Two hundred years ago the founding fathers created three branches of government, assuming that one party wouldn't dominate all three at once, and assuming that the legislative and executive branch actually wanted to govern the country as a democracy, not turn it into an authoritarian police state.
They couldn't have imagined a future in which right wing extremists would use psychological warfare against citizens.
In Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media, Carole Cadwalladr summarizes how billionaire computer genius Robert Mercer used AI, big data mining, and psychological warfare techniques invented at Cambridge to "change reality." He's not just the money behind Trump,The Heritage Foundation and Breitbart. He uses Cambridge Analytica and SCL to manipulate US and British voters through social media and bot armies. His bots control Google search results.
You should really read the entire article to grasp the situation we face. I had to reread it in print, with highlighter in hand, to fully digest the contents. Here is a tiny fraction in excerpts.
Robert Mercer’s... his connection to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group. It specialises in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as “psyops” – psychological operations. (Mass propaganda that works by acting on people’s emotions.)
Cambridge Analytica worked for the Trump campaign and, so I’d read, the Leave campaign.
Google’s search results on certain subjects were being dominated by rightwing and extremist sites. Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, who had mapped the news ecosystem and found millions of links between rightwing sites “strangling” the mainstream media, told me that trackers from sites like Breitbart could also be used by companies like Cambridge Analytica to follow people around the web and then, via Facebook, target them with ads.
On its website, Cambridge Analytica makes the astonishing boast that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters – its USP is to use this data to understand people’s deepest emotions and then target them accordingly. The system, according to Albright, amounted to a “propaganda machine”.
A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert.
... that with knowledge of 150 likes, their model could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse. With 300, it understood you better than yourself. “Computers see us in a more robust way than we see ourselves,” ...
“The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour."
“It’s no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. ...
nobody has really followed through on the possible consequences of all this. People don’t know it’s happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs.”
Cambridge Analytica has the technological tools to effect behavioural and psychological change, she said, but it’s SCL that strategises it. It has specialised, at the highest level – for Nato, the MoD, the US state department and others – in changing the behaviour of large groups. It models mass populations and then it changes their beliefs.
... the company had been “making money out of the propaganda side of the war on terrorism over a long period of time. There are different arms of SCL but it’s all about reach and the ability to shape the discourse. They are trying to amplify particular political narratives. And they are selective in who they go for: they are not doing this for the left.”
"In the course of the US election, Cambridge Analytica amassed a database, as it claims on its website, of almost the entire US voting population – 220 million people – and the Washington Post reported last week that SCL was increasing staffing at its Washington office and competing for lucrative new contracts with Trump’s administration. “It seems significant that a company involved in engineering a political outcome profits from what follows. Particularly if it’s the manipulation, and then resolution, of fear,” ...
[background and text mine, image from article]
Bio-psycho-social profiling ... is one offensive in what is called “cognitive warfare”.
...the power of a “cognitive casualty” – a “moral shock” that “has a disabling effect on empathy and higher processes such as moral reasoning and critical thinking”. Something like immigration, perhaps. Or “fake news”. Or as it has now become: “FAKE news!!!!”
How do you change the way a nation thinks? You could start by creating a mainstream media to replace the existing one with a site such as Breitbart. You could set up other websites that displace mainstream sources of news and information with your own definitions of concepts ... [emphasis mine]
This is the power behind the 20% of American voters who believe Trump's gaslighting. He's already manipualted their perceived reality and real politics. Of course psychological warfare doesn't work on physics. The climate is still destabilizing, no matter how many times they repeat climate denial lies.
How can we frame a concrete request to our legislators, to protect what's left of democracy from this onslaught?
Aside from the psyops uses -- many of my friends think of ads (on the internet, on TV, on billboards, etc.) as harmless things they can dismiss and ignore. If so many people's confidence in that power were justified, corporations wouldn't be spending so much money on ads.
I remember reading about a study where people were shown ads with blatantly manipulative wording. Consciously, they recognized that and dismissed the claims. Yet two weeks later, they had a more favorable impression of the brand than people who hadn't seen those ads!
I never before thought of ad blockers as one defense against psychological warfare, against cabals out to change how I think about not just brands but issues and values!
Perhaps liberals could request a Google search engine that blocks the websites created for cognitive warfare, such as CNSnews.com.
But that wouldn't address the problem that Mercer has "taken over" Google and Youtube search algorithms, and we liberals are now in our own echo chamber rather than talking to the public.
Here's my letter to address this threat. Same text for both houses.
The United States is in crisis.
The Founding Fathers didn’t design checks and balances against a billionaire computer genius like Robert Mercer. They never thought an administration would believe it had a mandate to destroy democracy. They didn’t plan for one political party to dominate Congress and the administration in order to sabotage free press, control the judiciary, and strip away constitutional rights.
Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group applied psychological warfare techniques against US citizens to put this administration in power. The Washington Post reports that SCL is competing for lucrative new contracts with Trump’s administration. Propaganda specialist Emma Briant said, “It seems significant that a company involved in engineering a political outcome profits from what follows. Particularly if it’s the manipulation, and then resolution, of fear.”
The press, social media, and internet search algorithms have been turned against citizens with bio-psycho-social profiling, data analytics, bot armies, cognitive warfare, and psyops (psychological operations). Constituents no longer know how to tell real news from fake news, truth from gaslighting “alternative facts”.
Routine legislative measures to investigate foreign influence and self-dealing corruption have been cut off at the knees.
Now is the time to creatively defend constitutional democracy from the mascinations of Robert Mercer and his ilk. Organize actual patriots in Congress. Involve the CIA, involve the public. Recommend ethics mechanisms designed for contemporary challenges.
If by inaction or complicity Congress lets US democracy collapse into a democratic-façade authoritarian state like Hungary, you will bitterly regret it. While voters are easily tricked by an AI familiar with their “likes”, physics and chemistry are immune. The Arctic is destabilizing this year. Civilization won’t survive past the 4°C rise above preindustrial temperature, due by century’s end. The business-as-usual of a Trump climate denialist regime will lock in an eventual 7°C rise that will finish scattered human remnants.
Conscience demands a higher calling than a political career.