The presidential election left me baffled, disoriented, and worried, but I’m finally coming to grips with its results. How could anyone vote for a man who openly espoused such vile ideas? I could see a handful of Trump supporters in my Facebook feed, so the fact that people gravitate to like-minded bubbles didn’t seem like an adequate explanation to me. I kept wondering: What the hell just happened?
Thanks to a podcast I listened to last week and an article I read this morning, I’m beginning to understand more of the many forces that put Trump in office. I’ve heard rumblings about the Tea Party as a big factor in his rise, coupled with suggestions that we copy their tactics, but that’s not going to do the trick (check out this article for details. Also, if you search for “Tea Party” on Google images you get some lovely pictures).
First, there was – and remains – the War on Science. I haven’t read the book yet, but I did listen to the podcast. In it, Sean Otto tells the story of how the oil industry, alarmed by the findings of their own scientists in the late 1960s, undermined the scientific consensus on climate change because to take it seriously would undermine their profits.
Journalists fed the trumped up controversy out of a reasonable desire to show both sides of a story and to keep their stations’ corporate sponsors happy.
Meanwhile, the religious right had its own anti-science agenda, which included wanting to promote creationism. The religious right provided “willing foot soldiers” for the interests of big oil companies, and extended their influence. These voters are skeptical of the so-called liberal media and are sometimes single-issue, anti-abortion voters.
This union of religious extremists and big business laid groundwork that made many voters vulnerable to the tactics of Trump’s campaign. Das Magazin, a German language publication, reported on how the Brexit and Trump campaigns used psychometrics and highly targeted marketing to win their campaigns. You can read the full English language version at http://hannesgrassegger.twoday.net/stories/english-version-of-our-piece-on-cambridge-analytica-and-donald-trump/, but here’s a quick summary:
PhD students at the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge conducted a study pairing psychometric scores with Facebook profiles. They were left with an enormous data set, and were approached by Cambridge Analytica, an “election management agency” that went on to work for the Brexit and Trump campaigns. One of the researchers absconded with the data and delivered it to CA, which also uses data from sources far beyond Facebook. They “divided the U.S. population into 32 personality types, and focused on just 17 states.” They used demographic data, personality types, and consumer data to send campaigners to the houses of swing voters in swing states. They may also have used this approach to discourage probable voters for the opposition, though they later denied doing so. Each likely or possible Trump voter was delivered the message that they would be most receptive to, either in person or via targeted internet advertising. “Trump’s striking inconsistencies, his much-criticized fickleness, and the resulting array of contradictory messages, suddenly turned out to be his great asset: a different message for every voter.”
I never got any of those messages. I’m a non-authoritarian, Prius-driving woman from Massachusetts, and he never would have gotten my vote. Now that he’s in office, it’s no wonder people like me are resentful. He didn’t even try to campaign for the popular vote, and in that ABC interview I got the sense that he kind of wishes he had. Conservative and extreme right-wing political campaigns around the world are using targeted advertising very effectively. They pinpoint people who are vulnerable to changing their minds when fed the right messages and get them out to vote.
So, what’s the takeaway? Conservative and extreme right-wing political campaigns around the world are using Big-Data-targeted advertising very effectively. They pinpoint people who are vulnerable to changing their minds when fed the right messages and get them out to vote.
I don’t think that Trump’s opponents should necessarily imitate this tactic, but I do think that it helps to be aware of it. Targeted marketing isn’t necessarily bad, either – I try to advertise my fantasy novels to readers who like that kind of thing in general, rather than bombarding non-readers with “buy my book” spam – but when it’s used this way in a political campaign, I’m uncomfortable with it (and not just because we lost). It fragments the conversation and can be used to deliberately isolate groups and individuals in clouds of misinformation. Here’s another quote from the article: “Trump’s striking inconsistencies, his much-criticized fickleness, and the resulting array of contradictory messages, suddenly turned out to be his great asset: a different message for every voter.”
In contrast, my impression is that the Women’s March movement is aiming for an inclusive conversation, united around our common concerns. I’m idealistic enough to hope that by counteracting isolationism on every level, from the national to the individual scale, we might be able to take some of the teeth out of these ongoing campaigns of misinformation. We can come together around common concerns like human rights and public education to protect them against the cabal that’s busy tearing down our national government.
Repairing all the damage they’ve already done, plus what they’re doing now, is going to take decades, if not generations.
(All images creative commons licensed from here and there.)