Cambridge Analytica’s Trial Runs in the Developing World

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

One of the most telling and interesting threads of the Cambridge Analytica story is something that gets mentioned in most of the big pieces but is seldom a focus of attention. Most of the algorthms, techniques and strategies the company eventually deployed against the UK and the US were first used for elections operations in developing countries, what we once called the Third World. The reason is key: these countries had far less legal and technical infrastructure to defend themselves against these kinds of attacks. It was basically anything goes. And if someone got upset it didn’t matter all that much since these countries are off the main arteries of global news flows and have little capacity to uncover or hold to account a shadowy British company which is actually a subsidiary of a company wedded to the British defense establishment.

This pattern has a long and ugly pedigree. There are numerous examples and they are mostly part of the story of colonialism. Hannah Arendt and others long ago noted that the barbarity that was unleashed in Europe in the first and second world wars didn’t emerge from nowhere. Many of the tools of total warfare, concentration camps, genocide, theories master races and sub-humanity in addition to various forms of propaganda all had origins and backstories the various European powers had developed, fine tuned and deployed in their respective colonies. The explosion of the World Wars had many roots. But a key one was that the various colonial powers suddenly turned those tools loose on each other. Immiseration and mass murder got a muted press at best in the colonies. It was quite different in the colonial center. Just as significantly, in Europe the powers were more or less evenly matched. Tools first developed in the peripheries were now deployed in the center in what the powers perceived as life or death struggles for survival. The violence was extreme, stalemated and thus protracted.

There were other more ambiguous examples of the same pattern. A closeted gay man like the hugely influential British Imperialist Cecil Rhodes (Rhodes Scholar, Rhodesia, De Beers, et al.) could live his life more openly in southern Africa than he ever could in the imperial metropolis. Different rules applied in colonies and colonial center.

I’ve mentioned in other posts that we should hold a question mark over just how effective these psychographic profiles and algorithms really were and are. Just because they go by names like “psy-ops” and “information warfare” doesn’t mean they’re necessarily more effective than the strategies and tools employed by major US advertising and PR agencies. Some layer of this is salesmanship and flimflam by defense contractors hawking their wares. But companies involved here got contracts to mount these operations in US/UK combat theaters like Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of what Cambridge Analytica was doing was taking those tools, taking that experience and redirecting it against elections in the US and UK home countries themselves.

There’s already been a decent amount of reporting about how Facebook has been used by the government of Myanmar to organize and incite its ethnic cleansing/mass expulsion of its Rohingya minority. To date, to the best of my knowledge, these storylines have not been woven together. I have mainly seen it treated as simply something the Myanmar government has been able to do since Facebook is such a ubiquitous and in many cases sole means of communications in the country and it’s such a fertile ground for fake news. Given what we now know about Cambridge Analytica’s use of the platform, Facebook’s promiscuous and indifferent polices and the fact that so many of these schemes got dry runs in emerging democracies in Africa, Asia and Central America, that whole story seems worthy of a much closer examination. Just what was Facebook’s role? And here I mean, not just the platform in some generic sense but the company itself, its policies and various operates.

We pay close attention to these broad themes and overarching elements of story while piecing our way through the particulars. Russian psy-ops operations in Ukraine in 2014 prefigured Russian efforts further afield in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Cambridge Analytica’s campaign operations in Nigeria in 2015 looks much like what happened in 2016 in the US a year later, with hacked emails and the rest. “It was the kind of campaign that was our bread and butter,” an ex-CA employee told The Guardian. “We’re employed by a billionaire who’s panicking at the idea of a change of government and who wants to spend big to make sure that doesn’t happen.” (Notably, in Nigeria, Cambridge Analytica’s candidate lost.) What began as military operations are migrated into the civilian spheres, often into the societies whose governments originally spawned them. Tools and tactics are trial-runned in countries like Nigeria where companies like Cambridge Analytica can operate with impunity and then brought home. This isn’t simply a form of blowback. State tools are being privatized and the wielded by billionaires in the home countries.

Whether its Russia and its aggressive us of information warfare or private billionaire backed operations like Cambridge Analytica operating as global criminal enterprises, they are all viruses attacking the rule of law and democratic self-government not just in the US but across the globe.