Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical left and Islamic terrorism.
In the middle of March, The Guardian, a British lefty tabloid, rolled out a fake scandal that has dominated the media. Its original article claimed that Christopher Wylie, a "whistleblower", had revealed how Cambridge Analytica, the company he had worked for, had helped Trump win by illegitimately harvesting large amounts of Facebook data and then exploiting it to target users.
The story has since fallen apart in every conceivable way that a story is capable of falling apart.
Obama’s people had also harvested data from Facebook friends. "We ingested the entire U.S. social graph," his media analytics guru had boasted. But so had everyone else. A platform operations manager at Facebook estimated that hundreds of thousands of developers had gotten access to friend data.
So much for The Guardian’s claim that, "information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale".
Free online services are part of a data marketplace. That’s the real business that Facebook is in. The story only blew up because it offered another conspiratorial explanation for President Trump’s victory.
Except it didn’t.
The Trump campaign had only used Cambridge Analytica's data during the primaries before switching to RNC data during the election. The fake news scandal had nothing to do with the actual election.
But that didn’t stop Mother Jones from running a story headlined, "Here (Was Once) a Photo of Cambridge Analytica’s CEO With the Russian Ambassador to the UK". The nebulous connections between the Trump campaign, Russia and Facebook data had become another red dot on the strange global map of lefty conspiracy theories struggling to explain President Trump’s victory.
The story just kept coming apart.
The Guardian had glamorized Wylie as a courageous whistleblower in numerous stories. The pink-haired “gay Canadian vegan” is described as agonizing over his role. He told British lawmakers, “Donald Trump makes it click in your head that this actually has a much wider impact. I don't think that military-style information operations is conducive for any democratic process.”
Except the “whistleblower’s” own company and had been pitching Trump’s future campaign manager back when Cambridge Analytica had been working with Ted Cruz.
The Guardian’s whistleblower had been discredited. Its extended series of stories had never delivered on their claim that there was anything extraordinary about the data collection or illegitimate about either Trump’s victory or Brexit: a special target of the British lefty tabloid. The primary and secondary stories had casually conflated the two, breathlessly reporting on the data collection tactics and leaving it to readers to assume that there was also something shocking or illegitimate in how the data was used.
But that hasn’t dissuaded the media from its obsessive coverage of another scandal of its own invention. And most of its previous Facebook conspiracy theories about Trump’s win were even shoddier.
The original post-election Facebook conspiracy theories blamed “fake news” sites. Dubious metrics were assembled claiming that fake news stories outperformed mainstream media articles. The numbers behind the metrics turned out to be bad, but that didn’t matter. The purge of dissenting views from social media was underway. And conservative sites continue to be banned and shadowbanned over it.
Then there was the even more dubious claim that Russian Facebook ads had rigged the election. Again, ridiculous metrics were assembled which asserted that the ads had reached 126 million Americans. Even though the Russians had spent fairly little relative to either campaign and all of the dark money in the race. And the fact was that the majority of the ad engagement had actually happened after the election.
When Facebook's VP of Ad Product pointed this out, the media forced him to apologize for challenging its conspiracy theory. Again, bad numbers and media hysteria kept the conspiracy theory going.
This latest Facebook conspiracy theory seeks to address the problem with the two previous conspiracy theories. How could fake news sites and Russian ads be more effective than the Clinton campaign? The answer was filled in with gibberish about “psychological warfare tools”. Voters hadn’t just been tricked. They had been brainwashed into voting Trump with “sophisticated psychological and political profiles.”
Except we’re still talking about ads here.
If being subjected to constant brainwashing, lies, spin and manipulation by trained experts could rig an election, every media outlet in American that doesn’t start with an F would have made Hillary president.
Even assuming that all the allegations made about the data collection were true (and there’s no reason to assume that), that has no bearing whatsoever on the legitimacy of either election or referendum. Facebook’s data privacy has nothing to do with Americans picking Trump and Brits choosing Brexit.
The various Facebook conspiracy theories, whether they involve Russian trolls, alleged fake news or this psychographic profiling, have one thing in common. They all seek to deny the agency of the voters.
A popular theme in British lefty tabloids after Brexit was profiling individuals who had voted Leave and now claimed to have been fooled into voting incorrectly. The latest Facebook fake news scandal hits all the same notes. Trump and Brexit voters didn’t really legitimately vote. Instead they were brainwashed by some sort of big data psychological weapon that persuaded the deplorables to do the wrong thing.
Like most conspiracy theories, it’s silly. But it’s also deeply dangerous.
When political elites start convincing themselves that democracy doesn’t work because they didn’t get the results they wanted, that’s much scarier than anything in Facebook’s data collection policies.
The political elites on both sides of the ocean have been talking themselves into the idea that free referendums and elections are a bad idea because the ordinary person is too easily manipulated.
Behind the rush to lock down Facebook, purge “fake news” from social media and push “fact checks” everywhere is a deep distrust of the individual. The utopian idealism of the elites conceals the cynical conviction that democracy is a hoax and most people are sheep who will do whatever they’re told.
That’s why the news media and the entertainment industry constantly tell us what to think.
All the assorted Facebook conspiracy theories converge around the paranoid notion that the only reason the elites badly lost with Trump and Brexit is that someone else did a better job of brainwashing their voters. The conspiracy theories range from Macedonian fake news sites to Russian trolls to a British data analytics company, but they all agree that there was an informational coup against their propaganda.
Projecting the source of the informational coup outward cloaks the lefty crackdowns in the garb of national security instead of domestic repression. Fighting foreign election interference sounds better than censoring the political opposition. Even if most dictatorships use the former to justify the latter.
Fake statistics and involved technical explanations give the conspiracy theories an air of credibility. But underneath them is the conviction that the only way to protect democracy, a frequent election conspiracy talking point, is to rig it by denying the voters their choice of information sources.
No one who thinks that voters can’t be trusted to make their own decisions believes in democracy. They only see the illusion of democracy as a useful tool for consensus building. The real thing frightens them.
The conspiracy theories fall apart when you examine them. Dig into the numbers and they don’t hold up. And none of them prove their central premise that the 2016 election was illegitimate. Like the Mueller investigation and most conspiracy theories, they go to all sorts of interesting places. But they never actually make the trip from A to B. Instead they’d like to tell you about Russian trolls, Canadian gay vegans, British intelligence agents, Macedonian websites, Japanese servers and everything else.
They cast doubt, introduce elaborate theories and write longread reports that do everything but prove that the election was rigged, its results were illegitimate and that Americans really wanted Hillary.
Instead they make the case for censoring the internet and distrusting the voters. The conspiracy theory is always the conspiracy. And behind these conspiracy theories is a conspiracy against democracy.