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Brexit, Trump and the role of big data – one conspiracy theory worth investigating

May 15, 2017

I’m not someone who flies around peddling conspiracy theories. Most of the stuff I encounter is baseless, even more so since politically-motivated websites started deliberately seeding the internet with their creations.

But I make one exception. I believe that there’s enough evidence to make at least a prima facie case that a group of right-wing American billionaires used their money and technology to subvert Britain’s EU Referendum. They then went on to use the same techniques to win the US election for Donald Trump. I also believe that the UK’s election laws are incapable of preventing the same techniques from being deployed again – specifically in the current General Election campaign.

You might think that as a fervent Remainer who despises everything Donald Trump stands for, I’m just another gullible fool who believes what he wants to believe on the basis of the thinnest of evidence.

If so, read no further.

But if you’ve followed my blog over the past months and years, I might have convinced you that I’m reasonably rational, and that I’m not a “true believer” in anything. As for conspiracy theories, here’s a piece I wrote three yours ago that sums up my scepticism about the wider shores of human belief: Conspiracy Theories – the truth isn’t out there, it’s right in front of us (if we care to look).

I don’t believe in the grassy knoll. I don’t believe that the neoconservatives brought down the twin towers. I do believe that we went to the moon. I don’t believe that George Bush Senior is a member of a reptile elite running the world. And I don’t believe that a bunch of clapped-out politicians known as the Bilderberg Group is running it either. Roswell, alien abductions, X-files? Not convinced. And sadly, I don’t believe that the passengers of MH370 are hunkered down in a remote Pacific island waiting to be rescued from the clutches of a demented pilot.

Those who believe in conspiracies often do so because the theories chime with their world view. In other words “they sound right”. And if they read about the theory from a source they trust, they’re even more likely to believe it. So if you were a Breitbart reader before the US election, you would be well primed to believe that Hillary Clinton was the devil incarnate.

Three months ago I wrote about an article by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer newspaper. In my piece – Are we really Bannon fodder in an information war? – I summarised Cadwalladr’s article thus:

Robert Mercer is a billionaire hedge fund owner who has bankrolled several organisations in order to promote his right-wing, libertarian views. He is a former IBM employee with a deep understanding of Big Data.

He’s a buddy of Steve Bannon and an investor in right-wing news site Breitbart. Another of the companies in which Mercer has invested is Cambridge Analytica, who have amassed profiles of over 220 million Americans based on data hoovered up from Facebook. Using artificial intelligence and working with information gathered from the likes we click on a daily basis, CA is able to help politicians tailor messages that tap into and manipulate the emotions of targeted voters.

Cambridge Analytica worked for Trump, and also provided support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign – the latter for no charge. It is basically, according to Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina, a propaganda machine.

The company inherited a number of its techniques from another company in which Mercer is involved – the SCL Group, from which it was spun off in 2013. The two companies retain close links.

According to Cadwalladr, the relationship between the two companies is thus:

“Emma Briant, a propaganda specialist at the University of Sheffield, wrote about SCL Group in her 2015 book, Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change. 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.”

Since then, Cadwalladr has discovered more about the companies that Mercer controls, and about the relationships of the various pro-leave campaign groups to his companies.

If you are interested in the future of democracy in your country – and not just in Britain – I urge you to read her latest article, The Great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked

You might find it disturbing. As with her previous piece, I had to read it twice before I got a proper grasp of what she’s saying.

And in case you’re not familiar with the UK media landscape, the newspaper she writes for is one of the oldest in Britain. It was first published in 1791. It has a reputation as a responsible publication that holds its staff to rigorous journalistic standards. Which is why I wrote earlier about trusting the source.

I can’t know for sure whether Mr Mercer and his crew were responsible for tipping the balance in favour of the Leave campaigns, or whether any laws were broken in the process. But I do believe that the British Government should set up an independent Commission of Inquiry to find out, and also to report on whether Britain’s election laws are still fit for purpose.

And if it was legally permissible to do so, I would be happy to see certain individuals put in a darkened room and asked some very hard questions in the harsh glare of a spotlight.

Common sense says that the government would go to any lengths to avoid such an inquiry, since it could quite possibly undermine the legitimacy of the referendum, and therefore of the government’s subsequent acts.

But it’s conceivable that as more information emerges about the possible subversion of the US election, and especially if that information also relates to the British referendum, the government might find itself forced to react, no matter how traumatic the consequences.

The Conservatives will then have the same choice as the Republicans should they be asked to impeach Donald Trump: do we act in the interests of the party, or of the nation?

From → Politics, UK, USA

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