“The Russians done it!” Journalists obsessed over Cambridge Analytica because the real reasons for Brexit terrified them

The real stories were there, but clear heads and sceptical perspectives weren’t.

How did Brexit happen?

Was it years of neglect of working class communities coupled with the rise of lying populist parties and the stagnation of a political elite who assumed that the public would do as it wanted?

Or was it because people were totally bamboozled by some Boris & Natasha style online shenanigans conducted by Vladimir Putin’s troll armies in league with the data demons of Cambridge Analytica and a myriad of other shadowy dark money forces?

Well, obviously the second, right? Because the first one would mean many people in the centrist wing of the media would have to accept some level of culpability for a broken system in which their smug comfort and almost religious conviction that there was nothing going wrong in the UK before the London 2012 opening ceremony might have contributed to the feeling among a huge swathe of the population that a predominantly London-based elite didn’t give even half of a scintilla of a shite about them, their lives, children, or crumbling towns.

So it was then that Cambridge Analytica (CA), a decidedly unsavoury outfit that had spent some years trying to influence elections around the world, was elevated to the level of magic, despite its claims being overblown, scammy bullshit.

In stories pushed by a number of outlets, with reporter Carol Cadwalladr leading the charge, CA’s undoubtedly shady work was transmogrified into the magic bullet that made Brexit happen and, across the Atlantic, was the reason Donald Trump took the White House. Only, the Information Commissioner’s Office has just concluded that the CA didn’t swing Brexit in any meaningful way.

The problem was that while there was evidence that data on Facebook and elsewhere was harnessed in shady ways and misused on an industrial scale, the next conclusion was a leap and a leap that came from a very classist, politically dim position.

The contention was that because Vote Leave, the Trump campaign and others used adverts that were highly deceptive — lies, to be frank — that they had effectively hypnotised hundreds of thousands of people to vote against their interests; that social media activity was effectively an anger and racism ray.

The underlying belief behind most of the “Russians did it” stories came from a similar root as old school ‘false consciousness’ claims. In the same way that some people will assure you that readers of The Sun or working class Conservative voters are merely misguided and can be badgered into a new way of voting, the CA conspiracy gang believed that Brexit voters did so because they had been tricked. It was pure snobbishness, a tendency that was also evident in the supporters of the transparent astroturfing efforts of the People’s Vote campaign.

Facebook has a lot of questions to answer in a lot of areas and I am of the strong belief that it, along with Alphabet and Amazon, should be broken up to break their monopolistic hold on the world’s information and commerce. But the theories that it was just data and dodgy Russian dealings that caused Trump and Brexit are soft-headed silliness larded with racism, xenophobia and contempt for the working class.

The true issue with the social media and tech giants and politics in general is the amount of unaccountable power sloshing about within their structures, and the power which the think-tanks they fund have managed to seize in the policy making process. Big tech has become a set of super-surveillance states who are able to blackmail and pressure traditional nation states.

Yesterday, the House Antitrust Subcommittee chaired by Congressman David Cicilline came out with its report on large technology platforms. Matt Stoller in his Big newsletter, which covers the issues around monopolies, writes of :

The basic thesis of this report isn’t a surprise, and consists of two basic elements. The subcommittee found that Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon are abusive monopolies. The report also noted that Obama and Trump era enforcers failed to uphold anti-monopoly laws, which allowed these corporations to amass their dominance. 

What makes these platforms unusually dangerous is that they are gatekeepers with surveillance power, and they can thus wield “near-perfect market intelligence” to copy or undermine would-be rivals. For Apple the dominant facility is the App store, for Google it’s the search engine, Maps, adtech, etc, for Facebook it’s social media, and for Amazon it’s the marketplace, AWS, Alexa, Fulfillment, and so forth. They exploit their gatekeeping and surveillance power to extract revenue, fortify their competitive barriers, and subsidize entry into new markets.

That’s the problem. Rather than turning Vladimir Putin into a Bond-style super-villain in our imaginations, something that the Russia state is delighted by, we should be addressing the inherent inequalities and corruption within our nations. Britain is such a mark for Russian oligarchs because our government is dominated by chiselling and corrupt incompetents and has been since the election of Margaret Thatcher, regardless of what colour the party of power nominally rallies behind.

The CA story along with many other trappings of what became the theology of hardcore remainers online — the Follow Back Pro European (#FBPE) crowd — like EU Supergirl, Led By Donkeys, and the regular belief that ‘good Tories’ would save us all, became a rallying point for grifters and fantasists. Its proponents will stick to their guns over it and argue that the ICO has been nobbled, because their reputations and livelihoods rely on them doing so. They will now simply move on to finding the next pair of Boris and Natashas chasing the moose and squirrel of our ailing democracy.