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Cambridge Analytica: The villain we need, but not the real problem.

Cambridge Analytica: The villain we need, but not the real problem.

Ben Ryan on the Cambridge Analytica scandal and whether they are really responsible for the current political situation.

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There is something wonderfully hateable about Cambridge Analytica. They really are the villain that so many people needed in their lives. As you watch the video of the noxious (now suspended) CEO bragging that he won the election for Trump, or proposing shipping in Ukrainian prostitutes to help swing an election in Sri Lanka, it is rather like watching a badly scripted Hollywood villain. An upper–class Brit promises that he can undertake all manner of sinister activities to undermine the democratic process. The fact that it is combined with a massive social media data mine adds a nice 21st Century twist. This is a caricature of a wrong–un that people can really love to hate.

There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that this is not a nice firm. Whether or not the use of a Facebook app to harvest and target voters was legal, it certainly makes people feel used and uncomfortable. If they also engaged in a dirty tricks campaign, then that deserves scrutiny as part of a wider look into the ethics of political processes in various countries.

However, let’s also not lose sight of something very important. If Alexander Nix really believes he won the election for Trump he’s delusional. At the very least he is a businessman drastically overselling the impact of his product. Of course targeted Facebook campaigning had an impact on how some people voted. Was it more significant than the mainstream traditional media, the fact that Hillary Clinton has been a marmite figure in American politics for 30 years, a wider backdrop of rising disenchantment with the established political system, immigration, unemployment, the economy, the Democrats’ loss of the traditional working class vote or gun rights? In a word, no.

Ultimately, 62,979,879 Americans chose to believe in Trump the person and the narrative – not in Facebook videos and memes.

Putting out material on social media feeds narratives, but it does not create them. Trump won the battle of the story–tellers. While Clinton fought to depict Trump as a bigot (which, to be sure, he is) and to present herself as the grown–up sensible choice, Trump fired off stories and promises – none more effective than “Make America Great Again”. Not all his wild claims or campaign ideas paid off, some sunk without a trace. Only some resonated with people and took off – but those were enough to win the Presidency when, frankly, Clinton didn’t have a better story to tell. With any message you need a sender, a medium and a receiver. Trump and his campaign put their narratives out there, Cambridge Analytica (among many, many others) had a role in spreading them, but the message only works if people listen and believe. Ultimately, 62,979,879 Americans chose to believe in Trump the person and the narrative – not in Facebook videos and memes.

The reality is that people weren’t duped; they were convinced.


It’s cathartic for a large section of society to think that nefarious forces like Cambridge Analytica (or Putin, or illegal fundraising, or any of the other recent stories in this space) are really responsible for the current political situation. It isn’t nice for many people to think that their neighbours might actually share the same opinions as Donald Trump et al. It’s far easier to believe that this is actually a conspiracy and that sinister agents have hoodwinked and twisted good, fundamentally decent folks into voting unpleasant demagogues into power. The reality is that people weren’t duped; they were convinced.

It is possible to be too blasé about this story – I’m sure that a case can be made that democracy is imperilled to some degree by agencies like Cambridge Analytica. However, in truth, I suspect they are more symptomatic of a bigger issue around the moral culture of politics. The American theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to speak of Christian ethics as resting in a “storied society”. By this he means that Christian ethics and the formation of moral character cannot be seen as isolated events, but only as part of a whole culture of those ethics being lived out within a shared narrative. We are lacking an equivalent “storied society” in our public square and politics. Without such a model to truly engage with one another and to recognize a basic ethics of political practice we are left only with battles over the rights and wrongs of a particular medium, rather than the narrative as a whole.


 Image from flickr available in the public domain.

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England. He was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism.

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Posted 26 March 2018

Democracy, Donald Trump, Politics, Voting


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