How Tech Companies are Waging “Psyops” Warfare on American and British Democracies

From yesterday’s Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr:

In June 2013, a young American postgraduate called Sophie was passing through London when she called up the boss of a firm where she’d previously interned. The company, SCL Elections, went on to be bought by Robert Mercer, a secretive hedge fund billionaire, renamed Cambridge Analytica, and achieved a certain notoriety as the data analytics firm that played a role in both Trump and Brexit campaigns. But all of this was still to come. London in 2013 was still basking in the afterglow of the Olympics. Britain had not yet Brexited. The world had not yet turned.

“That was before we became this dark, dystopian data company that gave the world Trump,” a former Cambridge Analytica employee who I’ll call Paul tells me. “It was back when we were still just a psychological warfare firm.”

Was that really what you called it, I ask him. Psychological warfare? “Totally. That’s what it is. Psyops. Psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. It’s what they mean by winning ‘hearts and minds’. We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.”

Why would anyone want to intern with a psychological warfare firm, I ask him. And he looks at me like I am mad. “It was like working for MI6. Only it’s MI6 for hire. It was very posh, very English, run by an old Etonian and you got to do some really cool things. Fly all over the world. You were working with the president of Kenya or Ghana or wherever. It’s not like election campaigns in the west. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit.”

On that day in June 2013, Sophie met up with SCL’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, and gave him the germ of an idea. “She said, ‘You really need to get into data.’ She really drummed it home to Alexander. And she suggested he meet this firm that belonged to someone she knew about through her father.”

Who’s her father?

“Eric Schmidt.”

Eric Schmidt – the chairman of Google?

“Yes. And she suggested Alexander should meet this company called Palantir.”

I had been speaking to former employees of Cambridge Analytica for months and heard dozens of hair-raising stories, but it was still a gobsmacking moment. To anyone concerned about surveillance, Palantir is practically now a trigger word. The data-mining firm has contracts with governments all over the world – including GCHQ and the NSA. It’s owned by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of eBay and PayPal, who became Silicon Valley’s first vocal supporter of Trump.

In some ways, Eric Schmidt’s daughter showing up to make an introduction to Palantir is just another weird detail in the weirdest story I have ever researched.

A weird but telling detail. Because it goes to the heart of why the story of Cambridge Analytica is one of the most profoundly unsettling of our time. Sophie Schmidt now works for another Silicon Valley megafirm: Uber. And what’s clear is that the power and dominance of the Silicon Valley – Google and Facebook and a small handful of others – are at the centre of the global tectonic shift we are currently witnessing.

Read the entire story here.

Trumpism: The Dangers of Disruption

From today’s New York Times (Opinion Section):

by Francis Fukuyama, Senior Fellow, Stanford University

In Silicon Valley, where I live, the word “disruption” has an overwhelmingly positive valence: Thousands of smart, young people arrive here every year hoping to disrupt established ways of doing business — and become very rich in the process.

For almost everyone else, however, disruption is a bad thing. By nature, human beings prize stability and order. We learn to be adults by accumulating predictable habits, and we bond by memorializing our ancestors and traditions. So it should not be surprising that in today’s globalized world, many people are upset that vast technological and social forces constantly disrupt established social practices, even if they are better off materially.

Of course, globalization has produced enormous benefits. From 1970 to the 2008 financial crisis, global output quadrupled, and the benefits did not flow exclusively to the rich. According to the economist Steven Radelet, the number of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries fell from 42 percent in 1993 to 17 percent in 2011, while the percentage of children born in developing countries who died before their fifth birthday declined from 22 percent in 1960 to less than 5 percent by 2016.

Yet statistics like these do not reflect the lived experience of many people. The shift of manufacturing from the West to low labor-cost regions has meant that Asia’s rising middle classes have grown at the expense of rich countries’ working-class communities. And from a cultural standpoint, the huge movement of ideas, people and goods across national borders has disrupted traditional communities and ways of doing business. For some this has presented tremendous opportunity, but for others it is a threat.

Mr. Trump’s ascent poses a unique challenge to the American system because he fits comfortably into the trend toward illiberal democracy. He validated himself through popular support, but his entire career has been spent trying to bypass inconvenient rules — like the requirement to pay his own subcontractors. Much of his popularity rested heavily on his willingness to break existing customs about political correctness. This seemed politically bracing at first, but quickly became worrisome when Mr. Trump suggested that as president, he would “open up our libel laws” to initiate civil suits against his media critics. His pitch to the American voter was “I alone” can fix the country’s problems through sheer force of personality, and not through a reform of the country’s institutions.

That Mr. Trump expressed admiration for Mr. Putin, and that Mr. Putin returned the favor, should come as no surprise. Like Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump seems to want to use a democratic mandate to undermine the checks and balances that characterize a genuine liberal democracy. He will be an oligarch in the Russian mold: a rich man who used his wealth to gain political power and who would use political power to enrich himself once in office. And like Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump was able to create alternative narratives that often went unchallenged by his supporters.

Read the full article here.