J.J. Patrick: Brexit and the undeclared data war driving rightwing campaigns

In the first of a three-part series on Brexit, author J.J. Patrick says takes a look at the campaigning methods and data collection behind the shock events of 2016

THE Brexit vote in the UK came as a surprise to everyone. The pollsters, parliament and even the leaders of the official Leave campaign – who’ve since admitted the NHS funding promise on the side of a campaign bus was nonsense, and repaid charity funds they misappropriately spent on their travels. 

Looking at it from a logical point of view, it couldn’t have won. It transpires the victory was likely down to a targeted, psychological propaganda campaign which harnessed big data and used it unethically - a campaign which is still running now.

I was set onto this when I read the Antidote Magazine article linked below, and further pieces in Das Magazin, Vice, Bloomberg, the Guardian, and many other sources. They helped provide a basic picture of what was going on, but didn't provide the full story when taken alone. 

It transpires the victory was likely down to a targeted, psychological propaganda campaign which harnessed big data and used it unethically - a campaign which is still running now.

I'd recommend reading this piece before beginning to click through links and then follow up with your own research. Critical thought is, after all, part of the answer to this mess.

During Brexit, the activity was run by a company called Strategic Communications Limited (SCL), which says of itself: "By breaking down issues and the electorate in a scientific way we help presidents, prime ministers and candidates better present their policies and communicate with their audience. 

"With a suite of products and services SCL Elections combines data-driven messaging and years of electoral experience to give your campaign the winning edge."

It was paid for by rightwing figure Aaron Banks (who has openly bragged about his spending on "AI") and Farage (under whose leadership Ukip inappropriately spent £400,000 of taxpayers' funds on electioneering), as part of the unofficial Leave campaign. 

They also bought in the services of a rightwing app provider, Ucampaign, which confirmed its involvement simply by saying: "The fact that we also were able to assist in the surprise victory of the Vote Leave coalition was an added bonus. But more than that, the Brexit campaign taught us valuable lessons and gave experience that we then applied to the app we built for Donald Trump for president shortly thereafter."

The same combination of technology is exactly how Trump happened, again confounding common sense, and in the face of a seemingly overwhelming popular vote for Clinton.

The same combination of technology is exactly how Trump happened, again confounding common sense, and in the face of a seemingly overwhelming popular vote for Clinton. The trading name of SCL in the US is Cambridge Analytica, and Steve Bannon (formerly of Breitbart and now White House chief strategist) sat on the board.

Cambridge Analytica (CA) was first engaged after flirting with Ted Cruz as Trump's mainstream media campaign first began to dip and, well, we know what the $15m payments to CA achieved in the end.

When Trump was tweeting about calling him Mr Brexit, this is what he was he was referring to.

The way SCL/CA technology works is based on the widely known 'Ocean' personality assessment used in psychology, with the targeting of individuals enhanced with big data so it can predict your behaviours based on social media likes, where you live, what car you buy. 

In short, the profiling by this method knows you better than you know yourself, and it can be created using your Facebook data alone. The work was originally down to a chap called Michael Kosinsky, and I’d recommend a read of this piece from Antidote Magazine, first published in Germany. 

The Ucampaign app kicked in three weeks before the vote in the UK and was downloaded by thousands of canvassers, which meant working voters could be individually profiled before the door was knocked. 

SCL and CA use the profiling to target subtly amended propaganda, down to the level of individuals.

Just over a month before the US elections in 2016, at an economic forum hosted in New York, delegates from world governments welcomed Alexander Nix, chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica. 

Nix showed the congress how psychographically pegged voters could be tweaked using the simple example of the 2nd Amendment (gun rights): "For a highly neurotic and conscientious audience the threat of a burglary - and the insurance policy of a gun." (An image showed the hand of an intruder smashing a window.)

"Conversely, for a closed and agreeable audience. People who care about tradition, and habits, and family." (The second image was a man and a child standing in a field at sunset, both holding guns, shooting ducks.) 

This is where such simplicity as the crazy sounding "take a pen" nonsense across Britiain came from before the Brexit polling stations opened.

Trump’s campaign team only rang at the doors of houses the app rated as receptive and canvassers came prepared with guidelines for conversations tailored to the personality type of the resident.

Using live information from the Cruz campaign, Nix filtered data to show they could target one single undecided voter in an area. He was clear on this, saying: "We can address villages or apartment blocks in a targeted way. Even individuals."

The Ucampaign app kicked in three weeks before the vote in the UK and was downloaded by thousands of canvassers, which meant working voters could be individually profiled before the door was knocked. 

Trump’s campaign team only rang at the doors of houses the app rated as receptive and canvassers came prepared with guidelines for conversations tailored to the personality type of the resident. In turn, the canvassers fed the reactions into the app, and the new data fed the next round. 

For example, the decision to focus on Michigan and Wisconsin in the final weeks was made on the basis of this data analysis. It was the same in the UK.

The secondary danger of the app is that it grants access to canvassers' telephone contacts and address books, sharing that data with the central database, allowing further profiling, and also sending out emails and texts with a 'warm' introduction to friends and family.

This is why it has become key to the rightwing groups deploying these tactics to avoid the mainsteam media; and why 'alternative facts' and shouts of 'FAKE NEWS!' are crucial.

(Only as innocuous as "I’m voting Brexit", but powerful by default and no consent having been obtained first removes the statutory brake applied to prevent this kind of insidious mass marketing.) The ICO has fined Leave.EU for deploying this practice, though Banks denies wrongdoing.

This is why it has become key to the rightwing groups deploying these tactics to avoid the mainsteam media; and why 'alternative facts' and shouts of 'FAKE NEWS!' are crucial. They need to be able to tweak the truth to impact individual targets as effectively as possible and can also inhibit behaviour through negative propaganda, to discourage voters from coming out against them – effectively damping other candidates. 

In Little Haiti, Miami, Trump’s campaign dished out news about the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti, to "suppress" their vote. Campaigners openly told Bloomberg this.

They also sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines which were only seen by specific users - for example, videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators.

The deployment of these tactics amounts, in short, to psychological warfare and they are now deploying this method in France and Germany. (While Facebook and Google have entered the fray, spotting fake news, they are missing the point, and the media keeps focusing on Russia and Wikileaks – which is part of the problem, but not the correct part of it). 

They need to be able to tweak the truth to impact individual targets as effectively as possible and can also inhibit behaviour through negative propaganda, to discourage voters from coming out against them – effectively damping other candidates. 

Ukip will be doing the same in the Stoke and Copeland elections (Banks has promised as much), and Scotland will feel the burn now a second (and utterly necessary) independence referendum is on the cards.

The people behind this have one clear outcome in mind: the destabilisation of the EU for the sole purposes of war. And, one day, they will be held to account. But, if countries such as Scotland don’t take their stands now and shout it from the rooftops, then everything is undone. Irrevocably.

This is all of our business, and it’s a fight we cannot back down from. And I want you to know this: I might be English, and the union itself might be dead at the hand of parliament, but the good folk among us must band together and I’m standing with Scotland. 

I hope it can see fit to join me on the battlefield in this alternative war, because it’s leading us all to madness and shaping a very narrow set of options to end it.

Picture courtesy of luckey_sun

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Comments

keyser

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 12:27

EXCELLENT PIECE JJ . Looking forward to the other parts

chrisdanes

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 15:17

'The people behind this have one clear outcome in mind: the destabilisation of the EU for the sole purposes of war'

Care to expand? lol.

J_amesp

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 15:55

Much appreciated. I know you've been following this on Twitter, so thank you.

J_amesp

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 15:56

I'd love to. I have in fact. For days and days. On Twitter. You should pop over.

Dontsign

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 17:10

And of course, the SNPs data-law breaching survey in attempt to get exactly this information by targeting specific voters with a rating scale from 1 to 10 on various issues is completely innocent, and would never be kept secret byt the party and then used to target direct propaganda.

Arthur Blue's picture

Arthur Blue

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 18:22

Not entirely convinced that this was the main reason for the Brexit vote, though it will have contributed to it. Nor is tailoring of propaganda particularly new … Goebbels was good at it.
People say things to pollsters and canvassers which often fail to correspond with the results of the eventual vote. At the ballot box impulse and the immediate effect on their pockets often take precedence over any ideological solidarity. Unscrupulous populists know this and use it effectively, with or without the help of modern data-handling.

J_amesp

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 22:42

Interesting you raise this. Better Together were dealt with by the ICO for several hundred thousand inappropriate messages.

J_amesp

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 22:43

While I agree the basic practice is age old, this is a new application and without the door level access, these campaigns would only ever achieve a limited impact in the modern world. Which is why, in fact, they are used in conjunction with other lines.

Guy Lab

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 09:34

Dear JJ,
I am an European citizen very much concerned about what you are exposing in this paper, because I happen to be French and I don't want my country and our continent fall into the hands of these nihilists. Do you have some data about how the French far right is using Big Data ? I don't happen to find anything in French about this...It's time now to alert the opinion and the big medias about this. Thanks !

J_amesp

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 09:52

Hi,
Rest assured Le Pen is using the tactic. I'm not sure what the reporting has been like on this topic in France, but if it's as bad as I suspect, please start directing to people to this article and the links. Awareness as fast as possible is your best chance. I have seen Mention of Russian interference but there always seems to be an inexplicable disconnect between this and psychographics in the MSM. I hope France survives.

Guy Lab

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 10:36

Hello, thanks for the answer. In fact I'm very much troubled by the regular increase of LePen supports and their strong certitude of their vote, which was not the case before and is not for other candidates, that's why I suspect the use of a powerful mind manipulation tool like Big Data. But as I said I read few articles in France about it. And I also suspect the Macron candidate to use this because he had a very quick rise, though he doesn't correspond the French average sociology, as is the case for LePen which gains only 25% of good opinions in popularity polls, when the others candidates are far above. This discrepancy between popularity and vote intentions is very much troubling...I'm trying my best to alert people and media in France, but I'm feeling a bit lonely on this. There was lately this article nevertheless:
https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/la-vie-numerique/trump-est-plus-i...

Thanks for your support. All the best for our future. Humanists everywhere have to take and maintain contact. This is our only hope. The fellowship of the ring ;-)

J_amesp

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 17:26

You just always maintain hope. Always.

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