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FTR #1039 Miscellaneous Articles and Updates

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This broadcast was recorded in one, 60-minute segment [6].

[7]

Peter Thiel

Introduction: With the studio telephones temporarily out of function due to infrastructure repair on the studio, we interrupt the Jim DiEugenio interview series to bring a number of paths of inquiry up to date.

Many of the articles deal with the firestorm of domestic American politics surrounding immigration. Many also deal with the advent of technocratic fascism.

We begin with two stories that deal with both subjects:

In FTR #718 [8], we warned [back in 2010] that Facebook was not the cuddly little entity it was perceived to be but a potential engine of fascism enabling. Momentum for the remarkably timed immigrant caravan that became a focal point for Trump/GOP/Fox News propaganda during the recently-concluded midterm elections was generated [9]by a fake Facebook account, which mimicked [10] a Honduran politician/human rights activist, Bartolo Fuentes. Significant aspects of the event:

  1. ” . . . . Facebook has admitted the account was an imposter account impersonating a prominent Honduran politician. But it is refusing to release information about the account, who may have set it up or what country it originated from. . . .”
  2. ” . . . . In response to a query from BuzzFeed News, a Facebook spokesperson said the phony account ‘was removed for violating [the company’s] misrepresentation policy,’ but declined to share any further information, such as what country it originated from, what email address was used to open it, or any other details that might reveal who was behind it. Facebook added that, barring a subpoena or request from law enforcement, it does not share such information out of respect for the privacy of its users. Fuentes said he believes it’s important to find out who was behind the rogue account — but hasn’t gotten any answers from Facebook. ‘Who knows how many messages could have been sent and who received them?’ . . . .”
  3. [11] ” . . . . Fuentes has been unable to get any information from Facebook about the account, but one small detail stood out. Whoever created it listed the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa as Fuentes’s hometown, rather than the San Pedro Sula suburb of El Progreso. That might seem like a minor error, but it’s the sort of mistake a foreigner — not a Honduran — would make about the well-known former lawmaker, whose left-wing party stands in opposition to the current president’s administration. . . . “
  4. ” . . . . It operated entirely in Spanish and precisely targeted influencers within the migrant rights community. And rather than criticize or undermine the caravan — as other online campaigns would later attempt to do — it was used to legitimize the event, making a loosely structured grassroots event appear to be a well-organized effort by an established migrant group with a proven track record of successfully bringing Central American people to the US border. . . .”
  5. ” . . . . before the account got started not many people seemed to be joining. Only after the account kicked into gear did enthusiasm and participation spike. The account also claimed falsely that the caravan was being led by a migrant rights organization called Pueblo Sin Fronteras. Later, once the caravan swelled to a massive scale, the Pueblo Sin Fronteras did get involved, though in a support rather than leadership role. . . .”
  6. [12]” . . . . It appears that this account helped the caravan gain key momentum to the point where its size became a self-fulfilling prophecy, spurring even more to join and groups which hadn’t been supportive to get involved. . . .”
  7. ” . . . . It’s hard to believe one Facebook account could play that decisive a role. But the account seems to have been sophisticated. And it is equally difficult to believe that a sophisticator operator or organization would have gone to such trouble and limited their efforts to a single imposter account. . . .”

Christopher Wylie–the former head of research at Cambridge Analytica who became one of the key insider whistle-blowers about how Cambridge Analytica operated and the extent of Facebook’s knowledge about it–gave an interview last month to Campaign Magazine [13]. (We dealt with Cambridge Analytica in FTR #’s 946 [14], 1021 [15].)

Wylie recounts how, as director of research at Cambridge Analytica, his original role was to determine how the company could use the information warfare techniques used by SCL Group – Cambridge Analytica’s parent company and a defense contractor providing psy op services for the British military. Wylie’s job was to adapt the psychological warfare strategies that SCL had been using on the battlefield to the online space. As Wylie put it:

“ . . . . When you are working in information operations projects, where your target is a combatant, the autonomy or agency of your targets is not your primary consideration. It is fair game to deny and manipulate information, coerce and exploit any mental vulnerabilities a person has, and to bring out the very worst characteristics in that person because they are an enemy…But if you port that over to a democratic system, if you run campaigns designed to undermine people’s ability to make free choices and to understand what is real and not real, you are undermining democracy and treating voters in the same way as you are treating terrorists. . . . .”

Wylie also draws parallels between the psychological operations used on democratic audiences and the battlefield techniques used to be build an insurgency. It starts with targeting people more prone to having erratic traits, paranoia or conspiratorial thinking, and get them to “like” a group on social media. The information you’re feeding this target audience may or may not be real. The important thing is that it’s content that they already agree with so that “it feels good to see that information.” Keep in mind that one of the goals of the ‘psychographic profiling’ that Cambridge Analytica was to identify traits like neuroticism.

Wylie goes on to describe the next step in this insurgency-building technique: keep building up the interest in the social media group that you’re directing this target audience towards until it hits around 1,000-2,000 people. Then set up a real life event dedicated to the chosen disinformation topic in some local area and try to get as many of your target audience to show up. Even if only 5 percent of them show up, that’s still 50-100 people converging on some local coffee shop or whatever. The people meet each other in real life and start talking about about “all these things that you’ve been seeing online in the depths of your den and getting angry about”. This target audience starts believing that no one else is talking about this stuff because “they don’t want you to know what the truth is”. As Wylie puts it, “What started out as a fantasy online gets ported into the temporal world and becomes real to you because you see all these people around you.”

In FTR #102 [16]8 [16], we highlighted the killing of Mollie Tibbetts noting that:

  1. The killing may have been a provocation, directed at focusing the electorate’s ire toward illegal immigrants and away from Donald Trump.
  2. The announcement about the location and arrest of the suspected perpetrator–Christhian Rivera–came on the same day that Michael Cohen copped a plea and Paul Manafort was found guilty. Was Rivera’s arrest timed as a distraction?
  3. There are superficial indications that Christhian Rivera may have been subjected to mind control, a la Sirhan Sirhan.
  4. Rivera worked at a dairy facility controlled by the Lang family, prominent Iowa Republicans.

Now, we learn [17] that Eric Lang, Craig Lang’s brother–is married to Nicole Schlinger, a prominent GOP fundraiser with strong operational and historical links to the Koch brothers’ networks and other GOP post-Citizens United dark money networks. [18]

High-tech may be the future [19] of Trump’s much-ballyhooed wall with Mexico, with a technology dubbed AVATAR seen by some as the future of border security: “A virtual border agent kiosk was developed to interview travelers at airports and border crossings and it can detect deception to flag human security agents. The U.S., Canada and European Union have tested the technology, and one researcher says it has a deception detection success rate of up to 80 percent — better than human agents.  The technology relies on sensors and biometrics, and its lie-detection capabilities are based on eye movements or changes in voice, posture and facial gestures. . . .”

Futurist philosopher and author Yuval Noah Harari  appears to be a dystopian futurist, envisioning a future where democracy is seen as obsolete and a techno-elite ruling class run companies with the capacity to essentially control the minds of masses. Those masses that will increasingly be seen obsolete and useless. Harari even gave a recent TED Talk called Why fascism is so tempting — and how your data could power it. [20] So how do Silicon Valley’s CEO view Mr. Harari’s views? They apparently can’t get enough of him [21]:

We conclude with a look at how the SCL/Cambridge Analytica dynamic has manifested in the Russia-gate Psy-Op.

Adding further perspective [22] to the utterly fantastic nature of the Russia-Gate “psy-op” is analysis of a recent New York Times propaganda piece hyping Russia’s manipulation of Facebook to influence the U.S. election. “. . . . The further research into an earlier Consortium News article [23] shows that a relatively paltry 80,000 posts from the private Russian company Internet Research Agency (IRA) were engulfed in literally trillions of posts on Facebook over a two-year period before and after the 2016 vote. [Just HOW a post generated after the election was supposed to influence the election was not explained by The Gray Lady–D.E.]. . . . The newspaper [The New York Times] failed to tell their readers that Facebook account holders in the United States had been “served” 33 trillion Facebook posts during that same period — 413 million times more than the 80,000 posts from the Russian company. . . .”

1a. Momentum for the remarkably timed immigrant caravan that became a focal point for Trump/GOP/Fox News propaganda during the recently-concluded midterm elections was generated by a fake Facebook account, which mimicked a Honduran politician/human rights activist, Bartolo Fuentes. Significant aspects of the event:

  1. ” . . . . Facebook has admitted the account was an imposter account impersonating a prominent Honduran politician. But it is refusing to release information about the account, who may have set it up or what country it originated from. . . .”
  2. ” . . . . before the account got started not many people seemed to be joining. Only after the account kicked into gear did enthusiasm and participation spike. The account also claimed falsely that the caravan was being led by a migrant rights organization called Pueblo Sin Fronteras. Later, once the caravan swelled to a massive scale, the Pueblo Sin Fronteras did get involved, though in a support rather than leadership role. . . .”
  3. ” . . . . It appears that this account helped the caravan gain key momentum to the point where its size became a self-fulfilling prophecy, spurring even more to join and groups which hadn’t been supportive to get involved. . . .”
  4. ” . . . . It’s hard to believe one Facebook account could play that decisive a role. But the account seems to have been sophisticated. And it is equally difficult to believe that a sophisticator operator or organization would have gone to such trouble and limited their efforts to a single imposter account. . . .”

“Fake Facebook Account Had Role Building Immigrant Caravan” by Josh Marshall; Talking Points Memo; 12/06/2018. [9]

Here’s a very, very interesting Buzzfeed article [10] which reports that a fake Facebook account appears to have had an important role stirring up the Honduran immigrant caravan which coincided almost precisely with the 2018 midterm election. Facebook has admitted the account was an imposter account impersonating a prominent Honduran politician. But it is refusing to release information about the account, who may have set it up or what country it originated from.

For starters, it’s important to note that whatever the role of this account or others that may come to light, it didn’t create the Honduras’ emigration crisis that goes back to the later years of the Obama administration. There have been other ‘caravans’, the main point of which is to give migrants safety in numbers and not be prey to criminals and gangs on the journey north. But the timing of the October/November 2018 event has always been suspect.

During the height of the news fever back in October I reached out to a prominent US pro-immigration activist and asked this person, ‘Am I crazy to be suspicious that you’ve got the biggest caravan yet heading north timed almost perfectly for the final weeks of the US election?’ The answer was very interesting. It was basically, ‘Yeah, we’re all very suspicious but there’s no clear evidence that it hasn’t grown up organically.’

One of the things that seemed so odd to me was that if you’re an immigrant looking to escape the runaway murder rate and gang and paramilitary violence in Honduras, the worst possible time to make the attempt would be in the final days of a US election campaign in which the government has every incentive to make an example of you to show its anti-immigrant bona-fides. Like you may or may not make at another, less election focused time. But you’re definitely not getting into the country when Donald Trump is trying to use you as a scare cudgel to salvage control of Congress.

What this person told me was that that wasn’t that hard to understand. From years working with people in the region this person told me, you’d just be surprised. They’re not as versed on the internal dynamics of our politics as you might think. This was a valuable corrective to my myopia and lack of perspective. I don’t know much about the internal dynamics of their politics and they don’t know ours.

Still the person I was speaking to remained pretty suspicious. There just wasn’t any evidence that it wasn’t growing up in the way other immigrant caravans have over recent years.

Now we get to this Buzzfeed article. The account was created about a week before the caravan departed and impersonated a man named Bartolo Fuentes who Buzzfeed identifies as “a Honduran activist, journalist, and former lawmaker.” The subtleties to the story are important. Fuentes was initially skeptical about this particular caravan. It wasn’t getting much attention. But it caught on so dramatically that he eventually joined it for a period of time, not as a prospective immigrant but as a supporter.

The account mainly used Facebook messenger to communicate with other influential figures in Honduras and confirm Fuentes’ support of the effort. In Buzzfeed’s reconstruction, this bogus account didn’t start the effort and actually kicked off just after the efforts to organize it got underway. But before the account got started not many people seemed to be joining. Only after the account kicked into gear did enthusiasm and participation spike. The account also claimed falsely that the caravan was being led by a migrant rights organization called Pueblo Sin Fronteras. Later, once the caravan swelled to a massive scale, the Pueblo Sin Fronteras did get involved, though in a support rather than leadership role.

The relevant point though is that it wasn’t true when the imposter account falsely spread the word.

It appears that this account helped the caravan gain key momentum to the point where its size became a self-fulfilling prophecy, spurring even more to join and groups which hadn’t been supportive to get involved.

So far, it seems like we only know about this single account. It’s hard to believe one Facebook account could play that decisive a role. But the account seems to have been sophisticated. And it is equally difficult to believe that a sophisticator operator or organization would have gone to such trouble and limited their efforts to a single imposter account. . . .

1b. More about the phony Facebook account:

  1. ” . . . . In response to a query from BuzzFeed News, a Facebook spokesperson said the phony account ‘was removed for violating [the company’s] misrepresentation policy,’ but declined to share any further information, such as what country it originated from, what email address was used to open it, or any other details that might reveal who was behind it. Facebook added that, barring a subpoena or request from law enforcement, it does not share such information out of respect for the privacy of its users. Fuentes said he believes it’s important to find out who was behind the rogue account — but hasn’t gotten any answers from Facebook. ‘Who knows how many messages could have been sent and who received them?’ . . . .”
  2. ” . . . . It operated entirely in Spanish and precisely targeted influencers within the migrant rights community. And rather than criticize or undermine the caravan — as other online campaigns would later attempt to do — it was used to legitimize the event, making a loosely structured grassroots event appear to be a well-organized effort by an established migrant group with a proven track record of successfully bringing Central American people to the US border. . . .”
  3. ” . . . . Fuentes has been unable to get any information from Facebook about the account, but one small detail stood out. Whoever created it listed the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa as Fuentes’s hometown, rather than the San Pedro Sula suburb of El Progreso. That might seem like a minor error, but it’s the sort of mistake a foreigner — not a Honduran — would make about the well-known former lawmaker, whose left-wing party stands in opposition to the current president’s administration. . . . “

“A Mysterious Imposter Account Was Used On Facebook To Drum Up Support For The Migrant Caravan” by Ken Bensinger and Karla Zabludovsky; BuzzFeed News; 12/06/2018 [10]

Just days before the migrant caravan set out from Honduras, an imposter stole the identity of a prominent early supporter on Facebook, using a fake account to try to boost the caravan’s numbers.

Bartolo Fuentes, a Honduran activist, journalist, and former lawmaker told BuzzFeed News that someone used the phony account to send Facebook messages falsely claiming that established migrant groups were organizing the effort. News like that — coming from a well-known public figure in Honduras, such as Fuentes — could go a long way to convincing people to join the group of migrants traveling to the US.

The caravan, which threaded north through Guatemala and Mexico, eventually ballooned in size to more than 7,000 people. It also became a political flashpoint in the lead-up to last month’s US midterm elections.

In response to a query from BuzzFeed News, a Facebook spokesperson said the phony account “was removed for violating [the company’s] misrepresentation policy,” but declined to share any further information, such as what country it originated from, what email address was used to open it, or any other details that might reveal who was behind it. Facebook added that, barring a subpoena or request from law enforcement, it does not share such information out of respect for the privacy of its users.

Fuentes said he believes it’s important to find out who was behind the rogue account — but hasn’t gotten any answers from Facebook. “Who knows how many messages could have been sent and who received them?” . . . .

. . . . As far as Fuentes can tell, the fake account, which primarily used Facebook Messenger to spread disinformation, was created less than a week before the caravan was scheduled to depart.

On his real account, Fuentes did post a few times about the caravan, which he said he’d heard about in mid-September after being invited to join a small private WhatsApp group of would-be migrants. One of his posts [24], from Oct. 4, showed a stylized image of a bedraggled migrant and indicated the caravan “spontaneously convened” without any formal organizer.

But the messages being sent by the imposter, which also had Fuentes’s photo, had a very different flavor, the former lawmaker learned. They claimed that the prominent and influential migrant rights organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras was organizing the caravan and would be leading it on the arduous journey.

But the news was fake. Although Pueblo Sin Fronteras had organized several previous caravans, including a big one in the spring that attracted 1,500 people, it staunchly opposed the latest effort based on well-founded fears it would stoke anti-immigrant sentiment ahead of the elections.

The bogus Fuentes account stands out for its sophistication and timing. It was created before the caravan departed, when the event had not yet attracted news coverage. It operated entirely in Spanish and precisely targeted influencers within the migrant rights community. And rather than criticize or undermine the caravan — as other online campaigns would later attempt to do — it was used to legitimize the event, making a loosely structured grassroots event appear to be a well-organized effort by an established migrant group with a proven track record of successfully bringing Central American people to the US border.

Fuentes has been unable to get any information from Facebook about the account, but one small detail stood out. Whoever created it listed the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa as Fuentes’s hometown, rather than the San Pedro Sula suburb of El Progreso. That might seem like a minor error, but it’s the sort of mistake a foreigner — not a Honduran — would make about the well-known former lawmaker, whose left-wing party stands in opposition to the current president’s administration.

When the imposter account began sowing misinformation, the caravan was not expected to be huge — in fact, very few people even knew about it. Only around 160 men, women, and children showed up at the bus station in San Pedro Sula at the appointed time early Oct. 12.

Fuentes has no idea how many messages were sent by the imposter account, or who might have received them. He said the WhatsApp group where he learned about the caravan had only a few dozen people in it, and he subsequently found out about a few other such groups that were equally small. He was surprised to see people continuing to arrive at the bus station throughout the morning, eventually attracting media coverage. . . .

2. In FTR #102 [16]8, we highlighted the killing of Mollie Tibbetts noting that:

  1. The killing may have been a provocation, directed at focusing the electorate’s ire toward illegal immigrants and away from Donald Trump.
  2. The announcement about the location and arrest of the suspected perpetrator–Christhian Rivera–came on the same day that Michael Cohen copped a plea and Paul Manafort was found guilty. Was Rivera’s arrest timed as a distraction?
  3. There are superficial indications that Christhian Rivera may have been subjected to mind control, a la Sirhan Sirhan.
  4. Rivera worked at a dairy facility controlled by the Lang family, prominent Iowa Republicans.

Now, we learn that Eric Lang, Craig Lang’s brother–is married to Nicole Schlinger, a prominent GOP fundraiser with strong operational and historical links to the Koch brothers’ networks and other GOP post-Citizens United dark money networks. [18]

“The Man Accused of Killing Mollie Tibbetts Lived on Land Owned by GOP Fundraiser” by RYAN J. FOLEY; Associated Press; 08/24/2018 [17].

A top Republican fundraiser whose firm works for several prominent immigration hardliners is the partial owner of the land where the Mexican man accused of killing Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts lived rent-free, a farm spokeswoman said Friday.

Nicole Schlinger has long been a key fundraiser and campaign contractor for GOP politicians in Iowa and beyond, including this cycle for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Virginia Senate candidate Corey Stewart.

Schlinger is the president of Campaign Headquarters, a call center that makes fundraising calls, identifies supporters and helps turn out voters for conservative candidates and groups. Her business is one of the largest in Brooklyn, the central Iowa town where Tibbetts disappeared while out for a run on July 18.

Schlinger is married to Eric Lang, the president of the family-owned dairy that has acknowledged providing employment and housing for the last four years to Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the man charged with murder in Tibbetts’ death.

The couple — along with her husband’s brother Craig Lang and his wife — own farmland outside Brooklyn that includes trailers where some of the dairy’s employees live for free as a benefit of their employment, farm spokeswoman Eileen Wixted confirmed.

She said Rivera lived there for the duration of his employment, and about half of the farm’s other 10 workers do so as well. Under the arrangement, the farming company pays the couples to rent the land but workers do not have to pay, she said.

In an email Friday, Schlinger said that she was “shocked and deeply saddened” by Tibbetts’ death and had never met Rivera. “The perpetrator should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, and when he meets his maker, suffer the consequences he deserves,” she wrote.

She said that she was gifted an ownership interest in the land many years ago from her husband’s family and that she has no role in the farming operation.

Still, the fact that one of its own operatives has indirect ties to the case could complicate GOP efforts to highlight the gruesome slaying in its political messaging ahead of the November midterm election. Dairy co-owner Craig Lang also was a Republican candidate for Iowa agriculture secretary, finishing third in a five-way race in the June primary. . . .

3. High-tech may be the future of Trump’s much-ballyhooed wall with Mexico, with a technology dubbed AVATAR seen by some as the future of border security: “A virtual border agent kiosk was developed to interview travelers at airports and border crossings and it can detect deception to flag human security agents.The U.S., Canada and European Union have tested the technology, and one researcher says it has a deception detection success rate of up to 80 percent — better than human agents.  The technology relies on sensors and biometrics, and its lie-detection capabilities are based on eye movements or changes in voice, posture and facial gestures. . . .”

“Lie-detecting computer kiosks equipped with artificial intelligence look like the future of border security” by Jeff Daniels; CNBC; 05/15/2018 [19]

A virtual border agent kiosk was developed to interview travelers at airports and border crossings and it can detect deception to flag human security agents.
The U.S., Canada and European Union have tested the technology, and one researcher says it has a deception detection success rate of up to 80 percent — better than human agents.
The technology relies on sensors and biometrics, and its lie-detection capabilities are based on eye movements or changes in voice, posture and facial gestures.

International travelers could find themselves in the near future talking to a lie-detecting kiosk when they’re going through customs at an airport or border crossing.

The same technology could be used to provide initial screening of refugees and asylum seekers at busy border crossings.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security funded research of the virtual border agent technology known as the Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time [25], or AVATAR, about six years ago and allowed it to be tested it at the U.S.-Mexico border on travelers who volunteered to participate. Since then, Canada and the European Union tested the robot-like kiosk that uses a virtual agent to ask travelers a series of questions.

Last month, a caravan of migrants from Central America [26] made it to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they sought asylum but were delayed several days because the port of entry near San Diego had reached full capacity. It’s possible that a system such as AVATAR could provide initial screening of asylum seekers and others to help U.S. agents at busy border crossings such as San Diego’s San Ysidro.

“The technology has much broader applications potentially,” despite most of the funding for the original work coming primarily from the Defense or Homeland Security departments a decade ago, according to Aaron Elkins, one of the developers of the system and an assistant professor at the San Diego State University director of its Artificial Intelligence Lab. He added that AVATAR is not a commercial product yet but could be also used in human resources for screening. . . . 

4. Christopher Wylie–the former head of research at Cambridge Analytica who became one of the key insider whistle-blowers about how Cambridge Analytica operated and the extent of Facebook’s knowledge about it–gave an interview last month to Campaign Magazine. (We dealt with Cambridge Analytica in FTR #’s 946 [14], 1021 [15].)

Wylie recounts how, as director of research at Cambridge Analytica, his original role was to determine how the company could use the information warfare techniques used by SCL Group – Cambridge Analytica’s parent company and a defense contractor providing psy op services for the British military. Wylie’s job was to adapt the psychological warfare strategies that SCL had been using on the battlefield to the online space. As Wylie put it:

“ . . . . When you are working in information operations projects, where your target is a combatant, the autonomy or agency of your targets is not your primary consideration. It is fair game to deny and manipulate information, coerce and exploit any mental vulnerabilities a person has, and to bring out the very worst characteristics in that person because they are an enemy…But if you port that over to a democratic system, if you run campaigns designed to undermine people’s ability to make free choices and to understand what is real and not real, you are undermining democracy and treating voters in the same way as you are treating terrorists. . . . .”

Wylie also draws parallels between the psychological operations used on democratic audiences and the battlefield techniques used to be build an insurgency. It starts with targeting people more prone to having erratic traits, paranoia or conspiratorial thinking, and get them to “like” a group on social media. The information you’re feeding this target audience may or may not be real. The important thing is that it’s content that they already agree with so that “it feels good to see that information.” Keep in mind that one of the goals of the ‘psychographic profiling’ that Cambridge Analytica was to identify traits like neuroticism.

Wylie goes on to describe the next step in this insurgency-building technique: keep building up the interest in the social media group that you’re directing this target audience towards until it hits around 1,000-2,000 people. Then set up a real life event dedicated to the chosen disinformation topic in some local area and try to get as many of your target audience to show up. Even if only 5 percent of them show up, that’s still 50-100 people converging on some local coffee shop or whatever. The people meet each other in real life and start talking about about “all these things that you’ve been seeing online in the depths of your den and getting angry about”. This target audience starts believing that no one else is talking about this stuff because “they don’t want you to know what the truth is”. As Wylie puts it, “What started out as a fantasy online gets ported into the temporal world and becomes real to you because you see all these people around you.”

“Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie: It’s time to save creativity” by Kate Magee; Campaign; 11/05/2018 [13].

In the early hours of 17 March 2018, the 28-year-old Christopher Wylie tweeted: “Here we go….”

Later that day, The Observer and The New York Times published the story of Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook data, which sent shockwaves around the world, caused millions to #DeleteFacebook, and led the UK Information Commissioner’s Office to fine the site the maximum penalty for failing to protect users’ information. Six weeks after the story broke, Cambridge Analytica closed. . . .

. . . . He believes that poor use of data is killing good ideas. And that, unless effective regulation is enacted, society’s worship of algorithms, unchecked data capture and use, and the likely spread of AI to all parts of our lives is causing us to sleepwalk into a bleak future.

Not only are such circumstances a threat to adland – why do you need an ad to tell you about a product if an algorithm is choosing it for you? – it is a threat to human free will. “Currently, the only morality of the algorithm is to optimise you as a consumer and, in many cases, you become the product. There are very few examples in human history of industries where people themselves become products and those are scary industries – slavery and the sex trade. And now, we have social media,” Wylie says.

“The problem with that, and what makes it inherently different to selling, say, toothpaste, is that you’re selling parts of people or access to people. People have an innate moral worth. If we don’t respect that, we can create industries that do terrible things to people. We are [heading] blindly and quickly into an environment where this mentality is going to be amplified through AI everywhere. We’re humans, we should be thinking about people first.”

His words carry weight, because he’s been on the dark side. He has seen what can happen when data is used to spread misinformation, create insurgencies and prey on the worst of people’s characters.

The political battlefield

A quick refresher on the scandal, in Wylie’s words: Cambridge Analytica was a company spun out of SCL Group, a British military contractor that worked in information operations for armed forces around the world. It was conducting research on how to scale and digitise information warfare – the use of information to confuse or degrade the efficacy of an enemy. . . .

. . . . As director of research, Wylie’s original role was to map out how the company would take traditional information operations tactics into the online space – in particular, by profiling people who would be susceptible to certain messaging.

This morphed into the political arena. After Wylie left, the company worked on Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign and – possibly – the UK’s European Union referendum. In February 2016, Cambridge Analytica’s former chief executive, Alexander Nix, wrote in Campaign that his company had “already helped supercharge Leave.EU’s social-media campaign”. Nix has strenuously denied this since, including to MPs.

It was this shift from the battlefield to politics that made Wylie uncomfortable. “When you are working in information operations projects, where your target is a combatant, the autonomy or agency of your targets is not your primary consideration. It is fair game to deny and manipulate information, coerce and exploit any mental vulnerabilities a person has, and to bring out the very worst characteristics in that person because they are an enemy,” he says.

“But if you port that over to a democratic system, if you run campaigns designed to undermine people’s ability to make free choices and to understand what is real and not real, you are undermining democracy and treating voters in the same way as you are treating terrorists.”

One of the reasons these techniques are so insidious is that being a target of a disinformation campaign is “usually a pleasurable experience”, because you are being fed content with which you are likely to agree. “You are being guided through something that you want to be true,” Wylie says.

To build an insurgency, he explains, you first target people who are more prone to having erratic traits, paranoia or conspiratorial thinking, and get them to “like” a group on social media. They start engaging with the content, which may or may not be true; either way “it feels good to see that information”.

When the group reaches 1,000 or 2,000 members, an event is set up in the local area. Even if only 5% show up, “that’s 50 to 100 people flooding a local coffee shop”, Wylie says. This, he adds, validates their opinion because other people there are also talking about “all these things that you’ve been seeing online in the depths of your den and getting angry about”.

People then start to believe the reason it’s not shown on mainstream news channels is because “they don’t want you to know what the truth is”. As Wylie sums it up: “What started out as a fantasy online gets ported into the temporal world and becomes real to you because you see all these people around you.” . . . . 

. . . . Psychographic potential

One such application was Cambridge Analytica’s use of psychographic profiling, a form of segmentation that will be familiar to marketers, although not in common use.

The company used the OCEAN model, which judges people on scales of the Big Five personality traits: openness to experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Wylie believes the method could be useful in the commercial space. For example, a fashion brand that creates bold, colourful, patterned clothes might want to segment wealthy woman by extroversion because they will be more likely to buy bold items, he says.

Sceptics say Cambridge Analytica’s approach may not be the dark magic that Wylie claims. Indeed, when speaking to Campaign in June 2017, Nix uncharacteristically played down the method, claiming the company used “pretty bland data in a pretty enterprising way”.

But Wylie argues that people underestimate what algorithms allow you to do in profiling. “I can take pieces of information about you that seem innocuous, but what I’m able to do with an algorithm is find patterns that correlate to underlying psychological profiles,” he explains.

“I can ask whether you listen to Justin Bieber, and you won’t feel like I’m invading your privacy. You aren’t necessarily aware that when you tell me what music you listen to or what TV shows you watch, you are telling me some of your deepest and most personal attributes.”

This is where matters stray into the question of ethics. Wylie believes that as long as the communication you are sending out is clear, not coercive or manipulative, it’s fine, but it all depends on context. “If you are a beauty company and you use facets of neuroticism – which Cambridge Analytica did – and you find a segment of young women or men who are more prone to body dysmorphia, and one of the proactive actions they take is to buy more skin cream, you are exploiting something which is unhealthy for that person and doing damage,” he says. “The ethics of using psychometric data really depend on whether it is proportional to the benefit and utility that the customer is getting.” . . .

Clashes with Facebook

Wylie is opposed to self-regulation, because industries won’t become consumer champions – they are, he says, too conflicted.

“Facebook has known about what Cambridge Analytica was up to from the very beginning of those projects,” Wylie claims. “They were notified, they authorised the applications, they were given the terms and conditions of the app that said explicitly what it was doing. They hired people who worked on building the app. I had legal correspondence with their lawyers where they acknowledged it happened as far back as 2016.”

He wants to create a set of enduring principles that are handed over to a technically competent regulator to enforce. “Currently, the industry is not responding to some pretty fundamental things that have happened on their watch. So I think it is the right place for government to step in,” he adds.

Facebook in particular, he argues is “the most obstinate and belligerent in recognising the harm that has been done and actually doing something about it”. . . .

6. Futurist philosopher and author Yuval Noah Harari  appears to be a dystopian futurist, envisioning a future where democracy is seen as obsolete and a techno-elite ruling class run companies with the capacity to essentially control the minds of masses. Those masses that will increasingly be seen obsolete and useless. Harari even gave a recent TED Talk called Why fascism is so tempting — and how your data could power it. [20] So how do Silicon Valley’s CEO view Mr. Harari’s views? They apparently can’t get enough of him [21]:

“Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer” by Nellie Bowles; The New York Times; 11/09/2018 [21]

The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari worries about a lot.

He worries that Silicon Valley is undermining democracy and ushering in a dystopian hellscape in which voting is obsolete.

He worries that by creating powerful influence machines to control billions of minds, the big tech companies are destroying the idea of a sovereign individual with free will.

He worries that because the technological revolution’s work requires so few laborers, Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class and a teeming, furious “useless class.”

But lately, Mr. Harari is anxious about something much more personal. If this is his harrowing warning, then why do Silicon Valley C.E.O.s love him so? . . . .

. . . . Part of the reason might be that Silicon Valley, at a certain level, is not optimistic on the future of democracy. The more of a mess Washington becomes, the more interested the tech world is in creating something else, and it might not look like elected representation. Rank-and-file coders have long been wary of regulation and curious about alternative forms of government [27]. A separatist streak runs through the place: Venture capitalists periodically call for California to secede  [28]or shatter [29], or for the creation of corporate nation-states [30]. . . .

Mr. Harari, thinking about all this, puts it this way: “Utopia and dystopia depends on your values.” . . . . 

. . . . Now, he has written a book about the present and how it could lead to that future: “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” It is meant to be read as a series of warnings. His recent TED Talk was called “Why fascism is so tempting — and how your data could power it. [20]

His prophecies might have made him a Cassandra in Silicon Valley, or at the very least an unwelcome presence. Instead, he has had to reconcile himself to the locals’ strange delight. “If you make people start thinking far more deeply and seriously about these issues,” he told me, sounding weary, “some of the things they will think about might not be what you want them to think about.” . . .

. . . . It made him sad, he told me, to see people build things that destroy their own societies, but he works every day to maintain an academic distance and remind himself that humans are just animals. “Part of it is really coming from seeing humans as apes, that this is how they behave,” he said, adding, “They’re chimpanzees. They’re sapiens. This is what they do.”

He was slouching a little. Socializing exhausts him.

As we boarded the black gull-wing Tesla Mr. Harari had rented for his visit, he brought up Aldous Huxley. Generations have been horrified by his novel “Brave New World,” which depicts a regime of emotion control and painless consumption. Readers who encounter the book today, Mr. Harari said, often think it sounds great. “Everything is so nice, and in that way it is an intellectually disturbing book because you’re really hard-pressed to explain what’s wrong with it,” he said. “And you do get today a vision coming out of some people in Silicon Valley which goes in that direction.” . . . .

7. Adding further perspective to the utterly fantastic nature of the Russia-Gate “psy-op” is analysis of a recent New York Times propaganda piece hyping Russia’s manipulation of Facebook to influence the U.S. election. “. . . . The further research into an earlier Consortium News article [23] shows that a relatively paltry 80,000 posts from the private Russian company Internet Research Agency (IRA) were engulfed in literally trillions of posts on Facebook over a two-year period before and after the 2016 vote. [Just HOW a post generated after the election was supposed to influence the election was not explained by The Gray Lady–D.E.]. . . . The newspaper [The New York Times] failed to tell their readers that Facebook account holders in the United States had been “served” 33 trillion Facebook posts during that same period — 413 million times more than the 80,000 posts from the Russian company. . . .”

“33 Trillion More Reasons Why the New York Times Gets It Wrong on Russia-Gate” by Gareth Porter; Consortium News; 11/2/2918. [22]

. . . . The further research into an earlier Consortium News article [23] shows that a relatively paltry 80,000 posts from the private Russian company Internet Research Agency (IRA) were engulfed in literally trillions of posts on Facebook over a two-year period before and after the 2016 vote. . . . .

. . . . The newspaper [The New York Times] failed to tell their readers that Facebook account holders in the United States had been “served” 33 trillion Facebook posts during that same period — 413 million times more than the 80,000 posts from the Russian company. . . .