How Cambridge Analytica’s Style PropagandaFailed in Afghanistan
Professor David Carroll reflects on the “colonialist, aristocratic, and oligarchic” assumptions of the campaigning firm involved in Trump and Brexit
“David Carroll has no more right to submit this request than a member of the Taliban sitting in a cave in Afghanistan.” That was the bizarre statement issued by Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct British consultancy firm, in May 2018 in response to Professor David Carroll’s Subject Access Request (SAR) for any of his personal details held by the company.
Why did Cambridge Analytica, a company better known for its work on the EU referendum in the UK and the Trump Presidential election campaign in 2016, compare an American professor to a member of the hyper-conservative Afghan Taliban?
To understand both Cambridge Analytica and the new technologies it deployed, we have to go back to the origins of the War on Terror launched by George W Bush after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001. Trillions of dollars were poured into Afghanistan by Western nations and countries started to turn to new techniques, technologies, and tactics to reduce the number of boots on the ground. In came the private contractors.
“The Cambridge Analytica scandal is actually an outgrowth of what happened twenty years ago after 9/11″ Professor Carroll says “when the military-industrial complex could be expanded beyond the battlefield.” The parent company of Cambridge Analytica, SCL Group, had operated in the defence space for decades.
In 1990, Nigel Oakes founded the Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDI) – a research institute looking at strategic communication. Oakes, whose background was in advertising, believed the same principles of that industry could be applied to military theatres.
In 1993, Oakes formed Strategic Communications Laboratories which eventually became SCL Group and BDI became an arm of the company. One of the early investors was a banker, Paul David Ashburner Nix. His son, Alexander Nix, joined SCL in 2003 and became the CEO of the American arm of the company, Cambridge Analytica.
As the former head of research Christopher Wylie testified to the US FBI and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), SCL Group began as a single holding company that was eventually spun off into separate subsidiary companies including Defense, Commercial, Elections, and Social. According to Wylie, SCL Defense was “responsible for 80 per cent of SCL Group’s revenue”.
According to another whistleblower, the SCL Group built tools classified as “weapons-grade communications [technologies].” One such tool, called Target Audience Analysis (TAA), was specifically employed by SCL Group in the defence sector and used for deradicalisation purposes.
Few details are known about the specific work SCL Defense did with the US or UK militaries in Afghanistan because most of the contracts are classified. However, leaked documents suggest SCL Defense was focused on deradicalisation, particularly preventing young Afghan men from joining the Taliban or al Qaeda.
SCL claimed to have implemented “counter-propaganda protocols” on al Qaeda websites and subsequently reported their findings to the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Another leaked SCL Group presentation showcases similar techniques used against ISIS.
The presentation focuses on “psychometrics” and SCL state their work was “digital propaganda” aimed at shifting the “locus of control” in a target – in effect manipulating them. One key metric was a “need for cognition”. According to Professor Carroll, this is essentially a “measure of how much information you need to choose a belief or decision.” People with a high ‘need for cognition’ are classified as critical thinkers and SCL Group tried to compute how much information can manipulate their psychological metrics. All these terms, says Carroll, “are very much trying to put a number on what makes people tick.”
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As the US finally cedes control of Afghanistan back to the Taliban who they had apparently defeated twenty years ago, Professor Carroll believes the fate of Cambridge Analytica explains much about the failed battle for Afghan “hearts and minds” that has ended so calamitously.
SCL’s defence work was based on a “hubristic, colonialist, aristocratic, oligarchic notion that you can go into countries and manipulate people,” he says. SCL’s response to his data request, comparing him to a member of the Taliban in a cave, is another example of the “folly” of their mindset and the “toxic mentality” that contributed to defeat in Afghanistan. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that many of the same techniques and technologies employed in wartorn countries such as Afghanistan were deployed internally in countries like the US and the UK to sway elections.
“They really do think that terrorists and voters are just pawns in their game,” Carroll concludes.
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