Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America
ISBN-13: 978-0593229149 (2019)
–Review by Vern Hyndman
Most of us protest in the rear-view mirror, upset about what we believe is happening based on our existing framework. The world is changing at light speed, and to join Jesus in the work of salvation we’ll have to use MRI, missional, relational, incarnational means. And we’ll have to refocus from the rear-view with one eye on the horizon and the other eye on the Jesus GPS.
This book by whistleblower Christopher Wylie is an autobiographical cautionary tale. Wylie tells the story of growing up as a liberal gay Canadian teen who learned to love data and computers, who becomes a political operative, ultimately assisting with a massive disinformation campaign that changed the world.
The new currency is your attention. Facebook and social media trades your attention for the wealth of the world, and those who lead the world feed your attention a micro-reality crafted for you. The AI engine has joined your Facebook data with governmental data, data from credit agencies, and data from the loyalty card you use at your grocer… they know you.
Facebook knows what interests you… when your finger scrolls and hesitates for the briefest of milliseconds, this data is noted. Your physiology is predictable, the human response to stimuli can be predicted and harnessed.
In the 1970’s we worried about Big Brother invading our lives, tapping our phones, invading our privacy. We now wiretap ourselves and call the tap Siri or Alexa.
Wylie dives deeply into disinformation, first for good; the company caused cocoa growers to distrust drug lords through disinformation. This incredible power was soon tipping elections in Caribbean and African nations. Disinformation and micro-messaging also changed the outcome of both Brexit and the 2016 American election.
“Whereas field generals focused on artillery power and air dominance, Bannon needed to gain cultural power and informational dominance—a data-powered arsenal suited to conquer hearts and minds in this new battlespace. The newly formed Cambridge Analytica became that arsenal. Refining techniques from military psychological operations (PSYOPS), Cambridge Analytica propelled Steve Bannon’s alt-right insurgency into its ascendancy. In this new war, the American voter became a target of confusion, manipulation, and deception. Truth was replaced by alternative narratives and virtual realities.” (p 16)
Wylie becomes a whistleblower, finally horrified by the beast he’s helped bring to life.
“As one of the creators of Cambridge Analytica, I share responsibility for what happened, and I know that I have a profound obligation to right the wrongs of my past. Like so many people in technology, I stupidly fell for the hubristic allure of Facebook’s call to “move fast and break things.” I’ve never regretted something so much. I moved fast, I built things of immense power, and I never fully appreciated what I was breaking until it was too late.” (p 17)
“The most effective form of perspecticide is one that first mutates the concept of self. In this light, the manipulator attempts to “steal” the concept of self from his target, replacing it with his own.” (p 48)
“But simply degrading morale is often not enough. The ultimate aim is to trigger negative emotions and thought processes associated with impulsive, erratic, or compulsive behavior. This moves a target from mild or passive resistance (e.g., less productivity, taking fewer risks, rumors, etc.) into a realm of more disruptive behaviors (e.g., arguing, insubordination, mutiny, etc.).” (p 48)
“Cambridge Analytica began to use this content to touch on an implied belief about racial competition for attention and resources—that race relations were a zero-sum game. The more they take, the less you have, and they use political correctness so you cannot speak out. This framing of political correctness as an identity threat catalyzed a “boomerang” effect in people where counternarratives would actually strengthen, not weaken, the prior bias or belief. This means that when targets would see clips containing criticism of racist statements by candidates or celebrities, this exposure would have the effect of further entrenching the target’s racialized views, rather than causing them to question those beliefs. In this way, if you could frame racialized views through the lens of identity prior to exposure to a counternarrative, that counternarrative would be interpreted as an attack on identity instead. What was so useful for Bannon was that it in effect inoculated target groups from counternarratives criticizing ethno-nationalism.” (p 127)
Jesus begins with identity; the first act of repentance of a Christian is to admit that we are beloved children of God. Everything the Jesus offers us comes from this identity. Is it any surprise that the world’s manipulators also compete for our sense of identity?
Wylie’s book is a must-read for us as we offer identity to a world who will trade attention for belonging.