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Malign Manipulation


Once upon a time I dated a master manipulator. He was charming, funny, generous, intelligent and loved to do interesting things. In other words, he was a pretty good deal except that he was also duplicitous, two-faced and dishonest.

Interestingly, he was open about his inability to form truly intimate connections with other people, so I was forewarned. Being a relatively perceptive person—and not interested in a lasting relationship myself—I decided that I would be able to play in his sandbox without being hurt. Indeed, from time to time I was able to throw him off his stride by letting him know I was on to him—but he knew, and eventually I knew, that I was well out of my depth.

Sadly, today we are all out of our depth when it comes to decisions as mundane as which pair of shoes to buy online (you can’t try them on and don’t know whether they pinch) or as important as which president to entrust with the future of our country (a pinch that can be considerably worse).

Where once the manipulator stood in front of us and we could judge such subtleties as body language and facial expressions, now we live in an age of digital manipulation that leaves every decision open to doubt. We may think we are sophisticated enough to see through the shams but the science of manipulation has far surpassed our natural abilities.

Let’s face it—everyone is manipulative and whether manipulation is positive or negative depends on intent. The mother who uses a lollypop to quiet her child so others can enjoy a concert is manipulative but appreciated. But the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, who sell our private information so others may take advantage of us, cannot be seen as great humanitarians.

In my estimation, Zuckerberg teeters on the edge of being a traitor. It was under his leadership that Facebook sold the private data of some 87 million users without their consent to Global Science Research (GSR), a company set up specifically to access their accounts and the accounts of their Facebook friends. That data was, in turn, sold to Cambridge Analytica, the data science firm that President Donald Trump’s digital team employed during the election campaign.

Cambridge Analytica identified Americans’ subconscious biases and crafted political messages designed to trigger their anxieties and influence their political decisions. Sue Halpern, writing for the New Republic, reported that those “with authoritarian sympathies might have received messages about gun rights or Trump’s desire to build a border wall. The overly anxious and insecure might have been pitched Facebook ads and emails talking about Hillary Clinton’s support for sanctuary cities and how they harbor undocumented and violent immigrants.”

Cambridge Analytica’s work, combined with the articles and ads seeded throughout Facebook by Russian trolls, were an effective force in the 2016 election, seen by an estimated 157 million Americans and perceived by many to be true. Alexander Nix, who served as CEO of Cambridge Analytica until March 2018, termed this method of psychological arousal the data firm’s “secret sauce.”

It is a much more sophisticated method but nothing new. National leaders and snake oil salesmen have always molded their messages to make them palatable to their targeted audiences—whether those messages contain any truth is a matter of chance. Machiavelli codified the process as long ago as 1513 in his book The Prince. But now his raw advice has passed into the realm of science and taken on an even greater significance.

In 1960 Robert F. Kennedy, campaign manager for JFK, hired Simulmatics Corporation, one of the first data analytics firms, to use focus groups and voter surveys to determine underlying biases about having a Catholic president. The work, then as now, was top secret. But in the decades that followed, political campaign managers adopted psychological methods to better understand and appeal to consumers. Demographic analyses, psychological assessments, message testing and algorithmic modeling became the underpinning of the messages carried to voters.

Under Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief strategist, large samples of individual voters were surveyed to assess their beliefs and behaviors, looking at such things as church attendance, magazine subscriptions and organization memberships. The results were used to identify their specific interests, lifestyles, ideologies and affinities. Thirty categories of potential Bush voters were identified and messages were targeted accordingly.

In the Obama campaigns, the use of databases and social media were fully employed. For-profit data companies were launched in support of liberal causes and Democratic candidates, their for-profit status allowing them to share data sets between political clients and advocacy groups, something the Democratic National Committee could not do because of campaign finance laws.

According to Samuel C. Spitale, writing for HuffPost, one of these companies, Catalist, now controls a data set of 240 million voting-age individuals, each an aggregate of hundreds of data points, including “purchasing and investment profiles, donation behavior, occupational information, recreational interests, and engagement with civic and community groups.”

When I first heard of all this it made me long for the unsophisticated days of my 19th-century political idol, Abraham Lincoln. He was a wily politician, to be sure, and was not above the occasional dirty trick, but he spoke his mind and was often at variance with his advisors.

If he had listened to them, he would not have delivered his titanic “House Divided” speech—and probably would not have become president. Lincoln’s friends considered the speech too radical—his law partner, William H. Herndon, considered it morally courageous but politically improvident. Lincoln’s response: "The proposition is indisputably true ... and I will deliver it as written." At least people knew what he believed.

By contrast, Donald Trump was fed catch phrases by his research teams. He revealed at one rally that he had not liked the phrase to “drain the swamp”—presumably a promise to address ethical problems and corruption in the nations’ capitol—and only embraced it once he perceived the public’s response. He has since expanded its meaning to embrace anything he objects to. No Lincolnesque adherence to principal there.

In his book Trust Me: I’m Lying, media manipulator Ryan Holiday wrote, “I’m paid to deceive. My job is to lie to the media, so they can lie to you. I cheat, bribe and connive. I orchestrate these deceptions … for high-profile clients … I create and shape the news for them … until the unreal becomes real. … Really it can be anything from validating a Wikipedia page to producing an expensive viral video. However the play starts, the end is the same.”

That is a cold-blooded view of our democracy—and could well be the end of America’s long experiment with universal suffrage. How are we as a people supposed to make wise decisions about our leaders without valid information about them? In the past, the media was considered the watchdog of the truth but with the constant erosion of the financial health of newspapers, a lazy public that does not read, the attacks on the media by our nation’s leader and media manipulators who plant news in publications with fewer editorial restraints, where do we turn for unbiased assessments of candidates’ strengths and weaknesses? Perhaps the only solution is to understand how the game is being played today so we view with skepticism everything that is being delivered to us on the stump, on the screen or through the printed word.