Perhaps the biggest tech scandals of this decade brought the quasi anonymous political consultancy Cambridge Analytica (CA) into the spotlight. It wasn’t the publicity they wanted but it revealed the extent of businesses involvement in changing political behaviour.
It is not surprising anymore that manipulation is often used in political campaigns. In the end, the political setup of the modern democracy revolves around power plays between coalitions and struggles to gain power. The focus on achieving political control overshadows the means through which this is achieved.
So, what’s the deal with CA? Is CA the only company that got too close to the Sun? The political machinery of campaigning and political control is definitely supported by the private sector since… ever. From how campaigns are financed in the US with private capital to the informal practices of some businesses “suggesting” voting options to their employees in Eastern Europe, businesses have always been a crucial part of the political machinery.
However, what made CA such a hot topic of discussion is the nature of the intrusion and manipulation they’ve perfected. Moreover, the scale and precision is unprecedented. While speeches broadcast on TV and printed in some newspapers could mobilize the voting base of a candidate and while rallies and employers telling their employees how to vote might bring some votes to a political party, targeting systematically a large amount of a population based on their psychological characteristics that you’ve profiled is definitely an unprecedented act of social engineering.
CA didn’t limit itself to profiling and targeting with content people to change their preferences. CA also attempted to disenfranchise certain ethnic groups.
The scandal revealed that our fears that technology is used to sway elections and manipulate people were true. Technology has a dark side that many of us ignore. We take for granted the liberties we’ve gained in the past century and minimize the consequences of straying away from a liberal democracy.