medium | “This is a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go,” said professor Jonathan Albright.
Albright, an assistant professor and data scientist at Elon University, started digging into fake news sites after Donald Trump was elected president. Through extensive research and interviews with Albright and other key experts in the field, including Samuel Woolley, Head of Research at Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project, and Martin Moore, Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at Kings College, it became clear to Scout that this phenomenon was about much more than just a few fake news stories. It was a piece of a much bigger and darker puzzle — a Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine being used to manipulate our opinions and behavior to advance specific political agendas.
By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.
Most recently, Analytica helped elect U.S. President Donald Trump, secured a win for the Brexit Leave campaign, and led Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign surge, shepherding him from the back of the GOP primary pack to the front.
The company is owned and controlled by conservative and alt-right interests that are also deeply entwined in the Trump administration. The Mercer family is both a major owner of Cambridge Analytica and one of Trump’s biggest donors. Steve Bannon, in addition to acting as Trump’s Chief Strategist and a member of the White House Security Council, is a Cambridge Analytica board member. Until recently, Analytica’s CTO was the acting CTO at the Republican National Convention.
Presumably because of its alliances, Analytica has declined to work on any democratic campaigns — at least in the U.S. It is, however, in final talks to help Trump manage public opinion around his presidential policies and to expand sales for the Trump Organization. Cambridge Analytica is now expanding aggressively into U.S. commercial markets and is also meeting with right-wing parties and governments in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
Cambridge Analytica isn’t the only company that could pull this off — but it is the most powerful right now. Understanding Cambridge Analytica and the bigger AI Propaganda Machine is essential for anyone who wants to understand modern political power, build a movement, or keep from being manipulated. The Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine it represents has become the new prerequisite for political success in a world of polarization, isolation, trolls, and dark posts.