Fakebook Democracy

Thank you to my friend, JT, for pointing me at a long, detailed article exposing just how much technology the right-wing threw at winning Brexit. In short, a small coterie of right-wing billionaires applied data-mining and psychological profiling technology to social media data, to identify those undecided and target on the one-hand those disaffected to go out and vote for Brexit, and on the other hand those unaffected to stay at home. And it worked. We will probably never know how many people voted Brexit as a “fuck-you” to the ruling classes and how many because they believed Britain was better off out, but no one voted “Remain” as a fuck you: our billionaires exploited this asymmetry in voting patterns to great effect.

Now, I’m no fan of conspiracy theories, and influencing voters is part and parcel of politics. And anyone reading this can judge the article on its own merits. But let’s just say that, in this case, there’s smoke because there’s fire. Extraordinary advances in technology have made invasive influence possible, and an elite have exploited that. But why? Why would Brexit matter so much to this coterie of billionaires? I guess they’re motivated by more than just money, but what would they gain either financially or ideologically from such an exercise?

In the case of Brexit, nobody really knew, either at the time of the vote or now, what the impact would be.

The economic arguments for and against Brexit were, to say the least, inconclusive. To say a little more, they bordered – on both sides – on incoherence. Remain threatened an instant economic melt-down if Britain left; Leave stated at one point that Britain’s contribution was (something like) £350 million a week which, on the back of an envelope, is £18 billion a year. In an economy of about £1,200 billion, this is 1.5%, which although it’s a huge amount to me (and probably you), is rounding error in the overall scheme of things – and was never substantiated. So, to your average plutocrat, case not proven.

The security arguments were at best xenophobic and at worst racist. The Syrian hordes, we were told, were arriving in their hundreds of thousands; the EU nationals working in the UK were doing so at pittances that no self-respecting “Brit” (I use the quote marks because what they mean by a Brit and what I mean are two different things) would.

Neither of these positions seem very pertinent to a billionaire: the world’s plutocrats worry about borders only in as much as they present opportunities for arbitrage in investments and tax. There may have been a mild ideological inclination to Brexit, but it was at heart a sordid little referendum in an island that is increasingly irrelevant. Why bother?

At first blush, I was tempted to say “because they can” – manipulating the Brexit vote was a kind of alpha-male dick-waving exercise. But, in the course of writing this, I wondered if there was more to it.

And I think there is a plausible explanation: I think the real prize was not Brexit, but the US, and that the Brexit exercise was what IT people call a Beta-test. Our billionaires had some great technology, and wanted to use it to sway the US election, but they weren’t sure it would work. Britain is culturally very close to the US, and the psychological profiling on which the technology hinged based would be more likely to be repeatable between the UK and US than profiling developed for, say, China or Arabia. In addition, votes for Brexit and Trump have deep structural similarities: both were to a large extent framed as votes against the status quo rather than votes for something. (As I’ve said before, I’m still not sure what Trump stands for.)

So the structural similarities between the Brexit and Trump votes, coupled with the need for psychological profiling that would transport across cultures, made Brexit a perfect test ground. Once they’d proven their technology in Brexit, the way was open for Trump.

And boy, did it work. One very telling thing: the activist Linda Tirado withheld her vote for Clinton for the usual reasons – Wall St., corruption, Benghazi. None of these reasons stands up to inspection: everyone in politics (or business – a propos Trump) in US has connections to Wall St., The Clinton Foundation is not corrupt, and numerous Federal and Congressional investigations absolved Clinton of any blame. These memes were put out there by precisely the people Linda didn’t want in power. Yet people like her fell for the right-wing profinling by staying home just as much as those who cast protest votes for Brexit and Trump did by coming out to vote.

It may be said that all parties are free to use this technology. But this kind of invidious and invasive technology is more than influencing people’s rational decisions: it’s a corruption of democracy: making informed choices is a very different thing to be bamboozled into a vote you don’t understand. And if Internet companies regard personal, private data as a resource to be sold to anyone with the money, irrespective of the use to which it will be put, democracy is dead.

So the real challenge is to take that power away from the big Internet companies. That’s for another post, and probably much more techy blog than this, but I believe it can be done – by technology, not by statute.

[Updated: thanks to Andrew, who reminded me that the claim was £350 billion with a “b”, not an “m”]

[Thanks to JT, who sent me a photo of a bus with £350 million a week on it. So I’ve changed that bit, but it doesn’t really affect the overall flow of the argument.]