U.S. President Donald Trump would love to make his version of reality the official version, fact-free though it may be. Leah McLaren talks of some technologies that could help make that happen.
From the Globe and Mail (“Leah McLaren: News that’s neither true or fake … until you click“):
What if I told you Trump and his rich and powerful allies have found a way to make their own self-serving cognitive biases become reality – in the sense that a common perception, once collectively held across a culture, can become a kind of alternate reality that obscures any objective sense of “truth”?
What if I told you Donald Trump and men like him are finding ways to get inside your head and to affect how you feel, which will (as we know from reading behavioural economics) become how the world is for you and your friends and future generations to come?
You might say I sound like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and while I admire your healthy skepticism, I’d also like to present you with some deeply unpalatable facts. Not alternative facts. Just regular, off-the-rack truths. According to a feature story in last weekend’s Guardian newspaper, a U.S. hedge-fund billionaire by the name of Robert Mercer is the tangible link between Donald Trump’s astonishing presidential victory and Britain’s Brexit campaign – those two monumental and surprising populist victories of last year.
Mercer, who happens to be Trump’s largest single donor (he contributed $13.5-million (U.S.) to his campaign) is also the money behind Breitbart, the right-wing news site formerly run by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Mercer, who trained as a computer scientist and started his career developing artificial intelligence for IBM, has another interest close to his heart: mass propaganda via social-media algorithms.
In addition to his so-called “alt-right” media properties (with their not-so-covert aim of undermining the mainstream media), Mercer is reported to have a $10-million stake in a small data-analytics company called Cambridge Analytica – an off-shoot of a larger British strategy firm called SCL Group. Cambridge Analytica, according to its website, specializes in using big data sets to “identify influencers” and to achieve corporate and political outcomes “by showing organizations not just where people are, but what they really care about and what drives their behaviour.”
Cambridge Analytica worked for Trump as well as the pro-Brexit campaign.
Mercer is reported to be a “good friend” of Nigel Farage, Britain’s far-right Brexit champion, and reportedly offered Cambridge Analytica’s services free of charge, though Farage did not declare these services as a campaign donation. So what exactly does a company such as Cambridge Analytica do? According to one key Brexit strategist, it teaches political campaigners how to scoop up vast amounts of user data through Facebook and then follow and monitor people, tracking their “likes,” and using artificial intelligence to spread through their network of friends and, eventually, target them through advertising and customized content.
This data can then be harnessed to influence not just how we feel, but what we believe to be true.