Are Private Companies Ushering In An Age Of Guided Democracy?

The term ‘democracy’ refers to the system of government in which sovereignty is exercised, directly or indirectly, by all citizens who resort to a vote. But if anyone could control this consensus, it could of course no longer be called a democracy.

It would probably be called Guided Democracy, as defined by Nigel Oakes, who developed the secret weapon of Donald Trump – a democracy governed and managed by those who can manipulate consensus.

“Not everyone knows how to think big but almost everyone is attracted to who does it. That’s why a bit of hyperbole never hurts … […] I call it ‘hyperbole truthful’. It is an innocent form of exaggeration – and even more effective than promotion. ”

Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal

The Age of Guided Democracy?

This quote comes from Trump’s best-seller. The techniques used during Trump’s election campaign have been developed over recent decades by Nigel Oakes, a British citizen that define himself “a pioneer in the field of influence and soft energy”. These methods have not only had civil implications, but also military implications. They have been implemented by the Pentagon, NATO and ministries of different nations.

According to some Sole 24 Ore surveys, Nigel Oakes has been an extraordinary seller in recent decades and his company (Cambridge Analytica) has earned extraordinary profits. Cambridge Analytica was created by SCL Group (Strategic Communication Laboratories), whose techniques have been used in the past in the developing world to study and manipulate public opinion. For providing insight into the thinking of the audience it used  “psy-ops”, one of the methods developed.

SCL affirms that it has influenced elections in many countries, but it asserts that these techniques have been approved by the agencies of the United Kingdom and United States. Cambridge Analytica calls itself a behavioural research and strategic business communication company, defined as “a global election management agency”. They try to combine data mining, data analysis and strategic communication regarding the electoral process.

It was founded in 2013 by the billionaire family of Robert Mercer. In 2015 it started to work for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign but the results wasn’t the expected one. In 2016 it decided to work on behalf of the pro-Brexit campaign, and for Trump’s campaign, receiving $ 16 million from the now-President. According to The Guardian, the Trump team has signed two more contracts with Cambridge Analytica. The first is to negotiate the image and consent to Trump’s administration, and the second to handle the private business of the President.

The Limit of Legality

What turns out to be really interesting is that the psychology and technology behind these techniques are at the limit of legality. They can be considered as misleading advertising in certain aspects, because they do not fully respect the privacy of consumers. In a time like this, where legislation is struggling to keep pace with social media and technology, it is very difficult to determine what the limits that should be imposed to protect citizens’ rights.

But how does manipulation of consensus work? This technique is based on Big Data. Though this is a broad term, it can mostly be boiled down to four aspects which are relevant here: volume, speed, variety and verity.

The first feature refers to the vast amount of information, particularly that which is stored through the Cloud and virtualisation. The second term refers to high speeds of data generation. Variety indicates the millions of data types that can be analysed. Finally, the last feature refers to the high reliability of these information.

Through these data, people are “catalogued” – not just regarding their preferences but psychological tendencies too. Through these data it is possible to influence, involve and anticipate an individual’s decisions.

The next step is the segmentation of citizens, and people who have similar traits are put together – a sort of market segmentation. The last step of this process is the persuasive communication that induces certain thoughts, feelings, emotions and, consequently, opinions and decisions.

A Murky Future

In this epoch, the epoch of social media, this strategy could not find a more fertile period. But, as Michal Kosinski, a social scientist that studies organisational behaviour at the business school of Sandford, argues: “there’s a thin line between convincing people and manipulating them.”

To go even further: Simon Moores, an expert on cybersecurity, argues: “Behavioural modelling involving big-data analytics has arguably passed an inflection point, thanks to the growth of predictive analytics, algorithms and big data-mining businesses you can now look forward to a future that’s made up of equal parts Orwell, Kafka, and Huxley.”

It seems that George Orwell’s prophecy is being accomplished. The doomsayers would seem relatively few, but it is important to bear in mind that such a thing was unimaginable in the past.

Matteo Spiller