A few weeks ago, Cambridge Analytica was being touted in political circles as the secret weapon of a party desperate to oust Narendra Modi and reclaim what it sees as its rightful inheritance. Today, alas, that enterprising British company is in the eye of a storm. Its alleged sharp practices have directly contributed to Facebook losing billions in market cap and its iconic founder Mark Zuckerberg losing face for his company’s breach of trust.
The story of Cambridge Analytica and those at its helm is enthralling — especially as described by a British media that dotes on scandals. However, while sting operations can sex up an already delicious story, it is important to separate the wheat from the chaff. The real story is not that Analytica was contracted by Donald Trump for his successful presidential campaign of 2016.
The controversy is principally centred on whether or not the political consultancy firm illegally mined confidential data of some 50 million Americans, supplied by Facebook to a Cambridge University researcher. The fact that the data may have been used to supplement a political campaign is a matter of detail.
The nature of Cambridge Analytica’s political intervention — and why its approach is appealing to parties — is an important one. What, for example, distinguishes Cambridge Analytica from, say, legendary British electoral strategists such as Tim Bell and Lynton Crosby? Where does data mining fit into today’s electoral strategies?
In the past, strategists focused on getting the big message right. In wooing voters, they banked on either reason or emotion, or a blend of both, backed by catchy advertising and targeted attacks on opponents. Indeed, politicians were consistently advised to not get derailed by side issues and focus on the larger message. Strategists relied on demographic data, focus groups and opinion polls to fine-tune tactics. In India though, old-style politicians always preferred instinct to marketing.
For Cambridge Analytica — and it is by no means the only electoral consultancy to run this course — internet has opened spectacular political possibilities. Using the same data that marketing companies have mined to understand consumer behaviour and target customers for selling coffee and cars, the likes of Cambridge Analytica have tried to divert the political focus away from the big message to a multitude of bespoke messages. Whereas earlier the nation or region or community was the unit of attention, the data miners target individuals.
The principle that a marketing giant like Amazon uses, based on past purchases and browsing, to issue individualised recommendations is now used to disseminate political messages. The more the data on individuals — their likes, inclinations, aversions and other habits — the greater the likelihood of accurate targeting and, by implication, dissembling.
Previous elections have always had a multiplicity of messaging, whereby larger concerns have been intertwined with specifically local or even sectarian concerns. What Cambridge Analytica has sought to do, using data mining, is first, shift the hierarchy of messaging by putting individual concerns at the centre and, second, to make it a scientific exercise. If this endeavour succeeds, politics will move from being a collective endeavour towards fragmentation. It will also be more prone to manipulation.
In view of how Cambridge Analytica has sought to change the rules of the game, it is evident why its approach is attractive to politicians anxious to convert the 2019 general elections into either an aggregation of state elections or, even worse, an inchoate cluster of highly individualised grievances.
What is becoming evident, especially after the over-hyped opposition triumphalism following the BJP’s defeat in the Phulpur and Gorakhpur by-elections, is that unrelenting negativism has become an expedient substitute for the forging of a coherent and viable alternative to Modi.
Thus, Parliament has witnessed a fortnight of disruption created by competitive din — Andhra Pradesh MPs demanding special status, Tamil Nadu MPs screaming for a Cauvery waters tribunal, Trinamool Congress MPs cherry-picking issues each day and the Congress joining the tamasha on alternate days. To cap it all, the DMK and actor-politician Kamal Haasan have resurrected the idea of a Dravida Nadu. When disaggregation sets in, voodoo science can play havoc.
The issue of data protection, which first came into prominence during the Aadhaar debate, is obviously one that needs immediate attention. However, it is the ominous political consequences of unchecked data mining of personal information that warrants equal attention. Let us not forget there are political players willing to fish in troubled waters and Frankensteins out to create monsters. For a consideration, of course.