Given that some of the major players involved in Trump’s campaign effort have obsessions with war tactics and strategy, it’s easy to imagine that weaponized targeting may not only be a pre-election phenomenon. Such efforts could be employed as part of an ongoing campaign to weaken any resistance to the Trump Administration and thwart political opposition through ratcheting up in-fighting and splintering. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that the infrastructure of mass consumer surveillance enables new kinds of actors to take up the work of COINTELPRO on a mass scale. Former Cambridge Analytica employees have said the company internally discusses their operations as psychological warfare.
Cambridge Analytica may not be alone in pursuing these types of psychological warfare tactics. In response to the recent revelations of Russian-bought Facebook ads, Senator Mark Warner told the Washington Post that the aim of the ads was “to sow chaos.” Yet, rather than promoting general chaos, some ads may have been specifically designed to fuel infighting among the Trump opposition. Earlier this year, The Intercept showed that TigerSwan, a shady mercenary firm hired by Energy Transfer Partners to combat communities opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, used knowledge gleaned from surveillance as part of their own strategy to splinter their opponents. A leaked TigerSwan document declared, “Exploitation of ongoing native versus non-native rifts, and tribal rifts between peaceful and violent elements is critical in our effort to delegitimize the anti-DAPL movement.”
What our current digital environment affords are opportunities for efficient, large-scale use of such tactics, which can be refined by data-rich feedback loops. Manipulation campaigns can plug into the commercial surveillance infrastructure and draw on lessons of behavioral science. They can use testing to refine strategies that take account of the personal traits of targets and identify interventions that may be most potent. This might mean identifying marginal participants, let’s say for joining a march or boycott, and zeroing in on interventions to dissuade them from taking action. Even more worrisomely, such targeting could try to push potential allies in different directions. Targets predicted to have more radical inklings could be pushed toward radical tactics and fed stories deriding compromise with liberal allies. Simultaneously, those predicted to have more liberal sympathies may be fed stories that hype fears about radical takeover of the resistance. Such campaigns would likely play off divisions along race, gender, issue-specific priorities, and other lines of identity and affinity.
We’re reaching the pinnacle of what online advertising can do: identify persons of interest, separate specific persons from others to discretely target them, and motivate targets to change their emotional states and act based on those states. It’s bad enough this is done to push products but, now, the same activities are seeping into the political systems and damaging democratic undertakings in the process. Such activity has to be regulated, if not stopped entirely.