‘It needn’t be true as long as it’s believable: manipulating data to strategize propaganda in the era of ‘alternative facts’

‘It needn’t be true as long as it’s believable: manipulating data to strategize propaganda in the era of ‘alternative facts’

Christian Garland

The title of this article takes the words of Alexander Nix, co-founder and CEO of ‘political consultancy’ Cambridge Analytica which at once claims not to deal in ‘fake news’, despite taking – right-wing – opinion and speculation and presenting these as ‘fact’, and one of its co-founders also being former White House strategist Steve Bannon.[1] This is perhaps unsurprising when Managing Director of the company, Mark Turnbull, has also admitted in the same interview with glacial cynicism, “It’s no good fighting an election on facts, it’s about emotion and hopes and fears” [updated 4th June 2018. See note below].  His organization is currently under investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which obtained a Court Order for a Warrant to enter its premises and retrieve records. The company announced it was closing in early May [updated 4th June 2018].

Manipulating data to strategize propaganda is essentially what Cambridge Analytica the organization is about, applying instrumental reason to better serve interests of wealth and power through covert action. It harnesses pre-existing fears of a targeted electoral demographic to deliver election results serving these same interests of wealth and power – the 2016 Trump presidential election victory to which it contributed, being just the most glaring illustration. The activities of the ‘political consultancy’ like right-wing online publisher Breitbart are two immediate examples of the ‘disruption’ of what had previously been taken for granted by the established institutions of politics and the mass media: an accepted one-way transmission by power using accepted and established means of dissemination.

The ‘disruption’ of the Internet (Web: 2.0) and digital media – social media in particular it might be argued – can be disruptive from a politically radical, socially progressive standpoint to challenge power and intervene politically, or it can be made instrumental use of ‘top down’ by reactionary outliers of the same elites that are superficially denounced.

This instrumental manipulation of data to strategize propaganda it should be said involves far more than just framing ‘facts’ such as events that have taken place. It also involves the presentation of a fictitious version of them as ‘alternative facts’ and the application of earlier tried and tested models of propaganda such as ongoing and continuous repetition, no less than visual lay out and textual presentation across all formats but online in particular of opinion and speculation in these same ‘factual’ terms. This short article offers a critique of the reactionary use of strategized propaganda through the manipulative use of data to play on the “hopes and fears” of a targeted electoral demographic, very much an established tactic but now a ‘disruptive’ force all of its own aiming to shore up the existing relations of class society with the appearance of being ‘from outside’.

The Trump White House is keen on its accusations of the mass media being purveyors of ‘fake news’, the term originally used for alt-right online publisher Breitbart, which former head of strategy Steve Bannon helped set up. ‘Fake news’ as used by the Trump White House can be understood as any criticism at all of the Trump White House, or any comment which contradicts its frequently contradictory statements.

The online ‘disruption’ of the established institutions of politics and the media’s previous assumptions has resulted in the new prominence of online publishers and social media in the diffusion of their ‘message’ to existing supporters and in ‘tipping the electoral balance’ to influence key ‘undecided’ groups – giving voice and visibility to the former and having variable degrees of success in the latter. Indeed, the many different online political publications that exist, of which Breitbart is the most notorious ‘alt-right’ example, aim to confirm the existing views and indeed pander to existing prejudices of their readers and viewers. Crucially what this new ‘disruptive’ reactionary force does – with some cynicism – is ‘tap into’ the wilful ignorance of these prejudices and ‘views’ by confirming them as if they were fact.

Breitbart News Network relies on the sharing of content on social media and the accompanying ‘viral’ effect this has. During the 2016 US presidential campaign the site used rumour mongering and conspiracy theory neither of which use evidence for any of the unattributed and erroneous claims they make, but nonetheless claim to be ‘fact’ because they are unprovable, again cynically aware that those likely to believe such nonsense will not bother to try and verify any of it before ‘sharing’ on social media. Besides defamatory accusations and insinuation, such politicized hearsay wildly inaccurate as it is, can be understood as strategized propaganda in taking an existing ‘message’ and its assumptions about its readers/audience and using false and unattributed claims and their implicit conclusions to confirm an existing ignorant worldview.

A very recent example of Breitbart presenting – right-wing – opinion as ‘fact’ is its ‘headline’ ‘SHOCK: MEGABANK CITIGROUP ANNOUNCES GUN CONTROL REQUIREMENTS FOR CLIENT’. The by line was, ‘CORPORATION VS CONSTITUTION’. The capitalized headline is deliberate: to be eye-grabbing, but also aims to keep in mind the online bear pits in which it is likely to be shared, and the preference of those who inhabit them to type in caps. Sure enough, on closer critical examination what is presented as ‘news’ reveals itself as a short right-wing op-ed piece – which had 24,867 ‘shares’ on Face Book – in which Citigroup’s very modest new proposals on firearms sales to its customers both individual and commercial – background checks, age criteria, and a ban on ‘bump stocks’ – are denounced as seeking toadvance the agenda” of “progressive globalists”. This example of ideology presented as ‘news’, taking in the by lineCORPORATION VS CONSTITUTION’ spins a bank announcing its own uncontroversial measures like any other private company is wont to do as, “imposing progressive values” in its requirements, “none of which are mandated by federal law”. The author and publisher know it will be shared tens of thousands of times by existing readers confirming what they already believed and convince many more of those formerly ‘leaning towards’ its message which they now believe to be actual ‘fact’.

Breitbart like some time collaborator Cambridge Analytica manipulates its readership’s and followers’ hopes and fears successfully channelling these secure in the knowledge that “many of those are unconscious”, as Turnbull said to his Channel 4 interviewer. Again with glacial cynicism, Cambridge Analytica Managing Director Mark Turnbull explained [modified 4th June 2018], effectively summing up also the pseudo-science called ‘nudge theory’[2]:  “It has to happen without anyone thinking it’s propaganda, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’ the next question is: ‘who’s put that out?’” Nix’s statement neatly underlies the title of this short article – it needn’t be true as long as it’s believable: manipulating data to strategize propaganda in the era of ‘alternative facts’. It is the pretence that this strategization of propaganda is or can ever be anything besides calculated game-playing by and for powerful elites to shore up that power and de-couple it from the hopes and fears of the majority, which are both a cause and effect of the crisis of modern society in the late-2010s. The longer term societal outcomes and responses to this crisis however, remain to be seen.

[1] These are the words of Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix recorded in a secretly filmed Channel 4 interview 19 March 2018. ‘Alternative facts’ are the words of US president Donald Trump’s senior aide Kelly-Anne Conway, as reported in the Independent 22 Jan 2017, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood […] Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
[2] ‘Nudge theory’ or ‘nudging’ being beloved by powerful (post-political) elites in the English-speaking world: former British Prime Minister David Cameron installing the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office during his tenure. ‘Nudging’ may appear at first an apparently bland technocratic policy of “changing behaviour”, but this of course amounting to compulsion and coercion, perhaps best summed up as “Making you do what we want, without you realising.”

[The article was modified on 4th June 2018 to correctly assign comments to Mark Turnbull, Managing Director of Cambridge Analytica, that has been inadvertently attributed to its CEO, Alexander Nix]


Christian Garland teaches at Queen Mary, University of London and has research interests in Marx and Frankfurt School Critical Theory and the rapidly changing nature of work and how this can be said to embody social relations of atomization and individualization involving the re-composition and restructuring of the capital-labour relation itself.

Image: Mike Licht CC BY 2.0