“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” That was Abraham Lincoln’s most quoted summation of democracy as he knew it in the middle of the 19th century. In it, Lincoln was simultaneously critiquing popular politics for its compulsion to fool voters, while in the end, validating the voters’ choices, because “you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
Unfortunately, here in the 21st century, you only need to fool “some of the people” to win elections, and the scientifically-grounded techniques for identifying targets and customizing what will fool them are threatening to invalidate democracy.
It is a truism of political science that, for the most part, at every milestone of the electoral process, a majority of voters have made up their minds. It’s the rest that matter, “the undecideds,” or as the professionals in the science of persuasion like to call them, “the persuadables.”
Identifying them is the first task of the political psy-ops businesses like Cambridge Analytica, the company 90% owned by the extreme-right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer, and associated with Steve Bannon, the controversial strategic advisor to President Donald Trump. Mercer and Bannon were also the money and brains behind the alt-right online site Beitbart News. They also teamed up to finance and coach the Leave team that got British voters to approve BREXIT, the British withdrawal from the European Union.
The twin cataclysms that marked 2016 as a revolutionary political year, the electoral victories of Donald Trump and the BREXIT movement were shaped by 3 megatrends of the past half-century.
First, the most recent and most defining, our computer-driven power to collect and collate massive amounts of data, second the oldest, the development and use of subliminal clues of language or symbol to manipulate human emotion and judgement. The third trend that brought us to the political brink was the empowerment of a tiny elite of hyper-rich people, to use Big Data and carefully tailored Big Lies to gain political power as outsized as their wealth.
What am I talking about? Well, Trump’s team figured out which Liberals might be persuaded not to vote for Hillary Clinton, and then hit them with fake news stories that might further discredit her. They also mined information about disaffected voters for arguments that might draw them to vote for Trump. Suppression tactics seem to have been critical in the 3 “Rust Belt” States Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan which gave Trump the Presidency. And anti-immigrant, racist and anti-LGBT ads and fake news propaganda helped turn our rural voters who had not been courted by either party in years. Again, Big Data helped campaign strategists know whose Facebook feed got scare stories about immigrants, and whose focused on stories about Blacks or Muslims or Lesbian, Gay, Bi or Trans-sexual people.
Some will say, with some accuracy, that all of this Big Data, Big Manipulation, Big Money for Trump was just a refinement of the same formula used in 2008 and 2012 to elect Barack Obama.
Let’s concede that point and confront the nightmare questions — what further intrusions into your private information and private life, what further advances in distorting the truth and hiding the sources of the lies aimed personally at you, what further billion dollar investments by rich megalomanics will we see in the upcoming elections of 2018, 2020 and beyond.
Nina Burleigh is Newsweek’s National Politics Correspondent. She is an award-winning journalist and the author of five books. Her last book, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox, was a New York Times bestseller. In the last several years, she has covered a wide array of subjects, from American politics to the Arab Spring.