Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. “Deplorables” Pwning the Info Wars? Blame Canada!

 

Fans of Brexit’s Vote Leave campaign might remember Dominic Cummings’s reflections on the uses (and abuses) of data in politics. Cummings, often hailed as the mastermind behind Vote Leave, is an eloquent advocate for how getting the data science right contributed to Vote Leave‘s success, and he has a prickly – even “psychopathic” – reputation as a man who won’t suffer data-science fools (or at least those whom he deems foolish) gladly.

No doubt Cummings is right that charlatanism infests the ranks of political “data scientists”, but a more charitable term than “charlatanism” for much iffy “data science” might be “ad-hockery”: Adventurous wunderkinds promote ad-hoc heuristics which seem to work well enough, or which work until they don’t, or which may work, but which haven’t yet been vetted by systematic scientific reasoning. Ad-hoc heuristics aren’t inherently deceptive, or incapable of delivering what they claim to deliver. They deserve to be met with plenty of skepticism, of course, but skepticism needn’t always include suspicion of fraud.

In the most purist, nerdly recesses of my heart, I agree with Cummings that ad-hockery just isn’t scientific enough to count as data science. On the other hand, the Right – especially the populist Right – has borne a reputation as the plodding, unadventurous “party of stupid” for long enough that I find the great scandal of Cambridge Analytica’s audacious adventures in data strangely cheering: Sure, Cambridge Analytica’s acquisition of the data of 50 million Facebook users was dodgy, and “psyops” targeting voters’ personality traits (such as the “Big Five”) may not work as hyped (Cummings, tweeting under @odysseanproject, seems quite confident that they don’t). But at least the stodgy Brexiteers and Republicans who employed Cambridge Analytica were willing to get out of their comfort zone and experiment! Out of their comfort zone? Blame Canada – and Bannon. More specifically, blame the gay, vegan, pink-haired Canadian fashionista Christopher Wylie, a self-taught computer prodigy who came up through the ranks of the Liberal Democrats, only to be recruited by Bannon to play the Nate-Silver-wannabe role of predictive wunderkind for Cambridge Analytica.


According to Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr, whose legwork on Cambridge Analytica remains impressive despite her biases,

At 24, [Wylie] came up with an idea that led to the foundation of a company called Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU membership referendum, and later became a key figure in digital operations during Donald Trump’s election campaign.

Or, as Wylie describes it, he was the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating ‘Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mind[expletive] tool’.

Wylie began his career in politics as a bright but troubled lad who had dropped out of school at age 16.

[A]t 17, he was working in the office of the leader of the Canadian opposition; at 18, he went to learn all things data from Obama’s national director of targeting, which he then introduced to Canada for the Liberal party. At 19, he taught himself to code, and in 2010, age 20, he came to London to study law at the London School of Economics.

Wylie was “studying for a PhD in fashion trend forecasting” when he

came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles. And then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup.

Bannon and the Mercers seemed interested not only in Wylie’s plan but also in who Wylie was. According to Wylie, both saw gay individuals like Wylie as an asset,

“[Rebekah Mercer] loved the gays. So did Steve [Bannon]. He saw us as early adopters. He figured, if you can get the gays on board, everyone else will follow. It’s why he was so into the whole Milo [Yiannopoulos] thing.”

Of Bannon, Wylie remarks,

“He’s the only straight man I’ve ever talked to about intersectional feminist theory. He saw its relevance straightaway to the oppressions that conservative, young white men feel.”

Wylie evidently warmed to Bannon’s willingness to treat politics like fashion in order to wage information warfare, as well as Bannon’s willingness to treat intersectionality as more than just the butt of right-wing jokes. Intersectionality and politics-as-fashion may be hallmarks of the SJW stereotype, but it’s possible many in the red tribe found themselves warming to Bannon’s willingness to use “SJW-like” strategies, too: Breitbart readership has fallen by half since Bannon’s departure, a sign that Bannon’s unique outlook struck a chord that’s hard to repeat.


Wylie and Bannon may have made the perfect odd couple in the info wars. But were they doing data science?

Maybe.

As far as I can tell, Dominic Cummings would say they weren’t. The Brexiteers were a fractious lot, with the overall organization of a clown car stuffed with stabby sorority sisters, if Cummings is to be believed. Cummings asserts Cambridge Analytica was “100% irrelevant” to Vote Leave’s success, referring darkly to a January coup, which may have involved different Brexit factions going their separate ways over data analysis. Cummings tweeted,

whole point of the Jan16 coup & Farage trying to get me fired was my refusal to work w/ those bozos, the exact opposite of [Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr’s] conspiracy [theory]

“Those bozos”, in context, appear to include Cambridge Analytica. Nearly getting fired for refusing to work with “those bozos” is by itself plenty motivation for supposing “those bozos” incapable of real data science, so Cummings may harbor a bias against Cambridge Analytica’s competence. Complicating the picture, Cummings did work with AggregateIQ, a firm which apparently shared software with Cambridge Analytica, and which Cummings characterizes as,

AIQ are NOT a data science or data analytics company. They did not do DS/modelling as I have explained repeatedly.

Perhaps Cummings prefers to be unreasonably rigorous in his definition of what counts as analytics because it suits his politics. A man who boasted of bringing in real physicists to create the analytics which eked out Vote Leave’s spectacular Brexit victory may shy away from being associated even indirectly with the “data scientists” employed by the scruffier politicians (Cummings doesn’t seem to think highly of the UKIP crowd), some of whom developed their data-manipulation skills through ad-hoc training in fashion and politics, as Wylie did. Perhaps Cummings’s desire for more rigor in political data analysis is inseparable from a desire to be seen as more respectable politically, physicists being more respectable to the mainstream than data-jockeying fashionistas and political operatives smacking of the “alt right”.


Reporters describe Wylie as brilliant, but brilliance doesn’t guarantee truthful analysis, especially when you’re young, arrogant, and inexperienced. Still, it’s hard not to admire Wylie’s gumption in pursuing his crazy “psyop” ideas as far as those fostering him would allow.

One way data science advances is through upstarts being willing to stress-test their crazy heuristics until they find one that doesn’t fail. That’s the hacker’s way of doing science, neither as satisfying nor as respectable as carefully building heuristics up from first principles, and those hacking their way through the data with one ad-hockery after another should be shot down, whenever possible, by those with a better grasp of the data’s scientific context. But saying hackish ad-hockery deserves to be attacked by the full majesty of respectable science isn’t saying hackish ad-hockery shouldn’t exist. Rather, it’s saying that both ad-hockery and systematic scientific thinking benefit from one another, though they’re not equal partners in what really counts as science.

Disentangling the gumption to try crazy ideas from the gullibility to succumb to crazy ideas is tough. Cummings emphasizes that politicians and reporters alike are too easily gulled into treating theories as “science” when they aren’t. It’s tempting for those (like reporters and politicians) who excel at spinning compelling narratives (rather than vetting narratives for strict scientific accuracy) to believe that the world of data science is a world of data science fiction – a sensational, spy-novel world where “psyops” must surely work, where “information warfare” is something fractious and limited humans have cracked the code of waging, and so on. Some bias toward conflating the sensational with the scientific is not only understandable but perhaps even necessary: reporters incapable of writing about science as if it were thrilling, chilling science fiction would bore most readers out of reading, after all.


Cambridge Analytica is busting up. Its CEO has been suspended. Its headquarters have been raided. Its wunderkind Christopher Wylie has been cooperating with reporters for a while now on exposés to bring Cambridge Analytica down. Did Cambridge Analytica succeed in becoming a highly-effective force for sinister political manipulation? Doubtful. Did it have much power at all, other than the power to bamboozle the more populist politicians and their wealthy donors into financing its adventures?

Robert Mercer was the political donor backing Cambridge Analytica, and Mercer, himself an AI expert, is no dummy. It seems possible Cambridge Analytica partially delivered on its promise to influence a non-negligible portion of voters to either get out and vote on election day or stay home (influencing voters to change who they’d vote for in the first place is much more difficult, and usually beyond the scope of such operations). This by itself is no great scandal, though many would like it to be. It’s also possible Cambridge Analytica advanced some useful analytic techniques in the process, even if much of the “data science” it was peddling turns out to be mere science fiction.


Cambridge Analytica isn’t the first outfit attempting to use big data or psychology to influence voters, and it won’t be the last. It’s not the first to sell as data “science” what might merely be science fiction, and it won’t be the last. What’s most remarkable about Cambridge Analytica isn’t what it tried to do, but who it tried to do it for. It’s one thing for hip, cosmopolitan politicians like Obama to exploit big data. That seems trendy. That seems natural – tribally “in character.” It’s another when “deplorable” politicians do – not because “deplorable” politicians will obviously be more successful at exerting evil influence thereby, but simply because it’s incongruous – deplorables have a reputation for being plodding technophobes! Perhaps Cambridge Analytica’s meteoric rise and fall are so shocking because it’s the best-publicized evidence we’ve seen so far that politicians representing the red tribe can be just as willing to experiment with novel ideas and technology as those who represent the blue tribe.

Would it be even better if more right-leaning politicians did as the Vote Leave campaign, under the flinty eye of Cummings and his allies, did, tempering their adventures in data with considerable rigor, skepticism, and transparency? Yes, it would be. But, as Reagan said, half a loaf is better than none, and you can come back to get the second half later.

There are 19 comments.

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  1. Nick H Coolidge

    Very interesting. I tend to be skeptical of grandiose claims that “data science” can be used to significantly influence large groups of voters. In the end you’re dealing with people, and even in the aggregate we’re a contrary lot. All the targeting in the world won’t make up for a lousy candidate and a bad message.

    • #1
    • March 26, 2018, at 10:00 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Nick H (View Comment):

    Very interesting. I tend to be skeptical of grandiose claims that “data science” can be used to significantly influence large groups of voters. In the end you’re dealing with people, and even in the aggregate we’re a contrary lot. All the targeting in the world won’t make up for a lousy candidate and a bad message.

    “Data science” isn’t magic, certainly. If you believe what Cummings has to say about everything which must go right in order to win a hotly-contested campaign, then data science can play a nontrivial role in victory. (Cummings claims it did in winning Brexit, for example.) It’s not a large role, but especially when margins of victory are narrow, you want every advantage you can get!

    Data science is for politicians what exercise and nutrition science is for athletes – there’s great pressure to advance the actual science to gain edges that actually work, but also pressure to grasp at any plausible advantage, even if it later turns out to be bunk.

    • #2
    • March 26, 2018, at 10:14 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Very brainy and thoughtful as always, Midge. Thanks for the post–there’s a lot to chew over here. 

    • #3
    • March 26, 2018, at 10:26 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Very brainy and thoughtful as always, Midge. Thanks for the post–there’s a lot to chew over here.

    I’ve been composing this post off and on for several days. During that time, Cummings himself – much brainier on these things, I guarantee – has been blogging up a storm.

    For those curious about these matters, Cummings’s lasted blog posts are definitely worth a read, although he’s obviously not a disinterested party in these matters.

    • #4
    • March 26, 2018, at 10:42 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The kid sold Barack Obama’s methods to the Liberal Party of Canada, and you wanna blame Canada for that?

    Next you’ll want to blame us for Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Roe v. Wade, and the Income Tax (four progressive schemes that were introduced in the USA first)!

    ;-)

    • #5
    • March 26, 2018, at 10:45 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    All people would find out about me based on my Facebook activity is that I’m fond of bad jokes, worse puns, thoughtful analysis with which I may or may not agree, and a few flakes.

    Question: did Hillary employ her own “data scientists,” or did she cheap-out and rely on the stuff that Obama’s team put together for 2012? Because back then, the news was full of how brilliantly Team Obama handled their internet campaign.

    • #6
    • March 26, 2018, at 10:49 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. Profile Photo Member

    To the extent that this works at all, it seems to me that it has to be done without the general population being aware that these efforts are out there. We humans are a cross-grained bunch. If we feel we’re being manipulated we tend to push back, just to be contrary. Or maybe that’s just me.

    • #7
    • March 26, 2018, at 10:52 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. Profile Photo Member

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):

    The kid sold Barack Obama’s methods to the Liberal Party of Canada, and you wanna blame Canada for that?

    Next you’ll want to blame us for Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Roe v. Wade, and the Income Tax (four progressive schemes that were introduced in the USA first)!

    ;-)

    Sure, why not.

    • #8
    • March 26, 2018, at 10:53 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    AFAIK, Canadians started to be seen as cool and hip and somewhat progressive around the time of the Vietnam war and expo67. So anyone my age or below is used to seeing our northern friends depicted as nicer, kinder, smarter versions of Americans, without all those ghettos and guns and stuff.

    But to men of my father’s generation, Canada was an essentially conservative place, culturally and every other way. It was a major military power–couldn’t have done D Day without ’em–and continued to be one well into the Cold War.

    • #9
    • March 26, 2018, at 11:03 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):

    The kid sold Barack Obama’s methods to the Liberal Party of Canada, and you wanna blame Canada for that?

    ;-)

    ‘Twas your foul Dominion whut bred the whippersnapper in the first place — Wylie is Canuckistan’s spawn ;-P

    • #10
    • March 26, 2018, at 11:04 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  11. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):

    The kid sold Barack Obama’s methods to the Liberal Party of Canada, and you wanna blame Canada for that?

    Next you’ll want to blame us for Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Roe v. Wade, and the Income Tax (four progressive schemes that were introduced in the USA first)!

    ;-)

    Sure, why not.

    • #11
    • March 26, 2018, at 11:49 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  12. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    …without all those ghettos and guns and stuff.

    Don’t tell anybody that the US was much more ethnically diverse than Canada was right up until the 1976 Immigration Act. It’ll be our little secret.

    Heck, the only reason I can’t say with certainty that the US is more ethnically diverse today is because Canadian census data tracks “ethnic origin” rather than “race”, so the #1 category is always “Canadian”. Also, people are allowed to self-identify in multiple categories, so the percentages add up to over 150%.

    Still, Statistics Canada says that 22.3% of Canadians are “visible minorities”. In the USA it’s 26.4% if you count hispanics as “white”, and over 40% if you count hispanics as “visible minorities”.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_the_United_States#Race_and_ethnicity

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Canada#Ethnicity

    • #12
    • March 26, 2018, at 11:54 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  13. Joshua Bissey Coolidge

    “Info wars” is a term I’d avoid, given the website of that name.

    • #13
    • March 26, 2018, at 12:24 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge

    Nick H (View Comment):

    Very interesting. I tend to be skeptical of grandiose claims that “data science” can be used to significantly influence large groups of voters. In the end you’re dealing with people, and even in the aggregate we’re a contrary lot. All the targeting in the world won’t make up for a lousy candidate and a bad message.

    You misunderstand the purpose. Brexit and Trump happened because of improperly applied data science. This means the winners cheated, the losers did not lose fair and square. Thus the BREXIT vote needs to be redone. Thus Trump needs to be impeached. Thus this type of data needs to be secured so it can only be used by the “right” people.

    • #14
    • March 26, 2018, at 4:49 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. Manny Member

    Are these info wars really anything new, other than the type of communication? All political groups shape data to argue their point of view. That’s why it’s called “spin.” Politics is about expressing and implementing cultural values, one way or the other, and data is a means of substatiating those values, and if it doesn’t, you ignore it or spin it.

    • #15
    • March 27, 2018, at 5:25 AM PDT
    • Like
  16. Spin Inactive
    SpinJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Manny (View Comment):
    spin

    You rang?

    • #16
    • March 27, 2018, at 5:33 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  17. Spin Inactive
    SpinJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    What I find interesting about all of this is how the Obama campaign was considered hip, smart, and in-tune with the young crowd for using social media analytics to target advertisements strategically. Hell, I think it’s awesome. But when someone else does it, well, now that’s a different story…

    Nobody knew it was going on in 2012…but now everyone is righteously angry about it in 2018.

    • #17
    • March 27, 2018, at 5:35 AM PDT
    • Like
  18. Manny Member

    Spin (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):
    spin

    You rang?

    LOL!

    • #18
    • March 27, 2018, at 5:36 AM PDT
    • Like
  19. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Spin (View Comment):

    What I find interesting about all of this is how the Obama campaign was considered hip, smart, and in-tune with the young crowd for using social media analytics to target advertisements strategically. Hell, I think it’s awesome. But when someone else does it, well, now that’s a different story…

    Nobody knew it was going on in 2012…but now everyone is righteously angry about it in 2018.

    Well, there are a few things Cambridge Analytica did wrong compared to Obama’s team. The specific misuse of academic privileges on data: no Obama’s team didn’t do that.

    Another somewhat troubling thing that really came to light in the various Cambridge Analytica exposés is how incestuous political campaigns are with various countries’ defense departments. Obviously, politicians and defense departments both want the best whiz-kids, so in that sense it’s not surprising that they share. Nonetheless, it’s every so slightly hinky.

    • #19
    • March 27, 2018, at 2:01 PM PDT
    • 2 likes

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