by Matthew Crain, Anthony Nadler via n+1 on September 27, 2017
The tactics of carefully targeted, data-driven manipulation—though innovative and destabilizing—are not entirely new. They predate the existence of Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook, and the contemporary notion of “fake news” itself. For decades, digital marketers—working in both commercial and political domains—have been perfecting models for using consumer data to identify and manipulate decision-making vulnerabilities. New marketing techniques have been developed with an astounding level of sophistication and duplicity: the particular exploits of Cambridge Analytica and its contemporaries depend upon a matrix of data collection and targeted communications, the primary purpose of which is not to influence politics but to increase the power of marketing. Call it an infrastructure for commercial surveillance: the technologies, companies, and, importantly, public policies that enable behavioral engineering over digital networks. One of the central threads of today’s internet is a shared capacity among businesses to collect and exchange user information.1 In the ocean of big data, no company is an island.
In her investigative reporting for the Guardian earlier this year, Carole Cadwalladr revealed how Cambridge Analytica partners with digital marketers and tech companies at key stages in its workflow. Detailed consumer information is readily obtained from any number of commercial data brokers. Firms like Experian and Acxiom compile rich profiles on literally all US households and specialize in merging disparate data sets in order to make them actionable for their clients. To collect information firsthand, Cambridge Analytica need only tap into a platform like Facebook, which also serves a means for distributing targeting messages. The entanglement is deep enough that it is hard to imagine how Cambridge Analytica could function without access to commercial data pipelines and communication channels.
Today’s surveillance infrastructure represents nearly three decades of technical and political engineering. A range of marketing interests have steered the development of digital networks toward maximizing their consumer surveillance capacities, tilling the soil for political manipulation. From Cambridge Analytica to the Russian FSB, big data’s negative political externalities stem from the powerful influence of marketing over our communications systems. Going back at least to the emergence of radio broadcasting, marketers have seized upon successive communications platforms, exerting considerable effort to bring them into alignment with the needs of business.