Cambridge Analytica and the Hacking of Free Will

Stephen Hawking had written in his book The Grand Design that if you give him enough time and enough computer speed (both physically impossible), he can predict all of human behavior based on our molecular information. I think we have some free will, and many things that will happen defend on chance which cannot be predicted. Chaos Theory, and the Butterfly Effect as an example, says that minor actions/changes in the present can lead to major consequences in the future. But I do not know how much of our actions in the present are deterministic, and how much are free will/pure chance. Although I don’t think we can always determine when a butterfly will flap its wings, I think we can predict much of its behavior based on a lot of environmental reasons. And the same is true for humans because we too belong to the animal species and we too share traits common to us as a species, and even as individuals we have certain nature where our reactions to certain can be predicted with good probability.

What Cambridge Analytica did is something I have written for years, and something I knew can be and will be eventually done. For most of the last six to seven years, the question I have pondered the most is “why do humans believe and behave the way they do?” The deeper I have dived into neuroscience and psychology, the less I have believed in the concept of complete free will. As I have studied humans as a species and observed individuals and their nature, many of what we do can be predicted. At the very least, nothing about human behavior has surprised me in the last 4 years or so, not even the election of Donald Trump. We might consider ourselves to be rational species, yet we react according to our nature. It just so happens that the team we support is the team we were raised with – be it nationality, ethnicity, religion etc. Even the most moderate and rational amongst us will fall for partisanship in certain issues.

We know how certain animal species behave. And as such, we know how to manipulate their behavior and train them according to our needs. We also know the nature of our individual pets along with the general nature of their species. Therefore, how much free will do we really think other animals possess? As such, why should humans be any different because we too are an animal species. We already know how traits are transferred across generations. We can tell if a person inherited an angry nature or a calm nature from their parents or grandparents. We can make good probabilistic predictions as to how a person will react in a certain situation. And that is exactly what Cambridge Analytica did. Although it saddens me how easily voters were manipulated, as a scientist and lover of neuropsychology I am also fascinated at the use of data and understanding of human behavior to predict and influence our actions.

During the 2016 election season I was surprised and annoyed at how nearly all the negative leaks and news were against Hillary Clinton. Considering how extremely popular she was as the Secretary of State up till she declared her candidacy among liberal voters, the sudden change in attitude towards her was certainly surprising. The same voters who despised her also loved Obama, and how much did they really differ? Sure, she supported the Iraq war which he opposed, but then again Obama’s drone campaigns killed countless of innocent civilians. His attitude towards big banks and the corporate elite wasn’t exactly socialistic, regardless of what his Republican detractors said. I saw numerous memes on Facebook about how Bernie’s election would bring in liberal utopia and how there was no difference between Hillary and Trump. Even as someone whose personal beliefs aligns more closely with Bernie Sanders, such messaging and beliefs annoyed me because Presidents cannot make unilateral changes. Just like Obama struggled to keep his promises, Trump is struggling with his promises, Sanders would have struggled in a Republican-controlled Washington. As Obama loved to say and something I believe in, change and progress happens in increments and sometimes in zig-zag fashion. Although the arc of history bends towards justice and progress, such arcs bend over decades and generations. And in these great arcs of history, there would be countless examples of going backwards and forwards while eventually moving towards justice and progress. Too many people felt the primaries were rigged and that baffled me. It is as if the citizens of the oldest democracy in the world did not know how politics worked. As Bernie correctly said, if his campaign’s emails were hacked they wouldn’t have much nice things to say about Hillary. And it was within the right of the DNC to want one of their prime candidates to win their party’s nominations over someone who had never been a member of the party. Unless the elections themselves were rigged, this cannot in the remotest of terms be called rigging. Politicians say and do what they must to win. Obama’s “evolution” on gay marriage and his trying to act religious are just par for the course in politics, when people who know him well say he doesn’t have a religious bone in his body and he was for gay marriage since the 90s, except when he conveniently became against it as a candidate in 2008.

Today we know that numerous of these pro-Bernie, pro-Stein news and memes on social media were made by foreign actors to target the DNC and Hillary. Many of these ads and pages were targeted towards African-Americans to turn them against Hillary and depress their turnout. Even if it took us a while to figure out what happening, this campaign of foreign agents to influence our elections worked. They used our data, our nature, and our beliefs to target us. They did so with the full understanding of how we will react when he see something on social media, and they took advantage of our rush to emotions and tribalism over sober practicality. And they will do so again. Unless speech and the entire internet itself is censored, there is not much we can do about it except training ourselves to not fall for something instinctively because it tugs at our emotions. These ads, pages, groups, messages, and memes appealed to our emotions, our deepest fears, and our strongest beliefs. Since they used our data to influence us, how much free will do we really have? The foreigners did not hack our election. They used our nature and our likes and dislikes against us. The machines who learned our behaviors through algorithms manipulated us the way we manipulate other animals. This must make us think about the concept of free will and whether we have the power to make completely rational and free decisions. And we must steel ourselves for the future because machines will only get better at learning, and corporations and politicians will use these powers to target us into doing their biddings. Just because we see something on social media doesn’t mean it is true. And even if it is, we must research the context and question why that ad/message/meme exists. Without context any topic might lose its meaning. And we would remain as guinea pigs for these algorithms. We must eschew partisanship and we must stop supporting the puritans and extreme partisans on our sides. The more we remain divided, the more we will fall for these algorithms in a positive feedback loop. Prophets and politicians have always hacked our free wills before, but machine-learning and their ever-improving algorithms are a completely different ballgame. Whatever free will and independent thinking we have as a human species, we must try our best to maintain our equanimity in the face of emotional pulls, to stay away from hyper-partisanship, and to think, analyze, and understand the context before we react to any situation or information.

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