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire,” Observer 26/02/17; “The Great British Brexit robbery,” Observer 07/5/17; “Follow the data,” Observer 14/5/17.

2   Cambridge Analytica is now working inside the Pentagon.

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