Just Follow the Slime-Trail

“Money can’t buy everything,” they say – but, then, why do the rich hunger after more, more, more? Once you’ve got a few tens of millions stashed away, you can spend the rest of your life in a blur of luxury, sex, drugs, fast cars and rock ‘n roll, if that’s your thing.

But, as Epicurus says, some people want money and power to protect themselves from the vicissitudes of life; others get confused and see the money as an end in itself. There are others who see it as a portable form of power, and will not hesitate to use that tool for whatever it is they want. When the wealthy person wants rock ‘n roll, you may get something wonderful. But when the wealthy person has an authoritarian political agenda that they want to promote – then we see the great flaw in modern pseudo-democratic oligarchies: one extremely wealthy asshole can unilaterally distort the political landscape.

I was surprised but not shocked to learn that Robert Mercer, who was one of the forces behind Trump’s ascent to power, also helped the “Brexit” movement. Because, it’s his right, as a rich oligarch, to spend his money tinkering with politics. It’s not news that Mercer interfered with England’s internal affairs, like it would be if the FSB did it, but he was another factor of many that helped bring about something that is going to be extremely damaging to England and Europe.

It has emerged that Robert Mercer, a hedge-fund billionaire, who helped to finance the Trump campaign and who was revealed this weekend as one of the owners of the rightwing Breitbart News Network, is a long-time friend of Nigel Farage. He directed his data analytics firm to provide expert advice to the Leave campaign on how to target swing voters via Facebook – a donation of services that was not declared to the electoral commission. [guardian]

Whew, well, thank godless it wasn’t the Russians! It was just a random billionaire. Too bad he didn’t just give a load of money to start a jazz festival, or something, it sucks being you, England!

Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot of a British company, SCL Group, which has 25 years’ experience in military disinformation campaigns and “election management”, claims to use cutting-edge technology to build intimate psychometric profiles of voters to find and target their emotional triggers. Trump’s team paid the firm more than $6m (£4.8m) to target swing voters, and it has now emerged that Mercer also introduced the firm – in which he has a major stake – to Farage.

Thank goodness it was just bog-standard political manipulation and public relations, not Fake News. Oh, wait, it was Fake News. Sorry.

longstanding friendship between Nigel Farage and the Mercer family led Mercer to offer his help – free – to the Brexit campaign because of their shared goals.

Their shared goals being “rich people do whatever the fuck they want?”

The strategy involved harvesting data from people’s Facebook and other social media profiles and then using machine learning to “spread” through their networks. Wigmore admitted the technology and the level of information it gathered from people was “creepy”. He said the campaign used this information, combined with artificial intelligence, to decide who to target with highly individualised advertisements and had built a database of more than a million people, based on advice Cambridge Analytica supplied.


A leading expert on the impact of technology on elections called the relevation “extremely disturbing and quite sinister”. Martin Moore, of King’s College London, said that “undisclosed support-in-kind is extremely troubling. It undermines the whole basis of our electoral system, that we should have a level playing field”.

Oh, that’s a good observation. Apparently England has just discovered that wealth and privilege can undermine the electoral system? Or are you just shocked that it was an American billionare crank who did it, instead of a member of the Mayfair set? Is this new? Far from it. Cambridge Analytica are just marketing assholes, even ancient Rome probably had marketing assholes. Even marketing assholes have marketing assholes: like Edward Bernays.

If you know any anti-semites, you can make their heads explode into a fine pink cloud of mist by telling them about Edward Bernays.

I’ve actually been reading Bernays’ Crystallizing Public Opinion [amazon] and I’ve been finding it very hard going. Mostly because of Bernays’ writing style, but also because the content is a mixture of repugnant fluff. Just what you’d expect from the founder of the discipline of “Public Relations Counsel” – Bernays felt that professional manipulators (he allegedly consulted at $1000/hr in the 1960s, which would be about $25,000/hr in today’s consulting landscape) should be the ones helping people elect the leaders, or at least helping the people who really mattered. I’m sure Mercer would have had him on staff.

Let us take the example of a public relations counsel who is confronted with the specific problem of modifying or influencing the attitude of the public toward a given tariff bill. A tariff bill, of course, is primarily the application of theoretical economics to a concrete industrial situation. The public relations counsel in analyzing must see himself as a manufacturer, a retailer, an importer, an employer, a worker, a financier, a politician.

Within these groups he must see himself again as a member of the various subdivisions of each of these groups. He must see himself, for example, as a member of a group of manufacturers who obtain large portions of their raw material from abroad and whose importations of raw material may be adversely affected by the impending tariff bill. He must see himself not only as a farm laborer but also as a mechanic in a large industrial center. He must see himself as the owner of the department store and as a member of the buying public. He must be able to generalize, as far as possible, from these points of view in order to strike upon the appeal or group of appeals which will be influential with as many sections of society as possible.

Let us assume that our problem is the intensification in the public mind of the prestige of a hotel. The problem for the public relations counsel is to create in the public mind the close relationship between the hotel and a number of ideas that represent the things the hotel desires to stand for in the public mind. – Edward Bernays

The technique of analyzing subgroups of the body politic, then telling each of them a carefully tailored set of lies – er, “creating a close relationship in the public mind” – it’s as if Cambridge Analytica wrote their business plan by cribbing it from Bernays.

I’ll leave you with Cambridge Analytica’s carefully-chosen marketing tag-line:

Data-driven Behavior Change

------ divider ------

Adam Curtis did a documentary about Edward Bernays The Century of The Self [youtube] It’s typical Curtis: interesting, complicated, and it makes you feel like you just got a glimpse through to the other side of a mirror, and realized that there’s a completely different world back there. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing but it sure is a thing.

Bernays is hard to read because it’s written in a curiously roundabout style that is clearly intended to present Bernays’ opinions as matters of fact; to avoid having to argue why public relations should work thus or such way – he’s not only laying out the field of professional manipulation, he’s trying to manipulate the reader.

Bernays was, like most intellectuals of his time, fascinated by the new “science” of psychology. He was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, so that may have also had something to do with it. I find his style of reasoning to be very in line with psychology of his day (which I’ve also had to read): lots of assertion, a desire to assume the mantle of scientism, no research, huge amounts of cultural bias, and an over-reliance on vague terms and circular definitions. I can’t decide if I’m more horrified by that, or by public relations.

Should I do a book review of Bernays?

I suspect that somewhere buried under all the brexit madness there’s a plan that’s going to result in a massive tax-dodge for a bunch of billionaires, who are going to laugh all the way to the bank. That was what Trump was supposed to do, wasn’t it?

Cambridge Analytica doesn’t impress me much. I think they’re just marketing scammers with a “big data” angle. Marketing’s biggest customer is marketers; it’s a self-licking ice cream cone.


  1. says

    So, targeted advertisements are damn effective. Now, the next question is what can be done about them? Learning about the techniques could be the start. But now we get to the interesting question. Do you think that knowing about how marketing people get in your head lets you protect yourself from their influence? Do you think your decisions are always yours?

    I somewhat doubt that. I don’t have a Facebook account and all the targeted ads I get are from my browsing history. They are really boring, all I get offered are fountain pens, paintbrushes and camera gear. And poor Google always gets it wrong. The fact that I searched for vintage fountain pens with specific nibs does not mean that I’m going to buy whatever modern fountain pen Google shows me (and it is always bound to have the wrong filling system compared to what I’m interested in). I can buy my food in the farmer’s market and get my soap and shampoo from somebody who sells handmade soaps they created in their kitchen. And I can try to think whether I really need whatever I’m considering to buy. So far so good. But I don’t think this is enough.

    Every now and then I catch myself being manipulating by an add. In a shop why exactly did I reach for that ice cream and not another one? Oh, yeah, those ads I saw a while ago… Whoops!

    This observation about myself corresponds with the research I have read about the topic. It’s from Brian Wansink’s book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think”. There the author concluded that publishing a research paper about how ads manipulate, which foods people purchase, does not stop the researcher from doing exactly what participants did in his experiment. Whoops! Wansink also did some experiments on students, who were lectured about this and ended up falling for the trick, despite being informed about what’s going on. I feel that believing that I’m above manipulation would be naïve wishful thinking.

    Now, as long as we only have to worry about which ice cream people buy and how much, it’s not that awful.

    But it gets uglier once political opinions and emotions are pulled. This is going to be an ugly example. Have you heard about the 2015/2016 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Year%27s_Eve_sexual_assaults_in_Germany Back then I was living in Germany. I studied in a university in Mainz, that’s a smaller city next to Frankfurt. I spent the New Year’s Eve at home in my rented apartment, sleeping (yeah, I suppose I sometimes have a boring social life), so I didn’t see any of this. I’m not sure whether these news appeared in any USA media, but they made front page news everywhere in Germany and were covered in mews media across the Europe.

    The moment I heard these news for the first time I knew that I’d better brace myself for a racist scare along the lines of “this is why we must not allow asylum seekers cross European borders”. Of course the scare came just like I expected it. I know this is wrong. I support equality, I don’t like racism or discrimination of anybody based on whatever group he belongs to. It was my rational mind, which knew that this is wrong. There are plenty of decent people among refugees and there are plenty of white, blond and blue eyed rapists among German males. Note: every single stranger who has ever groped by butt in public places was a white male (there have been several such cases).

    But this did not stop my emotions from being influenced (or manipulated). There are some muscular people who weight twice as much as I do and are stronger. The thought that I’m living among such people, who are not only stronger, but also have no respect for the same laws, which ensure my safety, is fucking scary for me. Just write a news article about such events on German soil, remind the readers that in Muslim countries rape victims are the ones who get punished for having extramarital sex, remind the readers that males socialized in such societies are bound to consider themselves superior by birthright and by the virtue of having a certain body part, and it fucking works. People get scared. Even logically knowing that you are being manipulated does not stop you from feeling whatever emotions PR people want you to feel. Of course the same happens with me when I’m shown a video of a happy person in idyllic environment using whatever product somebody attempts to sell me. It influences my emotions. Except that it’s less destructive when all they want to do is selling me some stuff.

    So, we have a shitty problem. Do you have any ideas what to do about it?

  2. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#1:
    Ads are a really complicated thing. I’ve been studying online advertising for the last 16 years (I used to do marketing for my company back in 1998, for what that’s worth) and it’s really hard to tell what works and what doesn’t – depending on the effectiveness metrics you use. That’s part of the problem, marketers want to use one effectiveness metric and businesses another. It’s very obscure.

    I have a couple postings planned about marketing. And, of course, my opinion of Bernays ought to be pretty obvious. I don’t know when I will get around to doing more, but if you’re interested in some stuff on marketing, you may want to look through the archives for postings about “the war on authenticity”