Yes, it’s a Facebook scandal.
But the complex controversy over political consultancy Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to devise communication strategies for the Trump campaign is about something bigger: Democracy itself, which faces metastasizing challenges, including the use of social media to fragment and fracture societies.
Undercover recordings of over-the-top tactics employed by Cambridge reveal the global scale of the modern mendacity. Company CEO Alexander Nix and Managing Director Mark Turnbull, who believed they were pitching a political operative from Sri Lanka, boasted of their nefarious methods to manipulate elections.
Some, like entrapping candidates with bribes or “Ukrainian girls,” are likely illegal.
All, even the legal tactics, are cynical, and further erode what should be a rational, factual democratic process.
“The two fundamental human drivers, when it comes to taking information on board effectively, are hopes and fears,” Turnbull says on the tape. Hope, however, is muted; fear amplified.
“Many of those are unspoken and even unconscious,” Turnbull continued. “You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you. And our job is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else.”
The well is poisoned by Cambridge Analytica (and likely by political-consultancy competitors) in countries worldwide, including Kenya, whose president, Uhuru Kenyatta, was recently re-elected.
Kenyatta was a client, and the firm ran research, analysis, messaging, speech-writing, staging — “just about every element of his campaign,” Nix claimed, reflecting the intersection of media and foreign policy — this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue — a symbiosis set to increasingly influence international relations.
“Cambridge Analytica helped hijack Kenya’s democracy,” wrote Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo in Wednesday’s Washington Post. “It manipulated voters with apocalyptic attack ads and smeared Kenyatta’s opponent Raila Odinga as violent, corrupt and dangerous. The two rivals might have since reconciled with a famous handshake, but that cannot erase the fact that innocent lives were lost because of a divisive campaign or that tribal rifts were opened with long-lasting effects.”
The lives lost were the result of election-related violence that scarred the country, a tragic fact seemingly lost on Nix, an elite Eton College graduate enriching himself by impoverishing democracy.
Other countries are susceptible, and while the U.S. government and NGOs monitor ballot boxes, inboxes can be determinative, too. This includes Africa, where 20 elections are impending, said Donald Yamamoto, acting assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs.
“If you have outside influences that could affect the election process, and when you have a lot of ethnic tensions, religious divisions, regional problems, then that can exacerbate and create a lot of violence if indeed it was found that there was manipulation of the electoral process,” Yamamoto said in an interview.
Nix’s pitch stressed stealth. “We’re used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows, and I look forward to building a very long-term and secretive relationship with you,” he said.
These shadows are darkening democracy, which is on the defensive worldwide, according to Freedom House’s recently released “Freedom in the World 2018” report that stated: “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets came under attack around the world.”
There are many contributing factors to democracy’s denigration. But no doubt exploiting ostensibly free and fair elections through Cambridge Analytica-style tactics isn’t helping.
Some of these cases “are an example of where we’re headed if we don’t take a hard look at how we want our democratic elections and processes to operate in the future,” said Megan Stifel, a nonresident senior fellow with the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
“We’re in the early stages of this, and look what’s happened,” Stifel said, adding: “We really need to get our hands around it; if we’re not careful, it’s all going to be a sham.”
Most might argue that campaign communication is already a sham, and shameful, both here at home and increasingly abroad, and it risks dragging democracy down along with it.
“What’s so disheartening about that video,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in an interview, “is it becomes clear — and from other evidence we’re seeing now — that they were preying on these developing countries in their elections, and people that would be less likely to be able to track that wouldn’t have the resources to do that, and it’s just incredibly cynical.”
The Minnesota Democrat has been the key congressional leader calling for more accountability and transparency in online political messaging and from Facebook itself.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may wear a hoodie, but he’s all pinstripe suit when it comes to trying to make amends — and end the eroding evaluation and scrutiny the scandal sparked.
He also seemed to acknowledge his role transcends social-media mogul when he told the New York Times that “if you had asked me, when I got started with Facebook, if one of the central things I’d need to work on now is preventing governments from interfering in each other’s elections, there’s no way I thought that’s what I’d be doing if we talked in 2004 in my dorm room.”
Indeed, Zuckerberg’s — and social media’s — dorm-room days are over. He and other tech-company leaders, let alone political consultants, politicians that enable them, and yes, even voters, need to decide if they’ll recognize their responsibilities or whether they’ll allow this era’s interconnectivity to divide societies and endanger democracy itself.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.