KDD.org defines Data mining as the process of discovering patterns in large data sets involving methods at the intersection of machine learning, statistics, and database systems. With the ‘Facebook Leaks’ hitting the headlines in western media and disclosures by a whistle blower, data mining and psychographics has reached a new level in Non Kinetic Warfare.
Allegedly, a data mining company, Cambridge Analytica (CA), was instrumental in supporting elections in the US as well as affecting the Brexit campaign in the UK. Similar news is coming from India where both BJP and Congress are blaming each other for using services of subsidiaries of CA to affect perceptions of voters.
The involvement of CA in Pakistani politics has also been reported. As disclosed by Eurasia Future, ‘CA has turned to Pakistan as its services were allegedly hired by ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to rescue his political career and to make sure PML-N wins in upcoming election. CA firm was hired during the Panama scandal case, as part of the campaign to smear the judiciary. However, after disqualification, Nawaz Sharif, instructed CA to help promote his party throughout the current election cycle’.
Geoplitica.ru a Russian blog posted an article on 13 March by Tayab Baloch with the title ‘Hacking democracy; Cambridge Analytica turns to Pakistan’. It states, ‘biased news reporting against the judiciary has hinted that under the procurement of Nawaz, CA has taken control over Pakistani news rooms. The trend of fake news in Pakistan was accelerated by this big data firm through biased reporting. They are trying to manipulate data and the people who come into contact with this data for their own purposes’.
What are the pitfalls of unsafe social media usage by individuals and groups and how the individual’s private information is being exploited by large conglomerates like Facebook in connivance with data mining companies; these are some of the questions this article attempts to decipher.
A whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, has revealed to the Observer how CA, a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon, used personal information taken without authorization in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalized political advertisements.
Wylie who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles, and built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
Wylie goes on to explain how data mining works, “you are playing with psychology of an entire nation or people, CA is actually a pole service manipulation data machine for propaganda, the system would not only extract information from a targeted individual, but also from entire friend network of that individual, by touching a hundred thousand individuals the system could actually get profiles of millions of people, without their coming to know about it. The mined data would include status updates, profiles and even private messages. In case of US, data for 50 million people was collected and manipulated”. The data manipulation of profiles was developed like a psyops to persuade the target based on his orientation, motivation, liking and personality.
CA had a pool of scientists, psychologists, photographers, creators, designers, choreographers and campaign managers to develop targeting themes to be injected on the internet in form of blogs, articles, graphics, videos and all kind of content to what the targeted individual or groups wanted to see.
CA worked on major election campaigns of Ted Cruz (2015), Donald Trump (2016) and ‘Leave.EU’ campaign for the UK. After entering the US market in 2012, CA targeted 44 US congressional, senate and state-level elections in the 2014 midterm elections. The list of CA enterprise in US elections included John Bolton’ Super PAC on senate races in Arkansas, North Carolina and New Hampshire; Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Tom Cotton in Arkansas, won their Senate bids.
S Novi writing for Politics means Politics.com on 9 July 2017, stated that Breitbart, headed by precious White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, was under investigation by the FBI for Russian bots allegedly pushing pro-Trump stories from the website. Novi claimed that CA was primarily owned by major Trump donor Robert Mercer. Breitbart and Mercer had a symbiotic relationship; he financed the website, and Breitbart regularly promoted the Mercer family’s interests.
Novi goes on to state that Bannon also reportedly had a financial stake in CA, and Federal Election Commission reports have indicated that millions of dollars allegedly paid by a pro-Trump super PAC to the firm were mysteriously sent to a California address registered to Bannon.
The fall out on Facebook has been very damaging, it not only suffered the loss of billions of dollars in stocks but also got a jolt to its reputation especially when Mark Zukerberg has been called by the EU Parliament for a hearing. CA and Facebook are also focus of an inquiry into data and politics by the British Information Commissioner’s Office. Although no direct involvement of Twitter and Snapchat has been reported so far, the fall of their stocks in international market shows that these platforms may come under the radar soon.
Some suggestions for Pakistan Government and Social Media users:
While Social Media may become the dominating media in next decade, some control measures and awareness campaigns are considered necessary. Can data mining on a strategic scale for political targeting be allowed, where choice of voter is manipulated to drive political agenda?
Can political advertising on Social Media platform be allowed when these can be hijacked by foreign companies on the behest of political parties within Pakistan, and, do we have some ethical standards to erect firewalls against such blatant interference in our democratic process?
How can state protect the privacy of individuals against micro-targeting based on ill-gotten and stolen user data? If the state is not forthcoming to stem the tide, the greedy companies and some political parties will resort to deception and subterfuge.
The ethics of Social Media engineering and creation of paid teams of Social Media activist is becoming a dark business, the young Social Media activist on payroll of political parties can be easily manipulated to drive anti state and anti- national agenda, hiding behind the façade of irresponsibility and cover provided by political leaders.
Pakistan may not be able to follow the Chinese strategy; however we can learn a lot from their expertise in erecting firewalls against abuse of social media and micro-targeting of common people. During recent Iran protests the state was subjected to micro-targeting and psychographics to usher in chaos in Iranian polity. Iranian regime also took up some measures to stem the tide of chaos, which can be utilised by Pakistan as well.
Pakistan also needs to develop a capability to own indigenous Social Media platforms and use of Satellites, we may think of training a cabal of patriots to support Pakistan’s cause. This is important to ward of threats from Indian and some hostile cyber warriors, who can create chaos in times of crises.
The writers are freelance columnists.