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Unfair Game: How Trump Won

Big data politics and how the American public was tricked into opening the doors of the White House to Donald Trump.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available to view online.

Filmmaker: Thomas Huchon

More than a year after the election of US President Donald Trump, there are still some questions about how this controversial figure managed to become the most powerful man in the world. 

While he lost the popular vote to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by three million votes, he took Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by a total of 77,000 votes – three key states that carried him to victory.

The mainstream media is disrupted, and because the mainstream media is disrupted, truth is disrupted. And if truth is disrupted, you can spread your own version of it.

by Carole Cadwalladr, journalist, The Guardian

The spread of fake news disrupted mainstream media and a lack of regard for the truth became more apparent than in any other US presidential campaign.

According to Politifact, an independent fact-checking website, only four percent of Trump’s statements during the 2016 campaign were true. False information was constantly circulating, and eventually became self-propagating.

“Conservatives only get their news through Fox News or alternative sites like Breitbart, so that’s the only news they see,” explains pollster Ben Tulchin. “They only get their news via very slanted sources. And Trump picks up his information from these same news sources … so the voters say ‘I heard that on the news, and I heard that from President Trump, so he must be telling the truth’. There’s a silo, and it is hard to break that silo, it’s a self re-enforcing cycle of mistruths.”

It became increasingly difficult to discern fact from fiction and the traditional press was brushed aside.

“Trump’s disregard for making [a] true statement is something a lot of reporters have had trouble dealing with, because we are not used to it. We are not used to politicians or press people just straight-up lying,” says Rosie Gray, a journalist for The Atlantic.

Facebook Analytica and the man behind Trump’s success

In the shadows of Trump lies an enigmatic billionaire, Robert Mercer, a man who has poured millions of dollars into conservative causes for a decade, including Trump’s campaign.

He controls Breitbart News, an ultra-conservative website turned into an alt-right propaganda machine, headed by Steve Bannon, a white nationalist and Trump’s former chief strategist.

Mercer’s psychometric firm, Cambridge Analytica , obtained big data from Facebook, Google, banks, credit companies, social security and more, to learn all about voters in order to try and change their political opinions and influence the election in Trump’s favour.

In the days before the election, using a little-known Facebook feature, “dark posts”, Trump’s campaign – with the help of Cambridge Analytica – deployed highly manipulative and personalised messages, which could be seen only by the user before disappearing. In the darkness of the web, democracy was trumped by data.

“The idea is that a company or a Facebook page can put out a message for a specific population, and that this message is only visible to that group, it will not appear on their own page,” explains mathematician Paul-Olivier Dehaye of PersonalData.IO.

“In an electoral context, it means that candidates can target individuals on Facebook with negative messages against the other candidate, without journalists being aware, because these messages will not appear publicly.”

After Trump’s election win, two former employees at Cambridge Analytica came forward to say that the firm used the unauthorised Facebook profiles it had claimed it deleted: Christopher Wylie, the former director of research at Cambridge Analytica, and Brittany Kaiser, the former business development director.

On May 2, 2018, SCL Group announced that it was filing for insolvency and closing all of its operations – including its subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica stated that “the siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the company’s customers and suppliers.”

It claimed that it “has been vilified for activities that are legal and widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas.”

However, the acceptance of this digital strategy is challenged as the manipulation of public opinion becomes clearer. As Trump’s campaign strategy opened democracy to new threats, it also drew more attention to data technology’s role in politics around the globe.