A still more sobering social media example of a different kind, one so important that it could well have influenced the presidential election of 2016, was the cooperation between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm, was largely the creation of Steve Bannon and his billionaire sponsor, Robert Mercer. One former co-executive referred to Cambridge Analytica as “Bannon’s arsenal of weaponry to wage a culture war on America using military strategies.” Cambridge Analytica combined a particularly vicious version of traditional “dirty tricks” with cutting-edge social media savvy. The dirty tricks, according to its former CEO, Alexander Nix, included bribery, sting operations, the use of prostitutes, and “honey traps” (usually involving sexual behavior, sometimes even initiated for the purposes of obtaining compromising photographs) to discredit politicians on whom it conducted opposition research. The social media savvy included advanced methods developed by the Psychometrics Centre of Cambridge University. Aleksandr Kogan, a young Russian American psychologist working there, created an app that enabled him to gain access to elaborate private information on more than fifty million Facebook users, information specifically identifying personality traits that influenced behavior. Kogan had strong links to Facebook, which failed to block his harvesting of that massive data; he then passed the data along to Cambridge Analytica. Kogan also taught at the Saint Petersburg State University in Russia; and given the links between Cambridge Analytica and Russian groups, the material was undoubtedly made available to Russian intelligence. So extensive was Cambridge Analytica’s collection of data that Nix could boast, “Today in the United States we have somewhere close to 4 or 5 thousand data points on every individual…. So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.” Whatever his exaggeration, he was describing a new means of milieu control that was invisible and potentially manipulable in the extreme. Beyond Cambridge Analytica or Kogan, Russian penetration of American social media has come to be recognized as a vast enterprise involving extensive falsification and across-the-board anti-Clinton messages, with special attention given to African American men in order to discourage them from voting. The Russians apparently reached millions of people and surely had a considerable influence on the outcome of the election. More generally, one can say that social media platforms can now create a totality of their own, and can make themselves available to would-be owners of reality by means of massive deception, distortion, and promulgation of falsehoods. The technology itself promotes mystification and becomes central to creating and sustaining cultism. Trump is the first president to have available to him these developments in social media. His stance toward the wild conspiracism I have mentioned is to stop short of total allegiance to them, but at the same time to facilitate them and call them forth in his tweets and harbor their followers at his rallies. All of this suggests not only that Trump and the new social media are made for each other, but also that the problem will long outlive Trump’s brief, but all too long, moment on the historical stage.
Robert Jay Lifton (Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry)