The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine
There’s a new automated propaganda machine driving global politics. How it works and what it will mean for the future of democracy.
By Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath
Feb 12 2017
This piece was originally published at Scout.ai.
“This is a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go,” said professor Jonathan Albright.
Albright, an assistant professor and data scientist at Elon University, started digging into fake news sites after Donald Trump was elected president. Through extensive research and interviews with Albright and other key experts in the field, including Samuel Woolley, Head of Research at Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project, and Martin Moore, Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at Kings College, it became clear to Scout that this phenomenon was about much more than just a few fake news stories. It was a piece of a much bigger and darker puzzle — a Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine being used to manipulate our opinions and behavior to advance specific political agendas.
By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.
Most recently, Analytica helped elect U.S. President Donald Trump, secured a win for the Brexit Leave campaign, and led Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign surge, shepherding him from the back of the GOP primary pack to the front.
The company is owned and controlled by conservative and alt-right interests that are also deeply entwined in the Trump administration. The Mercer family is both a major owner of Cambridge Analytica and one of Trump’s biggest donors. Steve Bannon, in addition to acting as Trump’s Chief Strategist and a member of the White House Security Council, is a Cambridge Analytica board member. Until recently, Analytica’s CTO was the acting CTO at the Republican National Convention.
Presumably because of its alliances, Analytica has declined to work on any democratic campaigns — at least in the U.S. It is, however, in final talks to help Trump manage public opinion around his presidential policies and to expand sales for the Trump Organization. Cambridge Analytica is now expanding aggressively into U.S. commercial markets and is also meeting with right-wing parties and governments in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
Cambridge Analytica isn’t the only company that could pull this off — but it is the most powerful right now. Understanding Cambridge Analytica and the bigger AI Propaganda Machine is essential for anyone who wants to understand modern political power, build a movement, or keep from being manipulated. The Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine it represents has become the new prerequisite for political success in a world of polarization, isolation, trolls, and dark posts.
There’s been a wave of reporting on Cambridge Analytica itself and solid coverage of individual aspects of the machine — bots, fake news, microtargeting — but none so far (that we have seen) that portrays the intense collective power of these technologies or the frightening level of influence they’re likely to have on future elections.
In the past, political messaging and propaganda battles were arms races to weaponize narrative through new mediums — waged in print, on the radio, and on TV. This new wave has brought the world something exponentially more insidious — personalized, adaptive, and ultimately addictive propaganda. Silicon Valley spent the last ten years building platforms whose natural end state is digital addiction. In 2016, Trump and his allies hijacked them.
We have entered a new political age. At Scout, we believe that the future of constructive, civic dialogue and free and open elections depends on our ability to understand and anticipate it.