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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Yemen – forgotten by our tribal mentality

According to the UN, Yemen is currently the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Countless have died, become homeless, on the verge of starving to death, and besieged by diseases. Yet it has barely created a ripple in American social media. I am starting to realize social media outrage has the potential to produce real-life changes. The conflict in Yemen has been covered by the major American news organizations for years. So why hasn’t the war gone viral or seeped into our collective consciousness in the United States? I think it is because the war in Yemen doesn’t fall under any ready-made narrative. There are no preconceived heroes or villains for liberals or conservatives to pick on. A civil war in a Muslim nation where numerous Muslim nations are fighting a proxy battle doesn’t animate conservatives. Since Israel or some Western nation aren’t involved, liberals aren’t motivated to condemn the atrocities in Yemen either. Add the fact that the Obama administration’s continuous support and arming of Saudi Arabia made it complicit in the war crimes in Yemen, liberal outrage has been mostly muted.

I think in our polarized times what goes viral depends on what tribal narrative it can fall in to. I noticed it earlier this decade and tested the hypothesis in my head during the Sochi Olympics. Just before Sochi started, protesting against the anti-LGBT laws in Russia became a big thing on social media. I was surprised and also happy. But I wanted to know if this attitude will extend to all other countries with anti-LGBT laws or will the topic fade away after Sochi ends. From prior experiences, I guessed it would be the later because it is easy to hate on Russia. But criticizing “minority” countries, where most of these anti-LGBT laws exist, has become very hard for progressives in the West.

It is harder to find ready-made villains in the Yemen conflict, unlike the Syrian refugee crisis. That war had been raging since 2011 and well covered in mainstream media, but it only jumped to social media few years later when the bad guys were white Europeans who were uncaring for asylum-seeking peoples of color. Around that time, I started feeling frustrated about the lazy criticism of mainstream media. The idea that the media did not cover the Syrian war was not true, just like it is not true that the media isn’t covering the Yemeni crisis. Not all news organizations have resources to be everywhere. With consumers moving towards free media, which is also prone to click-bait journalism by appealing to our emotions and personal ideologies, the serious media with high journalistic standards is suffering from declining readership and revenue. Layoffs make it harder to cover every inch of the planet. Safety of journalists also come into consideration in covering every conflict. Therefore, is it not the fault of the citizenry for sometimes being lazy in not getting their news from diverse sources nor paying for good journalism. When the Syrian conflict reached European shores because of refugees, more media outlets could cover it. And only then did the outrage machine about the Syrian crisis go into overdrive. There was no outrage or sympathy at the plight of Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, each of whom host over a million Syrian refugees. 30% of Lebanon’s population are Syrian refugees. These information could be found in mainstream media, if not in the social media echo chamber or highly partisan websites.

Similarly, there is a thinking among many that the American media is the world media. If something is not covered in the American media, it is assumed it is not covered anywhere else. Or that the American media has a responsibility to cover every story from every corner of the planet. And if it doesn’t it is proof that American/world media doesn’t care for these other places. For example, over the past week coverage of Hurricane Harvey has dominated American news media. Couple of days back The New York Times reported about the monsoon floods killing over 1000 people across South Asia. I have seen two ways in which a story like this is shared across social media. Some share it for informational purposes. And some share it with a self-righteousness shaming of others. The later goes along these lines – “while the world media/mainstream media is focused on Texas, 1000 people have died in South Asia and little or no attention is being paid to it.” This led me thinking about two things – these monsoon floods have been going on for a while. The people who post with the second attitude did not read about the issue till The New York Times and then the NPR reported on it this week. So they weren’t too far ahead of those whom they were shaming. Secondly, when I look at Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, German, French, or Spain’s English language newspapers’ websites, there are none to maybe one small article on their websites about Hurricane Harvey. Are THEY ignoring the disaster happening in America, or is the more likely explanation that media companies have limited resources, and they invest those resources in places where their readership is more interested in? Indian newspapers report on things happening in and around India. American newspapers report on topics happening in and near America or its allies.

We pick on outrageous comments or actions of individuals on the “other” side and paint them as a monolith. Yet when someone does the same on “our” side, we say these individuals don’t represent all of us. Instead of waiting for full facts or the understanding of nuance, we jump to instant outrage. If liberals support a cause, conservatives have to be against it, even if it goes against conservative ideals. Even if it turns over the conservative movement towards racists and nationalists who would have never been included in the original conservative movement. If conservatives are against something, liberals become for it, even if it means abandoning the ideals of liberalism. Embrace of racists and anti-Muslim bigots on the conservative side has made Muslims an oppressed minority in the eyes of Western liberals. But that has led to the muting of any criticism of LGBT or women’s rights in Islamic nations. There is no outrage at the state persecution or mob lynching of liberals, secularists, or atheists in many of these nations and other “minority” nations. But many of these “minorities” in the US are conservative majorities elsewhere. Many of these “minorities” had vast empires, were conquerers and subjugators, and also engaged in slave trade for centuries. Many of them are apologists about issues within themselves, but quick to point fingers elsewhere. I know this because as a liberal Indian, one of the biggest criticism I get is talking about problems in Indian society. I am met with the familiar – “problems happen everywhere, so are you picking on problems on our side.” One of the biggest causes of bigotry and prejudice is seeing people as “us” vs “them”. Us is the good side. Them is the bad side. And if liberalism also becomes “us” vs “them” where we see people as monoliths of good or bad, victim or oppressor, we lose the individual stories and their nuance. We only speak out when someone of the “victim” tribes of America is affected. And that makes us go silent when atrocities do not fall under such black-and-white American definitions of victim vs oppressor. Taking this attitude to the extreme isn’t only intellectual laziness, it might even be a savior complex that requires certain groups to be the victim groups so we feel good about ourselves when we jump into the outrage bandwagon. In this tribal mentality, who speaks for the liberals when they are killed in the “minority/oppressed group” countries of the world? Who speaks for the women, LGBT, or the atheists in these places? Is it a wonder then that Yemen or numerous other conflicts never reach our consciousness? Liberals must stand for the ideals of liberalism everywhere. Social liberalism must stand for the weak and the oppressed no matter who they are or where they are. It must call out those who oppress individuals or groups, no matter who they are or where they are. If we turn to tribal identities in our fight for social justice, we risk becoming silently complicit in a lot of atrocities and injustice. We risk seeing Rwanda or Sudan or Yemen repeat again and again. We risk abandoning liberals where being a social liberal might mean a death sentence.