Do Democratic Operatives Dream of Big Data Death Stars? 
The Case Against Cambridge Analytica As a Propaganda Tool

By Marina Bart (formerly aab)  a writer and former public relations consultant, who thinks and writes about many things, including political economy, culture and communication

It has long been the case that “Big Data” has been treated as a magical, unstoppable force that will reap power and profits for those who can channel it effectively. In the 2016 Presidential election, the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee relied heavily on Ada (named after Lord Byron’s mathematician daughter, a perfect identitarian for Clintonian Democrats, combining as she does into one symbolic person aristocratic status, the creative class, feminism and computing). Ada was the Democrats’ attempt at a Big Data Election-Winning Machine, apparently created for it in secret in a dark cave at the top of a mountain by Eric Schmidt and unknown coding slaves who were probably killed as soon as Eric carried his prize down the mountain to Hillary’s waiting arms.

That last part is made up.

But the Democrats did have Ada, which only top aides were allowed to use or even see. Very little is known about Ada, because (spoiler alert) Clinton lost and the brain trust leading the party (if you can call it that) didn’t want anyone to focus on their incompetence and wasteful spending because RUSSIA. Ada said Wisconsin was a safe state. Ada said paying Jay Z to perform would win Ohio. Ada failed, along with Clinton.

Yet now there are rumblings that there is a REAL Death Star, a Big Data system perfect in its design, malevolent in its intent, and all-powerful in its capacity to segment and manipulate every human being on Earth. (No, not the NSA – how silly of you to worry about an arm of the government!) It’s Cambridge Analytica, of which Robert Mercer, right wing hedge fund billionaire, is a major investor. That Robert Mercer, who backed Donald Trump, the crazy-haired real estate hair and game show host who won the 2016 Presidential election.

The thinking is, now that Trump has access to all that otherwise completely benign NSA data, he and Mercer can conspire to feed all of America into the gaping maw of this algorithmic monster, and manipulate otherwise good-thinking Americans into…I’m not sure, exactly. Trump already won the Presidency. The Republican Party – the party notably less aligned with Silicon Valley, although that is rapidly changing because Silicon Valley boys know to go where the money is – is already so dominant, it controls not only every branch of the Federal Government,1 but such a large percentage of the states it only needs one or two more to call a Constitutional Convention. It did all of this without an Election-Winning Death Star.

This suggests a number of questions:

  • How much should we fear Big Data?
  • How much should we fear Cambridge Analytica?
  • Are we on the verge having of a new, uniquely powerful propaganda tool?
  • And the secret question, the one unsaid in most of these pieces: Can the Democrats get their hands on it to win back power?

The short answers are:

  • A lot
  • No more or less than every other Big Data operation
  • No
  • No

All this extensive data gathering and mining of people without their full knowledge and consent is bad. It’s bad when the NSA does it. It’s bad when Facebook does it. It’s bad when Cambridge Analytica does it. There is the potential for tremendous harm. There is also the potential (which is, to some degree, already occurring) for massive manipulation of people’s emotions in new ways. Targeted segmentation and messaging works for many purposes. Here’s a primer.

However, there are numerous potholes, landmines and rabid creatures lining the path to Big Data Death Star effectiveness. The first is the simplest: good, old-fashioned human error. GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out.) That was demonstrably a problem with Ada. Reports emerged after the election that grassroots organizers and local politicians were aware of and gathering information that there were serious problems in some of the crucial states that Clinton eventually lost. But their carefully recorded data and desperate phone calls were ignored, rather than be included in what Ada considered in her 400,000 simulations a day. Ada’s “advice” was filtered by what her masters allowed her to know. We have no way to assess if Ada really failed, or if she was just misused by Robby Mook and the rest of the campaign’s leadership.  (Also, as a reminder, this was not Putin’s fault.)

Then there’s the other big, known problem with Big Data: it’s too big. The underlying assumption of the Big Data Death Star Election-winning machine is that you have all the necessary data on every voter, which you then slice into incredibly thin segments, test different messaging in all these different segments, watch for outcomes and responses indicating that messaging works, then hammer each very specific message to each very different segment to obtain your desired result. (Are you a native-born, Spanish-speaking Mormon man who watches Jane the Virgin, owns a gun, secretly identifies as queer, has a degree in business administration, and plays paintball? There’s a segment for that!)

But that assumes (rather like a can opener), that you have a way to sort and keep track of all that data, and also have accurate algorithms to evaluate that data at a very granular level, and also have enough skilled experts who can understand all these different segments well enough to craft messages that will drive all these different segments composed of living, breathing humans to do what you want them to do – in this case, win a national election.

Yet Facebook, a behemoth designed to lure people into an addictively faux-intimate walled garden where their affinities can be identified, captured and controlled, along with all their purchasing information, daily activities, current thinking and mood, can’t even get its advertising and traffic metrics right. This is Facebook’s bread-and-butter: knowing its users well enough to push targeted advertising and content to them, in the hope this will be more effective than big, dumb (expensive, ignored) TV advertising. If it can’t even do something this basic and fundamental to its economic model correctly, does it seem likely they can actually find all those queer, Latinx, Mormon paintball players and understand them well enough to make going to the trouble and expense of doing the segmenting and message crafting worthwhile?

If Facebook2 can’t do it yet, when it has its users under a constant microscope, poking and prodding and dribbling out sugar syrup to watch them scurry, why would Cambridge Analytica, with its much less intimate and direct connection to user data, be more successful, even if given access to all the NSA data? We already know the NSA itself is struggling to manage its data hoard.

When Yves and I started talking about this, she mentioned the successful direct mail campaigns that Karl Rove made his bones on, which were purported to be highly segmented. Her thought was that if you can combine that with captured consumers who won’t throw out the mailer, and the ability to do brute force, constant, cheap a/b testing of messages, you don’t actually need to have clever people doing the messaging. Rather like monkeys typing Shakespeare, perhaps you could message test until you stumble across what works, then flood social media with it to get the results you want.

Remember, however, that Ada was running 400,000 simulations a day. Doing live a/b testing isn’t going to be any more effective if you don’t have processes in place to protect against bias and human error at every step of the gathering, evaluating, creating, dissemination, and assessment process. You also need the right tools to sort and evaluate the data, assess which pieces to prioritize for your specific purpose, and measure the effectiveness of your messages. There is nothing useful about testing numerous messages if you have no way to know which, if any, is working. There is no evidence at all that any of this exists yet. Manipulating someone’s mood is much easier than getting them to go to the polls, which delivers no immediate gratification and is often unpleasant. The bigger the data set, the more these problems compound.

With sales, this is not a problem. You want your targets to buy a product. If they buy the product, you know the message worked. You don’t need to develop a complicated system to evaluate message effectiveness. If you don’t need to successfully persuade the majority of your targets, having a high messaging failure rate doesn’t matter. The reason scam emails persist is that they’re so cheap to distribute, it doesn’t matter if you have a 99.9999999% failure rate. You only need a handful of suckers out of millions to make the scam profitable for the scam operator.

But the fearmongering around Cambridge Analytica is about the potential to manipulate large numbers of people into all believing the same false, emotionally inflammatory thing, so they will all move in the same direction. That is what propaganda is for: getting large numbers of people to do something that is not in either their communal or individual interests. If you don’t need that outcome, you don’t have to use such an ugly tool.

There is no question that modern social media facilitates highly segmented marketing. There is no question that political campaigns can benefit from this. Figuring out who might be receptive to your candidate and their policies, where they vote, and motivating them to go to the polls is fundamental campaign work. But that is not at all the same thing as manipulating people into voting against their interests, which is presumably what is feared (and possibly secretly hoped for) by the fretful Democrats. There is no evidence Cambridge Analytica did any psychological manipulations for Trump.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for Big Data highly segmented psychological manipulation to ever work. But it isn’t happening now; there’s no evidence it will work in the near future; there are many, many obstacles to overcome; and there are two very basic reasons why it cannot be the secret weapon I suspect the Democrats long for.

The most basic one is that voting is not the same as buying stuff. There is no direct connection between casting a vote and getting anything in return, not even the momentary pleasure of buying a candy bar. The Democrats seem to be fixated on the idea that they just need to find 100,000 more votes in the correct states to begin winning. That overlooks the problem that to govern, they can’t just win the presidency. They need to win back the Congress, governorships, and state legislatures. The insiders may not care if they regain power, as their own lives will be comfortable and well-compensated regardless. They are clearly hoping that two years of Trump (if they can’t remove him from power)  will drive enough voters back to their cold, exploitative, all-talk-no-action embrace to at least show the results necessary to their owners to get the money to attempt to retake the White House in 2020.

But the “we suck less, vote for us” strategy hasn’t been working so far. Driving weakly motivated, weakly aligned voters to the polls is hard. Yet that is what the Democrats appear to be counting on: finding more people who wouldn’t vote for them this year while being told Trump was Hitler about to bring on Armageddon to come out for them in 2018 for nameless Congresscritters and Senators who have done nothing for them, and then have them march to the polls in 2020 for someone like Cory Booker, with his long history of praising and working with Betsy DeVos – all without offering any of the policies the voters need and have been clamoring for. They seem to think more fear, coupled with some Bill Clinton style small ball policies targeted like a laser at correctly identified segments will do the trick – with a population where half are already impoverished.

I mean, it could work. It’s possible.

But generally speaking, the point of targeted marketing is to identify people who want what you have to offer them. If they don’t want what you’re selling, it doesn’t actually help that much. The Democrats apparently intend to not do that.

The other big reason is that most people talking about this are confusing marketing with public relations, and treating all public relations as if it is propaganda, which is simply wrong. Not morally wrong. Factually wrong. These are different disciplines, with different goals. Those differing goals hinge in part on human psychology, and how that impacts the process of persuasion under different conditions, in different circumstances. For example: a direct sale is a process of intimate manipulation and control. You use tactics to get your target to start agreeing with you – it doesn’t matter about what. Once they start agreeing with you, you use a combination of their growing emotional attachment and deference to you, and the information you are extracting from them, to dominate them while appealing to their self-interest and emotions to close the sale. One of the greatest strengths of phone sales back in the day was that the first hurdle was just keeping your targets on the phone. If they were so lonely, compliant or polite that they wouldn’t hang up, you were halfway home.

But public relations is not about that degree of control.  It focuses on persuasion.  Persuasion is softer.  You use different psychological tactics, as well as strategies and channels, because you do not have the same degree of intimacy or control. Much of the public relations industry doesn’t actually do effective public relations, because clients don’t know what to look for or what benchmarks matter. So it’s easy for agencies to point at meaningless “media hits” or parties hosted, and two or three obscenely expensive contract years later, the client moves on, never having achieved their desired goals.

Propaganda, while technically a public relations discipline, is a different beast still. Propaganda, at its core, is about stampeding the herd – using intensely emotive messaging, usually fear or hatred based, to manipulate masses of people. While some argue that propaganda isn’t necessarily negative or deceitful, I think the common usage is most relevant to this discussion. Propaganda tends to be dishonest because, as mentioned earlier, the intent is to drive people to do something that is against their interest generally and individually. That is why you use the tool of propaganda to achieve your end.  If you didn’t need people to act irrationally against their interest, you wouldn’t resort to propaganda.

Which brings us to one more key reason why the Big Data Death Star is not on the near-term horizon and may never be used: the psychological manipulation underlying propaganda is diametrically opposed to the psychological manipulation underlying targeted marketing. Propaganda works best when fear and/or hatred is employed to not just drive individuals to action, but to drive them together, and then, once together, all marching forward together.

Propaganda tells you the Germans want to eat your children, that the enemy is subhuman, that Muslims hate us for our freedoms, that the Communists are evildoers coming to kill us in our beds. Propaganda systematically dehumanizes people the propagandist wants you to give up your life to kill for him, and falsely proclaims the enemy both lesser than you and greater than you – less worthy of life, yet inhumanly dangerous, whether they’re smarter, crueler, richer, less moral – whatever it is, you can be sure it presents an existential threat to those being propagandized. Once they believe this, getting them to work together to do what the propagandist wants is the easy part.

Despite what the conservatives and neoliberals claim, humans did not evolve because of their competitive nature. They evolved because of their cooperative nature. And the best way to get them to cooperate with one another is out of fear or hatred of an existential threat.

Therefore, propaganda is most effective when everyone being propagandized is getting the same message, and believes the same thing. If you disseminate different messages to different segments to motivate them, you run into the problem of disagreement once you have herded them up. You can’t have infighting over who the enemy is or what their goals are; that breaks up the artificially created sense of unity that is absolutely necessary if you want your population to go die in great numbers so you can get your hands on a couple of oil fields.

So if it is unuseful to distribute different messages to different thin segments via social media, a major rationale for the Big Data Death Star just goes away. Which brings us to the real propaganda machine, being used right now, very effectively, by the Democrats.

If targeted, differentiated, segmented messaging is ineffective as a propaganda tool, what might work? What has historically worked? If you want ONE consistent message to reach great numbers of people, you want to control the main ways people receive information, particularly pre-existing, trusted sources. And our current corporate media landscape is perfect for this task. It is highly concentrated; just six corporations control at least 90% of the media outlets in the entire country3. Or you could say our media is controlled by fifteen people, all of them billionaires with shared class interests. Who needs the Creel Committee when a Hamptons dinner party will do the job?

Once you have proper control of the channels, you just need a simple, terrifying message that can be pumped out non-stop by thousands of people, until the victims of this process accept and parrot it themselves, acting as messaging agents for their manipulators, reinforcing the notion that it must be true because “everybody” thinks it. And the best possible simple, terrifying message would be an evergreen: one that has worked before, that millions of people already think was true once, and are therefore primed to think is true again. That will give you a nice jump start on acceptance and voluntary dissemination in our distracted world.

Enter Vladimir Putin, leader of Russia, former KGB agent and supposed slayer of Clintons.

The propaganda surrounding “Russia stole the election and installed Trump as a puppet” is astoundingly fierce, even as it is empty of proof. Naked Capitalism has already covered this extensively, so I will just  summarize: even the NSA wouldn’t say so, there’s no evidence of it, and there is literally no physical way they could have. Part of the current propaganda push is to pretend that Russia had a hand in releasing the DNC and Podesta emails, none of which have been disproved, and many have been validated. But a) there is still no solid proof Russia was involved in leaking the emails and b) even if they did, they are real communications that prove real actions and beliefs on the part of Hillary Clinton, her campaign, the DNC, and Democratic insiders generally, that voters recoiled from. Voters rejected Hillary Clinton for who she was, what she, her husband, Barack Obama and the rest of Democratic leadership had done, and what it was proposing to do. It wasn’t Russia.

And yet, despite the complete lack of facts, polling shows a rising number of Americans are worried about Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia. That is good, sound propaganda best practices in action. Facebook is useful, but only for its capture of attention, capacity to block out conflicting information, and tendency to reinforce group think (which is by design, because that delivers more users, more often, voluntarily offering up their data by being lulled into a false sense of community).  There is no targeted messaging going on; no clever, secretive use of magic dashboards is necessary. All you need is everybody at the New York Times, and NBC, and Newsweek, and CNN, and Facebook all singing from the same hymnal, loudly and clearly; something familiar, something frightening, something to drive you to seek out your fellows to stop evildoers from eating your children and killing you in your bed.

We’ve got ourselves a good, old fashioned Red Scare. It’s a fine vintage, cellar-aged yet full strength. That is how propaganda works. You don’t need complex technology or massive data collection to achieve it. Why go to a lot of expense and energy to develop a system to destroy something with millions of hand grenades, if you already have an available and easy to launch bomb that will do the job? That is why it doesn’t matter whether Cambridge Analytica is in the hands of the Democrats or the Republicans. The Democrats actually have the upper hand right now in terms of propaganda delivery,4 because they’re the party of “communication,” these concentrated companies tend to be on the Democratically-controlled coasts, and media billionaires are mad at Trump for blocking TPP and other such neoliberal rent extraction schemes they so richly enjoy.

And yet, the Democrats’ dilemma remains. They may or may not be able to work with the CIA and the neoliberal faction of the Republican party to ramp up a war with Russia and tame Trump into irrelevance. They may even get him impeached. But since they are working with the neoliberal Republicans to go after Trump, removing Trump doesn’t do much for them electorally. They aren’t using this Red Scare to demonize the entire Republican Party, just Trump. (They seem to be intentionally rehabilitating George W. Bush, which is astounding.)

The Democrats’ brand identity is not military security. Their brand identity is economic security. If they succeed in terrifying Americans en masse, they are very unlikely to see those terrified Americans turn to them in the next election over this. Because while propaganda plays a role in elections, people still are unlikely to go to the polls to stop something they don’t like. If you want people to vote for you, you have to give them something to vote for. That was the genius of the Obama 2008 campaign. People thought they were voting for change – not just change from the Republicans, but change from the Clintons, change from the status quo. That trick is unlikely to work twice, whatever the Democrats may think.

People still want change. That is why Trump won. But the Democratic Party seems determined to make sure every single voter in the country knows they don’t want change. There is no Big Data Death Star that can help them with that problem.

Note: This is intended as the first in a series of pieces addressing persuasion practices and their relationship to political and economic issues, including the often poorly understood yet important differences between public relations and propaganda. Feel free to let me know in the comments section what aspects of that you would like to learn about in greater detail

1Yes, the Supreme Court is technically tied. For now.

2Even more algorithm problems at Facebook:

3This piece is a few years old. While the data is fundamentally accurate, Comcast has replaced GE as a major media owner.

4It’s interesting that people allied with the Democrats are so worried about a propaganda machine that doesn’t exist, instead of the real one they themselves are currently using. I wonder why.

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  1. kimyo

    if one wanted to block sanders from winning nyc, one would need a list of likely sanders voters in order to purge them from the rolls.

    where would one go for such a list? google.

    (posting a wayback link because the original article no longer loads)
    Second Brooklyn Election Official Suspended After Primary Foul Up

    The Brooklyn Board of Elections office has been under scrutiny since reports surfaced of widespread irregularities at the polls during New York’s presidential primaries. WNYC reported that 126,000 voters were dropped from the registration rolls in the months leading up to the vote, according to data supplied by the Board. On Thursday, Ryan updated that figure to be 123,000 Brooklyn voters.

    1. BeliTsari

      Bravo… thank YOU! Remember when we were all giggling at the hundreds-of-millions the corporatacracy was throwing at Romney? How Rove, Ailes & K Street were making a fortune on the futility of putting on a show in 2012? I think some people noticed? If you had TWO impossibly bad candidates, scared the right demographic badly enough, make them an offer they couldn’t refuse; there’d be lots of money pouring in, from Bayer/ Monsanto, Exxon Mobil… and the pearl-clutching slumlord super-delegate Illuminati. More than enough to go around, if you could find a bad enough product, to justify the outrageous expenditure in CTR’s internet trolls?

    2. Altandmain

      There is a precedent for this. The GOP has been using dirty tactics to suppress the vote on low income and African American voters for many years now.

      The Democrats are just as bad.

      1. Marina Bart

        It seems to me both parties suppress undesirable voters from their POV. The difference is, the Republicans suppress people that may vote for their opponent in the general election, while the Democrats suppress key segments of their own base from voting the primaries.

        Given their differing goals, they use different tactics. Putting the southern states first in the Democratic primary schedule — even after the many, many election cycles that have proved that this will NOT result in a candidate that can win in those states — means this is ONLY a suppression tactic: not of voters in those states, but voters in other states. The tactic exists to suppress the ability of a leftist candidate to get the exposure, funding and support needed to reach and turn out voters in the later states that Democrats are more likely to win in the general election.

        It’s not as obvious as the Brooklyn purge or restrictive voter ID laws, but it still robs voters of the ability to vote for a candidate that reflects their views and desires. Isn’t that voter suppression?

  2. vlade

    “If you didn’t need people to act irrationally against their interest, you wouldn’t resort to propaganda.”

    While I agree with most of the above, that part you don’t need propaganda for. People act irrationally against their own interests all the time. Only economists assume homo economicus (aka homo can opener).

    1. Marina Bart

      You misunderstand my point. I will try to do better and address this in greater detail (and yet less length!) in the next piece.

      Humans are driven more by emotion than by rationality. Individual humans are irrational in individual ways. Groups of human can also act irrationally all in the same way without intentional, directive outside force acting on them.

      The intent of propaganda is to get people to act irrationally for them, but not for those manipulating them. You need to rile them up in such a way that all of them don’t simply run around screaming incoherently. You need them to believe the same thing so that they will all DO the same thing, that’s bad for them but good for you. That is not that easy to accomplish. Remember what we’re talking about here: getting millions of people voluntarily die over something that doesn’t not matter to them, (WWI, Iraq WarII), or do something unpleasant (voting) to put in power their oppressor who is demonstrably working to steal from, starve and kill them.

      This last election showed yet again that the masses aren’t quite dumb and distracted enough to do that latter thing; that’s why so many people stayed home.

  3. craazyman

    This isn’t a Post it’s a Big Disquisition! It’s a yuuuuge hefty trash bag full of words thrown like an undulating sack of wet leaves flattening the reader upon impact into semi-consciousness. And this is only the first part of a series? No.

    Where’s the editor? Cut it down. Tighten in up. Focus it. Pare it. Prune it. Energize it. Make it hit like a fist. This is writing, not speed typing!

    Ada Byron voted for Trump by the way. That should be common knowledge but nobody knows anything anymore or can even think for themselves by themselves directly from observing reality and nature — using their so-called liberal arts education as a foundation. forget it if they studied engineering or computer science, if they can think at all in that case it’s only a random outcome of some force of life in the universe. All people do now is read the internet and believe it.

    Was Ada Byron’;s dad a wacko or what?: reaqlly

    1. Carolinian

      I agree. Lots of broad assertions and not enough meat. For example.

      Despite what the conservatives and neoliberals claim, humans did not evolve because of their competitive nature. They evolved because of their cooperative nature. And the best way to get them to cooperate with one another is out of fear or hatred of an existential threat.

      But isn’t “fear…of an existential threat” just another way of saying competition? And clearly competition is baked in as it is with all our fellow animals. The way forward is probably not to try to change human nature but to acknowledge and better understand it.

      Personally I’d say any attempt to persuade rather than merely inform constitutes “propaganda,” That goes for TV commercials and dodgy news stories as well as wartime atrocity reports.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think labelling all ‘persuasion’ as ‘propoganda’ devalues the word propoganda. I think to be clear of what we are talking about we need to be precise in our definitions, and if you widen out your definitions too much, any discussion becomes flabby. I like Marina’s definition here because it distinguishes it clearly from the other forms of persuasion and manipulation, and is probably more in line with what most people have in their minds when they hear the word.

        1. Carolinian

          Here’s the Encarta dictionary definition

          prop·a·gan·da [pròppə gándə]
          1. publicity to promote something: information put out by an organization or government to promote a policy, idea, or cause
          2. misleading publicity: deceptive or distorted information that is systematically spread

          So obviously it can take on a range of meanings. I did say “personally.”

          1. Harold

            Propaganda is a Latin word meaning “That which ought to be propagated” , namely “the Faith”. In Rome there is still a “Via della Propaganda”. So it originally meant “evangelizing” or proselytizing. Only in the 20th c. has it taken on its present, and now perfectly valid meaning of systematic deception. It all goes back to Socrates/Plato and the insistence that rhetoric (persuasion — in Athens primarily in a court of law to settle disputes) ought to only be used in a good cause — the question is also what constitutes a good cause.

          2. Marina Bart

            That definition makes the word unuseful for discussions like this, and it’s misleading. As Yves pointed out elsewhere in the thread, Bernays tried to redeem/redefine the word “propaganda” to mean “public relations,” but that usage disables a cogent discussion of real propaganda, while slurring all of PR as evil. (“Public relations” does not, for example, mean only “corporate relations.” Same sex marriage advocates used public relations, as did the civil rights movement. Using public channels to persuade groups of people to your position is not an inherently evil or immoral act. Like any other tool, it is morally neutral. You can use a knife to prepare a vegan meal OR murder your neighbor. The knife itself isn’t immoral.)

            It’s akin to Hillary Clinton and her ilk calling themselves “progressives.” Now we have servants of corporate and monopolistic control calling themselves progressive, rendering the word functionally meaningless.

            I’ll try to address the confusion around cooperation, threat and competition in the next piece. But just as a first point, our culture does not treat “competition” as an existential threat, but as a motivator that enriches the culture that facilitates it. Again, to assert that competition = threat makes the word unusably vague. That’s not even how the word is used commonly, so you actually stretching it here in your own argument; it’s not a pre-existing cultural warping of the term.

            An actual goal of really good propaganda is to make people think they can’t compete against this terrible, evil threat, because it’s nefarious in some magical way.

        2. Alejandro

          The ancient Greek philosophers referred to rhetoric, as the language of ‘persuasion’. Wherein ‘logos’ was reason, as “the controlling principle of the universe”, but also referred to as words. The sophists proved that “noble intent” was not a given, and through adroit appeals to emotions, could manipulate perceptions in the realm of the ‘pathos’.

          Once upon a time it was expounded on me that PR/Marketing/Advertising/Propaganda “industrial” complex is predicated on sowing fear and greed, and managing (some say manipulating) perceptions…recall a presentation where the presenter explained that “we” are born with the fear of falling and the fear of noises, and that all other fears are learned(taught)…and that greed is an irrational abreaction to perceived (sowed?) scarcity.

          1. Marina Bart

            That’s a really sloppy description of persuasion practices. Did you actually read the piece? There’s a whole section explaining why that belief is incorrect.

            It is definitely true that one can use negative emotions to persuade. One can also use positive emotions to persuade. Physical pleasure is probably more powerful than physical pain to elicit changes in behavior, for example.

            I’ve been thinking about how there’s a continuum starting from logical argument relatively devoid of emotion to propaganda focused almost exclusively on emotion and relatively devoid of facts. Depending on your goals and circumstances, you’ll use persuasion tools along that spectrum.

            But even logical argument’s impact has an emotional component. If you want to make people tense or feel negative emotions, you can use words with a lot of hard consonants in a written argument, for example. You can rev people up for war by creating martial rhythms in the language, even as you’re arguing factually for a military response. Or, if you’re trying to persuade someone of something for which you have a sound logical argument, but their psychological biases create a barrier, you can use various means to give them pleasure in the act of reading your argument, to perhaps slip past the barriers.

            And that’s just words. That’s not getting into the impact of images: colors, font, style on a web site. Fabric, ornament and tailoring on clothing.

            We are animals, who evolved because we cooperated, because we learned to tell each other stories, paint pictures, and move and clap as one. We are creatures of emotion more than we are of logic. And often, people who pride themselves on their intelligence are the most prey to their emotions, precisely because they believe themselves immune.

            1. Alejandro

              Thanks for your honest feedback. I read and re-read your excellent post, and not sure which belief you’re referring to. I was responding to the meaning of ‘persuasion’, which the ancient Greeks understood rhetoric as the language of persuasion. They further identified the components of rhetoric as ethos, logos and pathos and recognized them as inseparable. Where ethos referred to the character and credibility of the speaker, logos referred to the reasoning and use of words of the speaker, and pathos referred to the emotional reaction or response of the audience. They certainly seemed to understand that emotions and reasoning were inseparable. The intent of persuading can be nefarious or noble, depending on the context, and context always matters.

              Merriam-Webster defines ‘propaganda’ as ; 2: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person 3: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also a public action having such an effect. The etymology states “Congregation for propagating the faith”, and “propagating” implies sowing, seeding, reproduction etc…also in the context of ‘persuasion’, 1718 implies that the practice is much more recent than the ancients.

              Again, thanks for your feedback, and I look forward to reading your forthcoming posts.

              1. Marina Bart

                I was countering this point in your comment:

                Once upon a time it was expounded on me that PR/Marketing/Advertising/Propaganda “industrial” complex is predicated on sowing fear and greed, and managing (some say manipulating) perceptions

                That’s what is sloppy. Not your argument, but that person’s claim. It’s far too simplistic and reductive. As I mentioned in the piece, there are a lot of people being paid to do PR who don’t do it well, and don’t understand it on a basic level. This sounds like one of those “practitioners.”

                I really liked your bringing up logos/rhetoric/pathos. I disagree with that framework, but it’s a great way to start grappling with the relationships between fact/argument/emotion/persuasion. My objection is that I think they believed there’s some noble use of words that involves no emotion, and that emotion definitionally taints the argument, and I believe that’s incorrect.

                Sorry if I was overly snippy and unclear in my first response. I was really exhausted by the time I was able to get over here last night.

      2. Kim Kaufman

        Imo, what Ms. Bart is talking about is an us v them dynamic of Dems against Republicans/Trump and how “big data” is used to that end. My experience is that cooperation of a group is much easier to motivate when there’s a clear “them” to unify against. Groups tend to fall apart after the “enemy” is beaten, i.e., the Vietnam war/the anti-war movement, electing Obama or Bill Clinton (Dems go to sleep or bicker amongst themselves).

    2. Spring Texan

      Yes, this could have been a good piece, with editing. Lots good in it. But way too long and not well organized.

      1. craazyman

        It could be really good! but sometimes less is more.

        I didn’t realize a peanut gallery person wrote this. In that case, it’s pretty awesome. It just needs a tidy pruning, like a garden. Just clip a few branches, pull a few weeds, and it’s like the most beautiful garden evah.

        I can’t believe anybody falls for the Big Data scam. There are deep thoughts in this area but they frankly take some time to write down carefully. In the meantime, you just need to get rich quick so you can lay around and ignore it all.

    3. PhilM

      Everyone is a critic, and it would be a funny old world if we were all the same; but I also agree that this could be tighter, as the pot said to the kettle.

      It has a winning conversational style, which is effective in small quantities. In an article of this length, there is just too much playful imagery to hold the attention of the modern reader, or for that matter, of a dinosaur like me. Still, it reminds me how nice it was to be young and to play with words just for the fun of it.

      To me the major non-stylistic “area for improvement” lies in the dual attempt at both persuasion and exposition. Presented at length, as it is, such blending diminishes both the credibility of the exposition and the cogency of the persuasion. I would make it expository, because there are enough facts there to do that. Then the persuasion can be masked in subtle bias.

      The good news is, there is enough material for three or four different articles here. It is a lot of work to sort them out from the totality. “I would make this shorter, but I didn’t have the time….” Knowing that the perfect is the enemy of the good, I am grateful to the author for her efforts, and I look forward to seeing shorter pieces published more frequently.

    4. dk

      Ha! You’re one to talk lol. Point taken but I enjoyed the writing nonetheless. And it’s okay to reiterate when iterations suggest different aspects of the point.

      Ada Byron voted for Trump, well played. Belief is its own punishment.

    5. reslez

      Well, I’ve no idea what you guys are talking about. I didn’t think the post was overly long or padded at all. I thought the author made insightful points about why the Cambridge Analytics thing can’t do what The Guardian said — now there’s a piece that really did have gargantuan length plus all sorts of fear-mongering — and nicely explained different types of public persuasion. I particularly liked the devastating twist where the author explained how the Democrats’ use of Putin is classic propaganda.

      I might have rephrased a few sentences here and there but mainly I just sat down with my lunchtime bowl of soup and enjoyed the read. I look forward to whatever comes next in the series.

  4. Josh Stern

    I’d break out the topic into these parts: 1) Limitations of current State of the Art for using big data?, 2) What are the inherent risks in giving more and more asymmetric power to very large organizations like governments or multi-national corporations that are beyond the capacity of individuals or local civic groups to monitor and police? 3) How could Big Data, in particular, be misused? It’s not clear if the discussion is theoretical – about what could happen 1 year, 5 years, or 30 years from now, or practically about what we have evidence of today.

    From a theoretical and practical POV, a basic problem is that you and I do not know what the CIA/FBI/ and NSA are actually capable of today, let alone in 5 or 10 years. Arguably, you and I do not actually know what they were capable of doing or collecting 20 years ago. They have legal power, extra-judicial power, huge funding, motivation, and capability to hide those facts and technologies from the public. Both practical argument and speculation come down to judgment calls about how much you trust them, and how much you trust the media to alert you to things that have already happened. A combination of personal and experience and research has converted me to the zero trust camp. Privacy is not the main issue…crime and willful elimination of democracy are the main issues.

  5. TarheelDem

    But the fearmongering around Cambridge Analytica is about the potential to manipulate large numbers of people into all believing the same false, emotionally inflammatory thing, so they will all move in the same direction. That is what propaganda is for: getting large numbers of people to do something that is not in either their communal or individual interests. If you don’t need that outcome, you don’t have to use such an ugly tool.

    As I understood the description of the supposed Trump campaign operation, this was not what it was supposed to be doing. What it was doing was targeting narrow-casted ads to specific geographic and personality-typed segments, rapidly rejiggering the the ads for personality type based on focus groups. There was no argument that they were trying to get people to believe the same things, just motivate them to vote against Clinton or to vote for Trump. There was no claim of consistency.

    What this narrative attempted to explain was how Trump’s style of contradictory messaging could work to build an electoral victory by confirming contradictory messaging by personality type.

    The argument was that it didn’t need to be a death star. It just had to work good enough to win.

    It is easy to overdetermine a squeaker of an election. Clinton’s failure need not be universal, just local in the most vulnerable geographies. And Trump’s campaign need not be overwhelming, just good enough.

    Did Cambridge Analytics data and the Trump campaign’s (Bannon’s?) use of that data deliver marginally enough to win the electoral college?

    1. reslez

      Yeah but if you go back and read the Guardian piece it was thousands of words of terrified heavy breathing about how Trump and Mercer’s incredible Death Star will destroy democracy forever. You’re sitting there being all reasonable about it — which was precisely this author’s argument.

  6. ebr

    This is a great post: informative, not hysterical, leaves me wanting to read more. Please do keep writing, and if you should get around to writing about the sinister Scott Adams, I would happily read that also. The man is a jerk, but I can’t tell if he is factually wrong on technical matters

    1. reslez

      > I can’t tell if he is factually wrong on technical matters

      What, you mean like how Adams pretends to be “reasonable” about climate change and various other controversies — taking an extreme conservative stance in each case — by claiming not to have an opinion? Pretending to have an open mind is a classic persuasive technique. The “master persuader” liberally sauces his blog posts with those same misleading techniques, steering his readership to his startup’s spying app and his plastic girlfriend’s Instagram. He’s just another hustler hawking his wares. It’s all weasel words and creative interpretation.

  7. Clive

    Briefly — this is a big topic and I can’t really do it justice in a comment — my TBTF is literally drowning in Big Data. Customer behaviour analytics, metadata, transactional data, models and adherence to models, FICOs — and that’s just the chaff before you get to the core (proprietary) data.

    Much of it is completely useless. At times, we can barely tell what products customers actually hold in a reliable way. We have zero — precisely zero — information on which customers are profitable and what the Cost of Goods Sold are on each product line. This, for the non-expert reader, is your complete bog-standard 1-0-1 stuff about how to run your business.

    Many people and businesses are being scammed by Big Data snake oil salesmen. Hillary, my darling, you were one of them, too.

    1. John Wright

      I remember a statement from an instructor in a college information systems class 30+ years ago, “The problem is not with a lack of information, the problem is getting the information into a valuable form.”

      But, possibly Hillary believes she was not taken in by Big Data snake oil salesman.

      I suspect a vodka swilling Russian hacker got into the Ada source code and inserted a single line of code that was executed as each Ada simulation ended.

      Something like:

      printf( “Hillary, you are great, everybody, except those in the deplorable class, loves you, you will win going away.\n”);

    2. JustAnObserver

      This highlights what I’ve been saying, thinking for a long time. Data is not the same as Information. So, by extension, Big F’in Data will not, on its own, magically transform itself into Big Information of the sort needed to even get to running a business at the 101 level. In fact the more *data* you collect the more you are likely to end up drowning in so much noise that the signal becomes undetectable. Formally you are much more likely to increase entropy in your giant databases, following Claude Shannon’s connection between entropy and information.

      1. Disturbed Voter

        This. Data and information are not the same. In principle, the Big Data, in a set which has the same circumstances … is like decrypting a message, that has a common key (not a constantly changing key). And the more data you have, the better you can run statistical analysis on it. The problem is, statistics are an abstraction of the original data (or coded message). Not all data is significant as information. Often in statistical analysis, the significant data is tossed out as a side effect of the statistical abstraction. In which case the end results of the statistics are free of significant information (other than banal things like averages and distributions).

        So doing big data, on a lot of people, over a long time … is the least significant set of data one could accumulate, because it is apples and oranges. It takes art, to reduce data to all apples (same circumstances produced the data … say Friday shopping habits before school starts). And then more art to draw inferences from it. In the case of shopping habits, you have to actually know accounting, to make sense of the numbers.

      2. justanotherprogressive

        You know, I used to believe that too – that there was just too much data to be able to analyze it. The more I got into Data Science the more I realized I was wrong. There’s this thing called neural networking……data just isn’t handled the way it used to be……

        1. Marina Bart

          Rather than ellipses, I’d like to hear more from you about how neural networking can or will make a difference in this area. I’m not a Luddite, and I’m not arguing that Big Data does no harm now, nor that it’s impossible for it to do other harm better later on.

          1. Jason

            Some of the most powerful neural network techniques (I base this on the techniques that have made computers suddenly unbeatable at go, after decades of trying hard and failing) are actually very simple: you just need to pick the right ones and throw some modern fast computers at them. (Previously, people were taking the wrong bets on which of the many simple techniques would work best, and their computers weren’t so fast.) For more details, you might enjoy looking into how Google’s AlphaGo works.

            (I don’t mean simple like I-could-have-done-it simple, I mean simple like proving fairly easy to explain and to replicate.)

            1. Yves Smith Post author


              You’ve just proven you don’t know this terrain and are repeating PR. The least important component is raw processing speed. Making Shit Up is against our site Policies. If you go on in a similar vein I will ban you. I don’t have any tolerance for agnotology.

              No one has any idea why people vote the way they do. Period. There’s no way to model or test for that. Tons of people make up their mind whether even to go to the polls that very day based on Shit Happened Or Not. Tell me how you model for that? You can’t. Many people make up their minds in the last few days and some do right in the polling booth.

              There aren’t even decent models for why people buy the way they buy, and there is vastly more relevant data on that.

              1. Marina Bart

                I’m going to defend Jason here a bit, in part because he’s been complimentary and supportive of the piece in several comments, and I found this reply useful.

                The person who dropped the “you’re wrong because neural networking” reply never answered me. Jason was trying to supply an answer. I suspect he is correct that “justanotherprogressive” WAS referring to processes like what are used with AlphaGo. This gives me a better understanding of what to address, rather than punching air.

                It’s a mistake to think that game theory derived decision processes like Monte Carlo tree search will deliver radical improvements in Big Data driven attempts at psychological manipulation. (See also the Guardian piece in today’s Links for how the current hype is based on nothing real.)

                If anyone has evidence of “neural networking” breakthroughs that are NOT game theory-related, please let me know. That would be relevant.

                1. Jason

                  I regret putting this bit in parentheses. I should have put it in bold instead. I wrote:

                  (I don’t mean simple like I-could-have-done-it simple, I mean simple like proving fairly easy to explain and to replicate.)

                  I have absolutely no idea how neural nets can be applied to electoral processes. FWIW, my guess is that Marina is right and they currently can’t be, at least not very effectively. If they ever are, though, and if even part of the hypothetical methodology becomes public, the hypothetical success should be pretty easy to replicate. That’s my informed contribution to this debate. (Is that enough “hypothetical”s for ya?)

              2. Jason

                I didn’t say anything about polls, or elections, or psychological manipulation. I can see in retrospect how you could read what I wrote as maybe implying something about polls, but it’s a bit of a stretch, and I didn’t mean it to.

                Also, I have worked on Monte Carlo methods myself, and been very much hampered by lack of raw speed. Nothing to do with polls, but in more general applications it’s a big deal. Even if I were wrong about that, it’s an observation from my own research, not from PR.

                1. Marina Bart

                  Your direct experience with Monte Carlo may be useful when we talk about the difference between a decision tree that can win a game and grappling with understanding human nature well enough to construct systems to sort for and combine identifying information about human beings in such a way as to understand groups of humans in more accurate and effective ways than our current non-Big Data methods. Your reporting that Monte Carlo is slow for presumably less data-intensive tasks is relevant, I think.

                  I suspect that’s the underlying misunderstanding behind all this conflating of AlphaGo success with psychological manipulation. See Flora’s comments under today’s Links for more on how the plasticity and complexity of the human mind* renders a lot of current assumptions about Big Data’s capability to manipulate humans better than other humans moot.

                  * I’m using “mind” not “brain” intentionally. Not only do we not yet fully understand the brain as an organ, our concept of “brain” may be inadequate. Parts of what we previously thought of as “brain function” apparently resides in the gut — both biological elements of our own bodies, and symbiotic yet biologically separate entities like bacteria that play a role in mood, temperament, and possibly even cognition. It’s a new frontier.

                  1. Jason

                    The stuff I have direct experience of does have less data, yes … but my experience is from a long time ago (especially in terms of computing power), so it’s only good for generalisations, sadly.

                    I would bet my bippy, though, that by far the biggest difference between go and any of the social sciences including psychology is that in the social sciences there’s so much more scope for garbage in, garbage out. Go is also a very hard problem, but getting the inputs right is not: they’re totally straightforward. Which is grist to your mill, right?

                    I like what you say about “mind” and “brain”, although that’s another topic.

      3. Laughingsong

        “Data is not the same as Information.”

        This was almost the first thing said by our instructor in a database design class I took back in….1986. That the Big Data proponents elide this when talking about how all-powerful their new technological system is . . . Well, it’s gotta just be a sales pitch.

        In my experience (granted I don’t know how representative), one of the technologies I find lagging Is database engine/structure. The underpinnings haven’t changed much since that class in the 80s. How flash can Big Data get while underneath we’re still using stone knives and bearskins?

        1. hunkerdown

          Laughingsong, database engine development has been driven heavily by social media in recent years. Google and Amazon both built pioneering non-relational database systems for internal use, and Facebook, Yahoo and the NSA (yes, really), among others, have released production-quality, open-source database managers addressing each of their particular concerns*. Like the NSA, social media software mostly just stores all with a timestamp, rarely deletes, and makes sense of all of it later.

          *For the record, the NSA’s business needs entailed cell-level access control labeling and redaction, nothing particularly sinister. Not to say that databasing every signal sent by a human, be it by Internet or semaphore, isn’t particularly sinister.

    3. Jason


      I was working in IT for a big chain of stores when IBM first came out with tills that captured data. I believe the system was pretty expensive, but my company bought it. My company then had a much much bigger dataset on its customers than its competitors had! !!!! And so! Um. Yes. And so nothing really.

      I agree with Marina Bart that there might come a time when the scary hypothetical uses of big data become actual. I think it might even be soon, since the advance of AI techniques is hard to predict. And maybe we should be worrying about it in advance. But that’s a different topic from the topic of what the political machines can do right now.

  8. Dirk77

    Beautifully reasoned and silken writing. At the end I was willing to believe anything she wrote. I know this is wrong but I don’t care. Just give me more.

  9. Ignacio

    This suggests a number of questions:

    How much should we fear Big Data?
    How much should we fear Cambridge Analytica?
    Are we on the verge having of a new, uniquely powerful propaganda tool?
    And the secret question, the one unsaid in most of these pieces: Can the Democrats get their hands on it to win back power?

    These questions should be addressed one by one. Regarding the first one, in particular, there is a lot to argue about it and it would be nice.

    I think that there is a lot of people reluctant to provide data. Besides de garbage in/out problem there is a bias collecting data and you migth be missing white men in their fifties that like beer & wine, run, visit NC, like arts & music and are anti-christian, anti-jewish, and anti-muslim anti-patriots.

  10. PlutoniumKun

    This is really interesting, I look forward to the rest of the series. And ts nice to put a name on one of the btl commentators.

  11. Jim

    In the old days of real machine politics. elections directly meant jobs or benefits. Today the relationship is broken so that benefits of voting are more intangible and indirect.

    IMHO Trump won on 3 factors.
    1. Most times in a situation where the same party is in office 2 years they lose the 3rd.
    2. Overwhelmingly Republicans voted republican because of partisanship.
    3. The margin seems to be voting against Hilary instead of for Trump.

    IMHO if Dems had elected a man with good hair 8 years and and nominated one this time we would not be having this conversation.

    50 State Strategy would be nice, maybe though only the local hacks put the money to no good advantage. A lot of the money put into elections should be diverted into party building at the base.

  12. Genem723

    These are essential reads on CA – and BigData/AI that suggest a much different conclusion:

    And a third more general discussion on Big Data/AI and Democracy:

    “Propaganda” is such a limp word, for this is psyops laid bare. It is the combination of AI/Deep Learning that potentiates the big data findings .
    The traditional PR/wordsmith is 18th century against this …. taking a knife to a gun fight.
    Long range sniper fire with Gatling gun volumes.

    The Bannon/Mercer strategy was layered, “art of war” brilliant. micro targeting, BOTs controlling Social media messaging, email leaks, MSM acting as host carriers.

    It was as much about suppressing HRC voters as it was about giving grievances a voice with DT.

    The attacks on MSM for fake news gives legitimacy to the “alternative Facts” media. There are no objective facts anymore.

    The times are changing rapidly. Become aware.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos

      I read your comment and the linked articles, all saying that we should be uniquely terrified of the insidious technological methods of persuasion deployed by slippery pro-Trump forces. For this thesis to be credible, one of the following would have to be true:

      (1) Only pro-Trump forces were trying to influence people to vote for their preferred candidate, or at least their efforts dwarfed those of their adversaries.

      (2) Pro-Trump forces did not have any more resources on paper, but they deployed these resources much more effectively.

      During the campaign, conventional wisdom was that Clinton campaign spending dwarfed that of Trump – do you have new evidence showing that these judgments were wrong?

      If not, we fall back on (2) – the Clinton campaign was simply much less competent than the Trump campaign, and so was able to do less with more, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

      While the articles you cite are maybe compatible with this thesis, it is spun in another direction – the message becomes that the Trump campaign was not more competent, it was more evil. That was the true source of its strength.

    2. Outis Philalithopoulos

      It is striking how closely this rhetoric recapitulates Cold War themes. Compare the following excerpts from NSC 68:

      The free society is limited in its choice of means to achieve its ends. […] The resort to force, internally or externally, is therefore a last resort for a free society.

      […] On the other hand] The Kremlin is able to select whatever means are expedient in seeking to carry out its fundamental design.

      […] The ideological pretensions of the Kremlin are another great source of strength. Its identification of the Soviet system with communism, its peace campaigns and its championing of colonial peoples may be viewed with apathy, if not cynicism, by the oppressed totalitariat of the Soviet world, but in the free world these ideas find favorable responses in vulnerable segments of society.

      […] Finally, there is a category of capabilities, strictly speaking neither institutional nor ideological, which should be taken into consideration. The extraordinary flexibility of Soviet tactics is certainly a strength. It derives from the utterly amoral and opportunistic conduct of Soviet policy. Combining this quality with the elements of secrecy, the Kremlin possesses a formidable capacity to act with the widest tactical latitude, with stealth, and with speed.

  13. thunder monkey

    Propaganda, while technically a public relations discipline, is a different beast still. Propaganda, at its core, is about stampeding the herd – using intensely emotive messaging, usually fear or hatred based, to manipulate masses of people.

    Is this a commonly accepted, modern definition of propaganda? Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations,” gave his 1928 book the title Propaganda and explicitly used propaganda techniques pioneered in WW I in his PR efforts.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, that is not correct. In fact, Marina and I discussed this via e-mail and she’s going to address this in a later post. I read Bernay’s book Propaganda and what he did, in classic PR fashion, was to deliberately confuse nomenclature, the same way the Democrats have drained meaning from words like “left” and “progressive” by using them regularly on center-right candidates like Obama.

      Bernays’ book does NOT describe Creel Committee techniques, nor does he make any such claim. Instead, he argues that “propaganda” is merely a time honored tradition of a party making a case for its position or product, as in mere persuasion. He then sets forth a series of case studies from his own business.

      That is different from propaganda, which is hitting the same very simple message over and over through every channel available (which the Creel Committee did in a remarkably impressive manner) to move an entire population. Marina compared it to stampeding a herd. None of the examples in Bernays’ book have either of those features, of mass communication or seeking to indoctrinate an entire population.

  14. Light a Candle

    Very well-written and interesting article! Thank you!

    I was starting to feel suspicious about all the Cambridge Analytica scare mongering but this article beautifully elucidates the real world limits.

    For me a good article is always thought provoking (And thank you for the links, more opportunities for thinking!).

    It doesn’t seem to me that propaganda and marketing are entirely separate or even distinct fields, they’re both about manipulating people. Goebbels had Edward Bernays and other marketing books in his library.

    And I don’t think that propaganda means always manipulating people to work against their best interests. In the 1930s, the German people wanted to restore a German economy and functioning society, to feel national pride again and so followed Hitler. The Nazis ruthlessly manipulated the German people and tapped into baser instincts but they also tapped into nobler aspirations as per Leni Riefenstahl’s magnificent (and chilling) propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will”.

    Thanks again for a great article and an opportunity to reflect!

    1. Marina Bart

      “Wanting to restore the economy” is not propaganda. What the Nazis did to convince Germans that murdering their neighbors would restore the economy was where the propaganda came into play. That’s how it works. You take a real, legitimate need or desire, and then twist that against the target audience using the negatively-charged propaganda.

      Just like the average propagandized Team Blue Democrat just wants a nice society where the “right sort” make sure we’re all safe and prosperous. They think they’re the good guys. The propaganda is designed to convince them that the only way to achieve that is a CIA-led coup overthrowing the elected president, and then a nuke-armed land war with Russia. Since what they want is completely unrelated to the result the Democratic elite wants, and in fact would hurt many of those Team Blue members, the elite Dems had to use propaganda.

  15. mle detroit

    Insightful critiques (-2). I suspect, if this had been presented as 3 or 4 posts, most of us would not have read them all. So this is a very good and compelling first chapter, introduction, to a longer work. I’m looking forward to it. I hope when Marina gets to the end, the obligatory “what should be done” last chapter, she’ll also tell us who’s already doing it.

  16. justanotherprogressive

    Hmmmmm……about Big Data…..
    I have a son who was a math professor at a state university; now he is one of those algorithm writers for Big Data. Does he understand the issues with Big Data? OH YEA! Sometimes the power of Big Data scares him……he is currently working on ways to control that data, because it’s there and it isn’t going away.
    How did he get there? His University made a couple of mistakes:
    1) They cut his budget by 10% and told him he would not be getting any raises for 5 more years (he got no raises in the last 5 years).
    2) They told him to create a Data Sciences program for the University, which he did.

    While researching Data Science, he discovered that the once arcane field that he was writing papers in (graph and complexity theory) were in big demand for Big Data. AND he found out that he could get three times his teaching salary just writing code in his chosen area of inquiry. He was already unhappy with his administration – the jump was a no brainer.
    And although he was the first math professor to jump ship, since he left two more professors from his university have also left. Since most universities are already starting Data Science programs, there will be NO shortage of qualified people in that field.
    In fact, if you know a coding language called Python, you can easily command a six figure salary in that field. And, wouldn’t you know it, Great Courses already has a tutorial on Python available on Amazon Video. All you need to do is download a free Python program and get to work! I already have experience in C so Python was extremely easy to learn (Some of you watch football in your spare time – I teach myself things. For all you math geeks, it was much easier than learning LaTeX.).
    Whether or not you like Big Data, sorry, but it is here and it isn’t going away. You can jawbone all you want about how bad it is, but your alternatives are to learn as much as you can about it, or be run over by it. You choose.

    1. Marina Bart

      I don’t wish to be insulting, and I realize I may have failed to optimally express my point in every instance, but did you read the post? I wasn’t arguing that Big Data is going away. I was arguing that it’s being presented as more powerful and effective than it currently is, and claims are being made that it could be used for a specific, dangerous purpose that it currently cannot do, nor may ever be used to do.

      It’s just as important to understand the failures and weaknesses of Big Data — particularly compared to the false claims we’re being inundated with — as it is to understand and respect its potential.

      1. clinical wasteman

        Quite. And also: “learning as much as we can” about the techniques lumped together and cartooned in the Guardian as “Big Data”* in no way requires us to take the cartoonist seriously. (See also “Communism” in the passage quoted by Outis above.)
        Craazyman, please accept my unironic compliments as a prose stylist, but I couldn’t agree with you less in this case. No-one capable of something as perfect as: “to do other harm better later” needs any lessons in concision.
        Marina, thank you for that phrase, and for the article, and especially for calling into question the belief that “logic” stands somehow opposed to “emotion”. That could only make sense if everything logical were true and everything emotional foolish. Another way of looking at it would be: emotion is accelerated logic, with falsehood of premises easily but not automatically lost in the rush. And emotional intensity is a function of (perceived) “skin in the game”, so that logic can only be “emotion-free” when you don’t have any reason to care one way or the other. In principle the result could be “clear-headed” thinking, but lazy indifference is at least as likely.

        *Are Big Data all big individually? A swarm of Game-Changers? Or does the adjective refer to the “phenomenon”, i.e. the cartoon?

        1. Marina Bart

          Thanks for the praise. I plan to grapple more with the false “logic vs. emotion” paradigm in later posts. I’ll be interested to see what you think.

          I treat “Big Data” as the term for the wildly hyped cartoon, sort of like “Deep State.” But now I’m picturing a stampeding herd of nerds being whipped along the Rio Grande by billionaires riding bank cards.

  17. flora

    “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist the titles’ apt comparison. :)

    Enjoyed this post first to last. imo, ADA was a project to reify Dem estab thinking (such as it was) into something real. Therefore, no disagreeable information was allowed, no comparison between the digital “brain” and the analog real world was allowed if it contradicted Deep Thought, er, ADA.

    Cambridge Analytica software, on the other hand, seems to have been used as a simple tool, results tested against the real world, and where the real world disconnected from the computer output, the analog real world facts took precident. i.e. Analytica wasn’t a reification of campaign assumptions and thinking.

    1. flora

      The explanation of the differences between marketing, public relations, and propaganda is very interesting.
      Also interesting that propaganda is still most effective using the simple, 80 year old practice of ‘controlling the radio stations’, where ‘radio station’ now includes FB and other social media.

      1. Marina Bart

        I appreciate the praise. I loved my title when I thought of it, but I wasn’t sure whether it was NC appropriate.

  18. beth

    Marina, I appreciate your entire piece. I think it is perfect. Yes, I said the same thing yesterday to a friend in fewer words since he would not have read it otherwise. I appreciate your work. Keep it up.

  19. Chauncey Gardiner

    OMG!… Best title and opening paragraph since Philip K. Dick, followed by thought-provoking content about a subject with which I was previously only marginally aware. More Pleeeze!!

    Yep, GIGO. But how can “We” be sure those clever Russian hackers weren’t feeding Ada false data to get the D political consultants, nomenklatura and Hil to ignore Wisconsin? The burden of proof is on the duly elected president to show this didn’t occur, of course.

    Suspect the D’s haven’t given up on Ada, and that the dominant view is that the algos just need refinement. The sunk monetary costs and emotional toll of acknowledgement are simply too high. And surely with their deep pockets, the R’s rational, logical, linear, mathematically-based target marketing consultants and their programmers are busily refining their own Ada and algos. After all, if it works in the financial markets, and “Zuck” has built an empire with it, surely it has merit. Frank Luntz and his focus groups?… so yesterday.

    This endeavor and the related layers of illusion point directly to why a candidate like Bernie Sanders appeals. Who ya gonna believe? Thanks.

    1. clinical wasteman

      I guess it’s too late to backdate “The Transmigration of Timothy Geithner” to 2008. (Or more likely someone thought of that at the time.) But so prolific was Mr. Dick, there’s probably a title suited to every NC Comments hobby-horse without too much tweaking.

  20. Alex

    Big Data, n.:
    Big Data, n.: the belief that any sufficiently large pile of shit contains a pony with probability approaching 1

    There have been a few articles about Cambridge Analytica:

    It’s all bullshit.

    The problem with Cambridge Analytica’s claim is:
    1. Big Data doesn’t necessarily lead to street addresses for targeted marketing
    2. Social media data from Facebook, etc is unreliable

    Barack Obama’s policies and performance were primarily responsible Trump’s win. Clinton was viewed as more of the same.

    1. gene martineau

      What’s missing in all this discussion is the use of AI to analyze the big data. AI is the key. Mercer became the force is he because he understood the power of AI which he’s used so effectively to guide his funds investing decisions. Without the evolving Algo, the data is meaningless. With it, its a whole different game. With a sufficiently large set of an individuals likes/dislikes (think the endless survey’s), the algo can predict a person’s response better than they know them self. Combine this with targeted micro message, and you have the ability to move/nudge huge numbers of people in one direction or the other. This is psyops laid bare.

      CA was used very effectively to win the BREXIT vote.

      They spent as much time “suppressing” the HRC voters as they did galvanizing DT supporters.

      As enough people have said “HRC should have won by 20 points”. NOPE.

      Bannon/Mercer played a brilliant game, supported by BOTs, Russian email hacks, Wickipedia, FBI. The perfect storm.

      Its a much deeper reality than Obama’s policies or HRC’s negatives.

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos

        To some extent, you simply repeat assertions from your other comment; see also my response there.

        It is fascinating that you announce that the sinister pro-Trump forces “spent as much time “suppressing” the HRC voters as they did galvanizing DT supporters.” Do you think this is a novel political strategy? Wasn’t a major element of the HRC strategy an effort to make voting for Trump social suicide among suburban voters?

        Your final assertion is really quite extraordinary: that this loose fabric of vague allegations constitutes “a much deeper reality than Obama’s policies or HRC’s negatives.”

        I am also curious about how Wikipedia played a key role in the “Bannon/Mercer” strategy.

        Your comments reiterate talking points from articles that the post is criticizing, while ignoring the critique. I have wondered if your comments are themselves a skillful satire, since they seem to embody their own “psyop” strategy based on behaviorist ideas about human psychology – something like “many frail arguments, or a single frail argument repeated, will nevertheless appear convincing if articulated with sufficient confidence.”

      2. flora

        Sorry, the suggestion that Eric Schmidt/Google and Hillary were outmatched on the IT/data/AI front by a hedge fund guy with a smaller IT company, or that Schmidt and the Dem campaign were untried in using data sets and AI (even while having Obama’s entire Dem presidential campaign histories and data to draw on, i.e had more information, not less, than the Trump team), and therefore the Dems were supposedly greatly disadvantaged compared to Trump and Cambridge Analytica, this suggestion doesn’t stand up to any serious examination.

      3. Marina Bart

        You’re ignoring all the evidence that no one can do this now, for all the reasons I laid out in the piece. You can’t just wave a magic wand and make it work.

        Where’s the third party evidence that CA did psychological manipulation that materially impacted the Brexit vote? Not stories planted by Mercer’s PR team, actual evidence. Because the evidence from Facebook and the US election is that no one has been able to do that yet. They don’t seem to even be close.

        Bear in mind, I am not saying that data mining and segmentation is completely useless. I’m arguing that it isn’t, won’t, and currently can’t be used as a propaganda tool. That’s a specific thing. That doesn’t mean data mining wouldn’t be useful in a political campaign. Those voters the Clinton campaign blocked from voting in the New York primary were probably victims of data mining and segmentation. But you’re indulging in exactly the kind of “Woo-woo, the pods are coming!” thinking I want people to be able to analyze and resist.

      4. Alex

        Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton themselves did an amazing job getting people in IL and MO outside the major metro areas to vote for Trump.

        I voted early and on the way (+/- 40 mi across 7 towns), there was almost no yard signs for Clinton.

        I didn’t vote for either of them; they both should have been in prison, not running for president. But that’s America these days ain’t it.

    2. thunder monkey

      1. Big Data doesn’t necessarily lead to street addresses for targeted marketing

      OK, but the Cambridge Analytica campaign used Facebook ads which don’t need street addresses

      2. Social media data from Facebook, etc is unreliable

      Link to support this assertion? Here’s a 2013 paper by Kosinski which says otherwise:

      1. Alex

        Hi thunder monkey. Thanks for the link.

        Big Data within the context of what Cambridge Analytica claims is based on social media and other data sources. If ads aren’t clicked, they provide no information. A lot of people don’t use their real information on social media. The user signup and dropoff rates for social media apps is about equal, so data may not be current or accurate. IP addresses may be collected (and they would not be accurate if VPNs are used), but primarily the social media age groups tend to be younger to middle age; voters tend to be middle age to older (that’s a big gap based on their claim that social media provided them with so much of their data).

        Retail data, like what Kosinski refers to with the example of a retailer (Target) predicting someone is pregnant based on credit card purchases and buyer reward cards with accurate information (name, address, etc), but that’s Predictive Analytics, and data mining, not necessarily Big Data.

        The thing about retailers like Target using targeted search to sell more stuff, is that it was around at least ten years before the 2012 article. The tools keep improving.

        Cambridge Analytica claimed credit for Trump’s win; it’s opportunistic. By 2018 or 2020 that claim will fall apart if the Republicans are true to form with their agenda.

        1. thunder monkey

          Thanks for the reply, Alex. I agree that it is very hard it is to assemble profiles, and then use those to make sales, using multiple online data sources.

          However, using the Facebook walled garden to nudge tendencies to vote is a different story. There are three advantages:

          1. Facebook “like” information is easy to get. CA got some by fraud, harvesting schemes probably exist, you can probably simply buy the info, etc.
          2. There is an existing, accurate model to connect psychological profiles with these “likes”
          3. Facebook makes it easy to push information to profilees: the dark ads are nestled within their feed, and convey information even if not clicked on.

          Last I checked, over 70% of US voters were active Facebook users. I find it plausible that if you put significant money into targeted Facebook dark ads you could get shifts, maybe at the 3-5% level, mainly from discouraging/encouraging voters. That’s roughly what a campaign can get from an excellent get-out-the-vote effort.

          Having said that, we are in agreement on this point:

          Barack Obama’s policies and performance were primarily responsible Trump’s win. Clinton was viewed as more of the same.

          1. Alex

            Very good.

            I learned something from you today. ;)

            On another topic, we have a new 1 year-old adopted cat in the house. What an adventure this one is. This cat alone is jumpstarting the economy: new bed, new litter mat, food (he eats about 6x /day (more if he had his way), collar, tag, etc.

            So far he has his bluff in on the dog. So far…probably won’t last long.

          2. Marina Bart

            There is an existing, accurate model to connect psychological profiles with these “likes”

            Do you have a link for this? I’d really like to see it. There are all sorts of models out there claiming to use the social graph. Every time I investigate one closely, though, it turns out to be inaccurate. It’s the inaccuracy that matters. For example, based on reports from people on the ground in swing states, Ada may have helped turn out Trump voters, because “she” was telling the Dems to turn out voters that Trump had already converted (because Ada had told them not to do early, direct outreach) but whom Trump didn’t have the resources to do GOTV for.

            Did you look at the underlying link about the famed Facebook “mood” experiment? Because one of the most interesting elements of my research was how very, very little evidence there is that any of this manipulation works well. That study was a couple of years ago, so they may have gotten much better. But that study was testing a very primitive aspect of Facebook’s interface to do a very basic thing, and even that didn’t work very well. Manipulating the mood of captured users who spend hours on the site should be easy. Yet that test barely moved the needle. To go from “mood” to driving users to a concrete action that will not deliver immediate or direct gratification is a big, big lift. To the best of my knowledge, they still haven’t even gotten “mood” adjustment right yet.

            1. thunder monkey

              Enjoyed the post, thanks for writing it. It was good to see a skeptical take.

              I based that point on the statement “For the personality trait “Openness,” prediction accuracy is close to the test–retest accuracy of a standard personality test.” This is in the abstract of the 2013 Kosinsk paper I linked above. I have not read the full text, and my point may be overstating things, but the paper seems to have held up since people are commercializing its findings and it has been cited over 680 times.

              I can believe altering mood is hard, just as selling items is hard. But nudging (for example) a Sanders supporter to become more anti-Hillary and thus less likely to vote only has to succeed at the 3%-5% level to be worth a lot of money to do in the right district. A lot of money was given to CA, so I find it plausible that they could have had a significant impact.

              The articles may be exaggerating the usefulness of the personality profiling. If a Facebook user likes a Sander-related post and the demographic info indicates that he is young, CA has got a target right there, no fancy analysis needed.

              tldr: Facebook is evil.

              1. Marina Bart

                I haven’t read the paper yet. I hope to this weekend.

                However, you’re making a couple of problematic logical leaps along different vectors. The first is that a lot of theories and research in this area are being gleefully commercialized without being proven to do what is claimed they can do. So just because it is being commercialized doesn’t mean it’s correct. It only means there’s a willing buyer from whom money can be extracted using this as part of the persuasion process. Likewise, it being cited a lot given how debased our academic publishing process now is seems not dispositive by itself.

                The other big mistake is assuming that data mining and message segmentation can “make a Sanders supporter become more-anti Hillary and thus less likely to vote.” While discouraging someone from voting is probably much easier than inspiring them to vote, there’s no evidence at all that this happened this year. None. Again, why look for zebras when there’s a herd of rabid, mangy, neoliberal horses charging at you screaming, “I’m with her! You’re a sexist Berniebro! Universal health care will never, ever happen!” Etc.

                The big money spent in California was spent by Hilary. One of her key investments was installing one of her corrupt bag men as Secretary of State. One of his ways to suppress voters was to delay sending new voter registration pages to the University of California campus precincts on primary election day, which kept thousands of Bernie voters from being able to vote. That was very efficient, reliable, and apparently inexpensive. Knowing enough about why different people were supporting Bernie to effectively suppress them by even 3% using segmented messaging would be more difficult than you are assuming.

                If I want to discuss this with you further after I read the paper, should I flag you from here, or from one of the daily posts?

  21. UserFriendly

    I was just checking out the 2010 exit polls for all house races to see what the motivations of voters was during that election. some shocking things

    2008 vote?
    Obama (45%) 84/14 D/R
    Mccain (45%) 7/91

    Has a family member lost a job in the last 2 years?
    Yes 30% went 50/46
    No 69% 45/53
    Obama Job approval?
    Strong A (22%) 93/6
    some A (22%) 76/22
    Some D (14%) 27/68
    Strong D (41%) 6/90

    Your vote was meant to show?
    Support Obama (23%) 96/3
    Oppose Obama (37%) 6/92
    O not a factor (38%) 52/44

    Lots more, very dissatisfied but want government to do less???

    Booo! Highest priority next congress?
    Cut taxes 18% 26/71
    Reduce Deficit 40% 32/65
    Spend to create jobs 37% 68/30

    Who do you blame for the economic problem?
    Wall Street (35%) 41/57
    Bush 29% 83/15
    Obama 24% 6/91

    Wow!!! More rural than big city? and half the electorate in suburbs!!! no wonder Clinton ran after them.

    Size of city
    Big city (11%) 65/33
    small city 20% 51/46
    suburb 49% 42/55
    small town 7% 39/54
    rural 13% 34/65

  22. Teejay

    “… polling shows a rising number of Americans are worried about Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia.”
    It troubles me that Donald heaps praise on Putin, can’t find anything bad to say about him, named Tillerson SoS (a $500B wet kiss to Vladimir) and still won’t release his tax returns. Besides not wanting us to know he’s no where near as wealthy as he wants us to believe, is he hiding loans from nefarious foreign entities? Bluntly stated is Donald blowing kisses because somebody’s got him by the short and curlies. So yeah I’m worried about his relationship with Russia.

    1. Susan C

      People should be concerned about Trump’s associations with Russia. And we have to get to the bottom of it. What is this new finding about Wilbur Ross being the co-head of the Bank of Cyprus where serious money laundering is going on with the Russian oligarchs?

      I had to read through the article a few times because the arguments presented did not dovetail at all neatly to the conclusion or point of the article which was Trump’s involvement with Russia. Based on the title of the article, I very much expected more in the way of CA and the Mercers and their stooges (Bannon, Conway) and perhaps what goes wrong when people become enriched from HF trading – like giving a ton of money to Trump’s campaign – which has obviously affected us all. If one wants to believe that propaganda is being unleashed by the Democrats to destabilize the throne of Trump, and the way they are doing it is by bringing up the Russian involvement issue, then I think the real story is being missed as the real story is still being written. You can either pay attention to what is being found out or hide your head under the sand. And this is not a Red Scare. People are looking for the truth of the matter and if it is learned that there is something to this Trump Russian equation, how does that translate into a Red Scare? It doesn’t.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Dear God, you’ve bough the propaganda hook, line and sinker. We don’t indulge it here. You can find tons of material in the mainstream media to feed your prejudices.

        And you apparently missed the author saying the NSA doesn’t buy it either and that we’ve already debunked it extensively here.

        1. Trump’s contacts consist of having sold real estate to Russians, which is not the same as having an ongoing relationship) as everyone in high end residential real estate on the entire East Coast has done, having had a partner/funder in some of his Manhattan residential projects who is a wealthy, crooked Russian, registered some trademarks in Russia but never got any real businesses off the ground, and hosted a beauty contest, IIRC Miss Universe, in Moscow in 2013.

        The only one that has any legs is the wealthy crooked dude, but the part to worry about is him being a crook, not being Russian. The guy is third tier and not within hailing distance of being an oligarch and is not a player of any sort in Russia.

        2. So the only real connection is Manafort. Trump used Manafort less than four months and fired him. How often does someone who was fired have influence over their ex client? I can’t think of a single example.

        3. John Podesta has a brother who is about as connected to Russia as Manafort is. Has anyone gotten hysterical about that?

        4. We also covered Cyprus at great length. Cyprus is not, contrary to your assertion, mainly or even to a large degree a “money laundering center”. We debunked that in 2013. Russians have plenty of secrecy jurisdictions closer to where they want to get their dough…which is typically real estate in London, sometimes in the US…like all the British tax havens + the US ones (the Caymans) and of course Switzerland and Luxembourg.

        Cyprus is main used for inbound investment into Russia by foreign companies and Russians themselves…so the agreements are subject to English law courts. There are also garden variety rich Russians who have summer homes there, plus a ton of British expats. Get a grip.

      2. fajensen

        People should be concerned about Trump’s associations with Russia. And we have to get to the bottom of it.

        Why? and Why?

        Considering that It was people from Saudi Arabia who performed and funded 9/11 it is a lot more rational to be worried about Donald Trumps relationship with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, in the same vein, we should worry about what the Clinton Foundation actually did in return for all those Saudi donations?

        People are looking for the truth of the matter and if it is learned that there is something to this Trump Russian equation, how does that translate into a Red Scare? It doesn’t.

        It Does – when that mysterious nugget of “something” that “people” are digging for, actually is nothing.

        There are so many more “matters” that actually does matter – but to the Dims all that will matter for the next 8 years is that Donald Trump beat Hillary, the Chosen One, therefore Donal Trump is Bad and Russia must somehow be “held accountable” – whatever that means. I don’t have a wonk-dictionary here.

        You lot really ought to be cleaning up all that lead in the drinking water, clearly it has an influence, that is one of the matters that does matter (but not to the Dims, they’d obviously lose voters that way).

        1. clinical wasteman

          Trump even bought real estate in Aberdeenshire, giving local people the 500th gold course they were crying out for. Therefore he’s obviously Scotland’s man in Washington. But no, wait! He fell out with Alex Salmond over wind farms: having wrecked the coastline, the lower-case orangeman decided that the very sight of offshore turbines would spoil his grassy nullity. So I guess that makes him an English asset after all. In which case yeah, off with his head.

  23. lyman alpha blob

    The ADA and Cambridge Analytics people are off their rockers.

    All this big data nonsense reminds me of Laplace’s Demon. Pierre-Simon Laplace was a determinist in the vein of Isaac Newtown. In the early 19th century he postulated that if there were some demon who knew the position and momentum of every particle of matter in the universe, then by the classical mechanical laws of physics, they could then know the entire past history of the universe as well as its future. This was merely a thought experiment though as physicists realized the impossibility of ever gathering all the necessary data. Later the entire notion was disproved even before the discovery of quantum mechanics. If this idea didn’t work in physics, then why the hell would any intelligent person assume it would work with a social ‘science’?!?!?

    People want to find meaning in everything and feel that it can be sussed out if only the data set is large enough but I don’t believe this to be the case. Lots of times events are just random. I disagree somewhat with this notion from the article –

    If they buy the product, you know the message worked.

    How do you prove that? Maybe they a customer bought a product because it was simply something they needed and would have purchased it whether they got a message or not. Maybe they liked a competitor’s message better but that product was out of stock so they settled for their 2nd choice. Who really knows? Study after study has shown that people are not rational actors.

    I could go on but bottom line is there is no way to exactly predict the future (see David Hume- best you can do is note the probabilities) and marketing is complete bul**it.

    But that won’t stop politicians and advertisers from wasting squillions of dollars.

    Take us out Bill Hicks! –

    1. Marina Bart

      Obviously any given individual purchase is not necessarily related to marketing. But online advertising in particular can often tightly track the relationship between exposure to the marketing message and outcome. For example, say you’re in a segment where a particular sponsored message or advertisement was pushed to your News Feed. If you write a gmail within 24 hours mentioned that message in any way, they can connect that, I believe. Unless the data set is now too unwieldy (which is possible, as per the links in the piece on that problem with both Facebook AND the NSA), they could definitely track if you purchase something with a bank card shortly after being exposed to the message. And even if the data is too unwieldy to do that sorting properly, tracking changes in purchasing of a product broadly over a large population after initiation of a marketing campaign is old school and pretty sturdy.

      One of the problems for the Democrats is that they keep fighting the last war, and that impacts marketing messaging, as well. They don’t seem to have used the primary campaign as a adequate field test for Ada. I’m not sure why (although I have guesses.) But if you’re selling candy bars, you sell them every day. You have a continuous opportunity to test and track marketing to see whether it works. But presidential elections are every four years. Clinton’s campaign was trying to ape Obama’s 2008 campaign in a lot of ways. One problem with that is that they believed the spin from Obama’s team that it was their expensive expertise that made the difference, not electoral fundamentals. Another is that they were selling a very different product, from a product line that now had a very negative brand identity it didn’t have in 2008.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        Hey thanks for the response! And in case I wasn’t being clear I do agree with you.

        The tracking processes you describe are why I use cash – keeps the algos guessing. Right now big data has decided to market a book at me it thinks I might want – ad’s been following me for a week or so now. I’m assuming this is because recently I did a search to see what new books may be out in a particular field. Little does big data know, I purchased the book in question years ago after browsing an actual store back when big data was just some silicon valley sociopaths wet dream. And even if I hadn’t and suddenly decided I wanted it based on their ad, I would have ordered it through a local store and paid with cash. Anyway, as you said, this is just on the level of an individual purchase.

        This election should have destroyed a lot of shibboleths about what works to get a candidate elected. All the things you supposedly must do to get elected didn’t work this time around which leads me to believe they weren’t what was actually working the last time around either, it’s just that the true believers in marketing thought they were. What’s the old saw about advertising – 50% of all ad money is completely wasted, just wish I knew which 50% or something to that effect? Nobody really knows what works or why. As you suggest, I don’t believe this Cambridge nonsense showed that Trump’s big data strategy was better than Clinton’s – one of them was going to win regardless. I mean, it was just an election ago that we were regaled with the genius of which could predict anything by crunching the numbers until it turned out they couldn’t. But are the Dems who are constantly fighting the last battle smart enough to figure all this out? My guess is that Cambridge Analytica sees a big uptick in revenue from Democrat sources in the next election cycle.

        1. Marina Bart

          Maybe, although I think Perez was installed specifically to not just keep control of the party out of the hands of the hippies that could win, but also to keep the money flowing to the crony consultants already under contract.

          And the money is down.

          I think the establishment Ds will be unable to resist hoping for a technological solution to their ideological problem. But if I had to bet, I’d bet on them pushing more dough to an existing party crony to do it, rather than to Cambridge Analytica. That’s just how they roll. They clearly don’t even understand how to set up benchmarks and evaluate results. It’s all based on relationships and magical thinking.

          Thanks for the concrete example of the signal-to-noise problem in the data. That’s one of the reasons they’re trying to kill cash: to know us better to predict our actions better to control us better while extracting every last penny out of us, both our sentient selves and our carcasses.

  24. Ernesto Lyon

    Ask Nassim Taleb.

    Models are great as long as your assumptions are right. Once your assumptions fail they can be worse than no model at all.

  25. ChrisPacific

    First of all, congrats to aab on your guest post slot which is well deserved (I will admit I’ve added your handle to the list that I search for in comments). I’m not sure I agree with the comments about cutting the length down – part of the appeal of NC is that we get longer form treatments like this – but perhaps a cup of coffee warning from Yves at the start would be useful.

    Here was my reaction to the Cambridge Analytica scaremongering story when it came out:

    It is in the commercial interests of Big Data players for scare stories like this to come out (in the same way that Liar’s Poker turned out to be a great recruiting tool for Wall Street) so it’s always worth checking that an alarmist article on the topic isn’t a PR piece in disguise.

    On the propaganda subject, I think there is definitely a lot of scope for discussion. My social media feed at present is full of posts on Trump from my friends, nearly all intelligent college-educated liberals, who would certainly consider themselves as rational as the the next person if not more so. Almost without exception, they have swallowed the Trump-as-Putin-puppet story in its entirety and are enthusiastically spreading stories that have left even the appearance of evidence behind them and are off into fantasy land (and yet are under bylines from NYT, WaPo etc.) It’s like Iraq WMD all over again, which is a bit depressing as you’d think people would remember it and recognize it, but it shows the power of confirmation bias. In general these people really hate Trump and badly want to believe that he is not a legitimate president, and if they are presented with a plausible-sounding story that demonstrates that then they are quite willing to suspend their critical faculties for as long as it takes.

    So I guess the questions that interest me are:
    1. How do we recognize propaganda when we see it? (I think most NC commenters could take a pretty good stab at this one, but it would be useful to summarize)
    2. How do we resist being influenced by it? In particular, are there ways in which we might be unconsciously influenced, such as being reluctant to express contrary opinions if it becomes socially unacceptable to do so? To what extent should we resist this, and how?
    3. What do we do about others we see that are being influenced by it? How should we engage them? What about the case where they react defensively or with hostility because they perceive it as an attack on a deeply-held belief (e.g. Trump is not fit to be President) that the propaganda appears to confirm?

    I think I have a handle on #1 but I am struggling with elements of #2 and #3 is definitely a puzzle, especially the part about how to engage without triggering defensive reactions.

    1. JTFaraday

      Do these D-Partisans really truly believe the Putin thing, or do they think this is a way of unseating Trump and so they seek to do their own part in advancing that cause?

      And is this so different from Trump’s own tactics?

      1. Musicismath

        In the parts of the liberal Internet I hang out in, sure. The “Putin stole the election and Trump is a Kremlin stooge” idea is passionately believed in and defended. Suggest to a Clintonite that they have no evidence for this and you yourself will be accused of being under Kremlin influence.

        It’s a veritable “stab in the back” myth by this point in time. And you can see why, because it feeds the fears and flatters the vanities of a certain kind of anti-socialist liberal so effectively.

        1. ChrisPacific

          Yes, that’s my sense as well. It’s not completely impossible that they know it’s bunk and they are just going along with it in order to harm Trump – there is a lot of quite nasty, puerile stuff going around which seems to serve no real purpose except for possibly annoying Trump supporters (Trump/Putin photoshops being the most obvious). But I do get the sense that most of them are true believers. Reminds me of the book “Why Smart People Believe Stupid Things” (in a nutshell: because they overrate their own rationality and believe they are being rational when they aren’t).

    2. fajensen

      1. How do we recognize propaganda when we see it? (I think most NC commenters could take a pretty good stab at this one, but it would be useful to summarize)

      Agitprop is high on Emotional triggers and Urgency, while low on actual information that can be evaluated. Usually it also builds onto known stereotypes, to save work and ease communication. The – when, where, who, what, why things. The “why does this matter to me” question is rarely answered.

      2. How do we resist being influenced by it? In particular, are there ways in which we might be unconsciously influenced, such as being reluctant to express contrary opinions if it becomes socially unacceptable to do so? To what extent should we resist this, and how?

      Stay away. Is my advice. Avoid toxic social media, avoid arguing with toxic and/or stupid people. Waste of energy and time, that. Of course, like with junk food and alcohol, a bit of trolling can be relaxing. But unhealthy.

      3. What do we do about others we see that are being influenced by it? How should we engage them? What about the case where they react defensively or with hostility because they perceive it as an attack on a deeply-held belief (e.g. Trump is not fit to be President) that the propaganda appears to confirm?

      One has to be aware that for many people it is a deeply treasured escape to “work” on problems where failure is the only result because they literally have Zero influence on the outcomes in whatever they are dealing with. Usually I don’t bother with it, I can do many other things with my time that improves my life right now and in the future. Why do I need to care if other people are being stupid, misguided and wrong? They will not thank me for helping them!

      If it is someone I care about, I may ask them “Why?”. “Why do you think that?”, “Why is this issue important to you, personally?!”, “Does it actually make a difference either way?”.

      One wants them to think more about How and Why they decided something was important or “The Truth”. And then on how that importance compares with other things, that one can do something about Now. What they hope to achieve by “proving that someone is wrong on the Internet”, the eventual pay-off for all of their work.

      It is the old story about Circle of control, vs. Circle of influence and Circle of concern.

      Despite me thinking that Covey is a bit of a flimflam artist, it does really works to “… only worry about what you control” on all levels.

    3. Marina Bart

      Thanks for the compliment. (I loved finding out that I’m not the only one CTRL-Fing the comments section routinely.)

      Those are all good questions, which I will try to address next. To be honest, 1 and 2 are both doable, I think, but 3 is the big problem. What alternative is there to overreaching by the propagandists until you reach the “Have you no decency, Sir?” moment. Honestly, I don’t know of one, offhand. Herd stuff and social pressure is really powerful, once you get it going. That’s why stampeding the herd is so useful, if you can do it. There’s a whole lot of destructive energy in a stampeding herd, even if individually, they’re all cows content to chew their cud.

  26. flora

    “But their carefully recorded data and desperate phone calls were ignored, rather than be included in what Ada considered in her 400,000 simulations a day. Ada’s “advice” was filtered by what her masters allowed her to know. “

    400,000 simulations a day!
    But, ‘Ada’s “advice” was filtered by what her masters allowed her to know.’
    This sounds like a project that prized consistency above all. Consistent answers! 400,000 times a day! There’s an obvious downfall in that approach. Consistency is not the same as accuracy. Ada could have been consistently wrong.

    Inconsistencies are the feedbacks one looks for to refine thinking and algorithms, not something to rig the computer inputs against to keep the output answers “consistent.”

    1. flora

      adding: one can only wonder if the candidate’s temperament drove Ada’s coders and users to prize consistency and – what to call it? – the creation of a “yes man” algorithm?

      1. JTFaraday

        Yes, indeed. I think a big part of HRC’s failure has to do with no one telling, or being able to, tell her anything.

        Ditto the Bernie Bros, who lost the primary election for Bernie. If I had wanted a Trumpertantrum, I would have voted for the real thing.

  27. skk

    I enjoyed the tl;dr essay and looked forward to more. I’ve come from hard science e.g. metal crack propagation math models then more statistical stochastic process control to more softer domain models like media mix modeling, conversion attribution modeling.

    There my domain knowledge is lower so I look forward to more articles on the marketing v PR v advertising themes.

    I think the data analytics side was rather soft though. Those CA guys articles are definitely snake-oil, but in trying to get clients, heh whats new. The public statements by them are contradictory – they did / did not use the Mechanical Turk ruse to get access to FB profiles of requestors AND their friends, they do / do not use psychographics or Kosinski. So I wdn’t have dwelt on Cambridge ANalytica except to dismiss them.

    And that A|B testing aspect – one should really visit power and effect aspects to this sort of testing in my view. and on the same theme, then given we are talking about random variables then the smaller the segment, the larger the confidence intervals on your distribution parameters.
    Deep Learning, which is just neural networks, with lots of data to train on cos of Big Data is definitely making inroads in image, audio, text fields but not in the field under discussion.

    Here’s a couple of links that are sceptical of what Cambrdge Analytica can do and did do –

  28. Marina Bart

    Why, hey, Naked Capitalism commentariat! What up?

    I got slammed today by this thing called “work,” so I haven’t been able to read the responses to the post yet. I’m going to try to do a little bit now. But I’m pretty fried; I’m eating my first meal of the day as I type. So engaging with people regarding the piece may have to wait until tomorrow.

    I was honored to be invited by Yves to do a real post, on such an interesting issue, that touches on so many myths and problems in our current culture and political economy. I haven’t gotten a “Dear Marina” email in my In Box, so I think I still get to do at least one more post. Because I’ll have more control over the subject matter, I promise it will be shorter. I could not find a way to break up the issues around Cambridge Analytica as propaganda tool into multiple posts. The argument really needed to kept together. I actually tried to wriggle out of going into detail on one aspect, and Yves prodded me to go deeper. I figured she’s the boss, so back I went.

    I will take into consideration questions, confusion and counter-arguments from these comments in crafting the next piece. So please, consider this an open invitation to add more of them here for me to read.

    Unless you want to assert that there’s a magical AI that can do things neither Facebook nor any other data mining powerhouse demonstrably can yet do. If you don’t offer evidence, with a link, that disproves my points, I will be ignoring you about that. Likewise, Russia rigging the election or Russia being more connected to Trump than to the Democratic Party leadership. That, my friends, is actual propaganda, and I’m sorry if you fell for it. But if this piece (including all the underlying supporting links) didn’t help you to see that, I can’t help you.

    There’s a more interesting conversation to have about why it’s so easy to get people riled up but not to get them to vote. I want to reiterate that all the data mining going on is really, really bad, and really, really dangerous. You can do a lot of terrible things with data mining. But it’s not a good tool for propaganda, and without something positive to vote for — something that doesn’t have to be phonied up for people to see it as positive, ergo not requiring propaganda — there is probably no technology for at least the next couple of election cycles that will enable the Democrats to get back into power while evading giving people the concrete, universal benefits they want.

    On the bright side, that also means that Trump and the Republicans don’t have access to such a thing, either. Both parties will have to rise or fall on the basis of more traditional tools, like offering policies people want that address their material needs, presented by people who are believable as agents of such policies. (Whatever else you say about Trump, he was clearly “change,” as Hillary kept helpfully reinforcing, by constantly reminding every single voter in the country that the deeply-hated elites didn’t approve of him.) One of the most interesting elements of my research, which I couldn’t fit into the post, was that during the early Bush years AND in preparation for this election, the Republican party did an enormous amount of traditional grassroots organizing. Between 2000 and 2004, it wasn’t all targeted flyers; there was a lot of outreach. That, of course, also buoyed the Democrats in the run-up to the 2008 election.

    I suspect for the last few election cycles, we’ve all been misled by high-powered consultants and technology vendors who used the their media access and social connections to promote their claim that their expensive products and services worked, when they didn’t at all. But that’s a subject for yet another post, if I can pull the content together and Yves decides it’s worth it.

  29. fajensen

    People still want change. That is why Trump won. But the Democratic Party seems determined to make sure every single voter in the country knows they don’t want change. There is no Big Data Death Star that can help them with that problem.

    Maybe the Democratic Party’s virtue signaling is not intended as a message for the voters but for the people who actually matter to the Democratic Party – the donors? It must be comforting to know that “services will continue as normal even though we just got decimated by a carrot (thrice)”

    This is Facebook’s bread-and-butter: knowing its users well enough to push targeted advertising and content to them, in the hope this will be more effective than big, dumb (expensive, ignored) TV advertising.

    In my opinion, what Facebook is actually selling is the illusion that they can do targeted advertising better than anyone else, from Facebook’ s perspective, whatever they do doesn’t have to work in the sense of pushing more product, it only has to appear to work so that clients will pay to use Facebook for marketing. Marketing is rarely investigated for efficiency anyway, only the effort is measured. Kinda like the War on Terror.

    There is another, sinister, aspect to “social” media, the ability to target individuals – this is maybe also what Facebook and Co are selling:

    What if we wanted someone who is already lonely and isolated to do something crazy?

    Would it not be possible to interfere with that persons social media “bubble” so that only the messaging and the information you want them to have is getting through and even inserting agents between the few real-life friends that the person have so that messages can be moderated to kinda like move the targets information bubble along to something closer to what “we” want.

    I think it is possible, I think this is absolutely a research project amongst several of the TLA’s under the excuse of “turning” enemies into “agents”, while the real application is to automate the process of creating new domestic terrorists, which currently takes a lot of human effort and error-prone analogue persuasion by the likes of FBI.

    I am pretty sure that “Big Data” can sniff out persons where “persuasion towards crime”-approach would have a much better rate of success than just using the random samples of misfits and failures that somehow turn up in police databases.

  30. ewmayer

    Excellent article, but IMO the Big Data discussion misses (or drastically underplays) the fact that Trump, despite the alleged ‘lack of ground game’ of his campaign operation, spent huge amounts of time in flyover country and the Rust Belt. Contrast the 2 campaigns’ approaches there:

    [1] HRC: Extensive ground game and tons of data pouring in from local volunteer operations, all or most of which were ignored by the hubristic brain trust at the top. Moreover, Hillary probably spent as much or more time at high-$ elite bicoastal fundraisers in places like Atherton CA (a favorite haunt of Obama, as well) as she did in Flyover, or at least gave that impression. When she did feign concern for the deplorables, it was transparently fake, silly stuff along the lines of retraining out-of-work coal miners to be coders.

    [2] DJT: Who needs a ground game when your candidate *is* the ground game? Trump had a memorable quote re. an election-eve rally in (IIRC) Cleveland that drew 30,000 enthusiastic supporters, along the lines of “I thought to myself: this doesn’t feel like losing.” Plus, the extemporaneous nature of Trump rallies, in which he brilliantly displayed his talents for reading the emotional state of the crowd and adjusting to it in real time, at least gives the sense that the speaker is also listening. Very different than Hillary-style elite highly-scripted talking-down-to.

    Re. simulations – appropriately enough, the classic [i]Person of Interest[/i] S4 episode “If/Then/Else” was on WGN last night.

    1. Marina Bart

      This backs up one of my core points: Big Data was not a key differentiator for either candidate. There are tons of fundamentals that explain the outcome quite well.

      But Mercer wants to make money, so he’s probably placed some of these scare stories via PR agencies. The Democratically-allied publications are happy to take them, because the Democrats have no intention of running an appealing candidate or purging even a single speck of the corruption out of the DNC. So they desperately need a distraction from that.

      Clive’s first person reporting from inside a major industry that deals with a lot of Big Data backs up a dear friend of mine who also works at a high level inside a very different industry that likewise deals with a lot of Big Data. Big Data is a problem to be solved, not a solution to anything real at this point. It’s great for scam artists to use to relieve VC, corporate and government suckers of their money, but con artists can always find something to do that; this is just a billion dollar version of monogrammed bibles from the dearly departed or oil and gas leases that “you” can get rich from.

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