How Media Technocrats Manipulate Public Opinion

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Oct 2 2019 – In a 1974 article, Woody Allen poked fun at biblical stories presenting ludicrous paraphrases of The Book of Job, Abraham´s intended sacrifice of his son Isaac, as well as The Book of Proverbs. One of Allen´s invented proverbs was: “The wicked at heart probably know something”, thus implementing that the “pure of heart”, i.e. credulous people, know nothing. 1 Giuliano da Empoli, a well-known Italian politician, culture personality and founder of the influential think tank Volta makes use of this Woody Allen quote to introduce his book Gli ingegneri del caos,2 The Engineers of Chaos. da Empoli describes that everywhere in Europe and elsewhere the rise of populism takes the form of a frenzied spectacle, overthrowing established rules and political decency by converting them into their opposite. In the eyes of their supporters, unscrupulous and power-hungry demagogues are currently transforming what previously was considered as political incorrectness and abuse into a desirable quality of fearless truth-seekers. To their followers, the inexperience of populists becomes proof of their unattachment to corrupt, elitist circles, while their incompetence is considered to be a sign of authenticity. The tensions such populist politicians create at national and international levels are by disenfranchised citizens assumed to be manifestations of their independence, their ability to think “out of the box” and a capacity to express the inner feelings of an otherwise silent majority.

da Empoli assumes that populism, like Communism once was, now has become a spectre not only haunting Europe but the entire world. However, da Empoli does not consider current populism to be just an expression of spontaneous dissatisfaction. He points to the fact that much of the emotions stirred up in support of populist parties have been devised by behavioral sciences and smart marketing, something he calls “quantum politics”. Techniques that originally were developed to sell goods and services are to a much greater extent than before now being used in politics. In what da Empoli denominates as the Selfie-era unscrupulous politicians are exploiting people’s need to manifest their personality in social media, allowing experts to apply sophisticated technologies to record and manipulate people’s thoughts and behavior. It is such experts da Empoli labels as “engineers of chaos”, spin doctors, ideologues, scientists and data experts without whose assistance populist leaders never would have come to power.

da Empoli introduces his readers to stories about a small, web-marketing company that created a powerful Italian political party, to web technicians who ensured the Brexit victory, to communication experts transforming the political landscape of Eastern Europe, and to the American right-wing theoreticians who propelled Donald Trump to the White House. An almost carnivalesque cavalcade of colourful characters, many of them almost unknown to the general public. A small group of people is by da Empoli accused of changing the rules of the political game and the face of our societies. He uses the Italian Five Star Movement as a conspicuous example of how a “non-organization” with a “non-leader” and without any statues or charter and no ideology in a short time could become one of Italy´s most powerful political parties.

Gianroberto Casaleggio (1954-2016) was an Italian entrepreneur and politician, who together with the comedian Beppe Grillo founded the political party Movimento 5 Stelle, Five Star Movement. Casaleggio is generally considered to be the brain, the guru, behind this movement. He created its network strategies and edited a highly influential blog written by Beppe Grillo. By the beginning of his political career, Casaleggio had been managing director of Webegg, a “multidisciplinary group for consulting companies and public administration on the net [with an] objective to position companies on the network.” 3 In 2004, he founded Casaleggio Associati, with customers such as Hewlett Packard, Philip Morris, JPMorgan Chase, PepsiCo, Marriott, IBM, and Best Western. In 2005, Casaleggio began to publish Beppe Grillo’s books and the following year Casaleggio Associati carried out comprehensive studies of the role and importance of e-commerce while publishing books and videos about the effectiveness of the web when it comes to convincing people to buy anything and even change their views and opinions. In June 2012, Casaleggio had a private meeting with Michael Slaby, Chief Integration and Innovation Officer for Obama’s electoral campaign, explaining his theories about how the internet could be an essential tool for “direct democracy”. Casaleggio implemented his ideas in support of Beppe Grillo and his populist party. He is now credited with designing a first-rate entrepreneur plan adapting the internet to market strategies influencing political choices of network users. One of Casaleggio´s many controversial methods was the use of ”fake news” and unsubstantiated “facts”.

Casaleggio Associati´s innovative use of the internet for political purposes was only one of many such endeavors. The British company Cambridge Analytica, established in 2013, was until its bankruptcy in May 2018 involved in several political elections, not the least Donald Trump´s presidential campaign. Trump´s infamous advisor Steve Bannon served for a while as Cambridge Analytica’s vice-president. In 2014, British behavioral scientists presented on Facebook a “personality test” called This is Your Digital Life. About 270,000 people activated this Facebook application and unaware provided Cambridge Analytica with their personal data. Methods developed from these data were then used all over the world, sold to political parties and thus allowed to influence electoral processes in countries like Mexico, Malaysia, Brazil, Kenya, and India. Cambridge Analytica was also contracted by campaign managers who tried to convince people to leave the European Union. Ahead of the 2016 US presidential election, Cambridge Analytica was hired by Donald Trump’s campaign to advise on how to influence voters by using the company´s comprehensive data bank and efficient, manipulative methods.

In March 2018, former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie went out in the media with information on how the company had acted to influence elections. The same year, a video was released in which Cambridge Analytica´s CEO, Alexander Nix, was captured by a hidden camera while revealing how his company had been involved in elections in about 200 countries and how it had laid traps for politicians by luring them into compromising situations. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom authorized a house search to examine Cambridge Analytica’s servers and could thus prove that accusations leveled against the company had actually been based on unequivocal facts.

In a Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, Brittany Kaiser, a former senior director of Cambridge Analytica tells her story; how she as an idealistic intern had been working on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and after that obtained a Ph.D. in international law and diplomacy at the Middlesex University in London. In 2014, Kaiser was hired by Cambridge Analytica to ”help commercial and political clients use data insights to solve problems and achieve campaign goals.”

In April 2018, Kaiser was summoned to give evidence to a British Government committee investigating Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. She confirmed that Cambridge Analytica had indeed used Facebook data to influence elections around the world, admitting that the true scope of the abuse was likely to be “much greater” than the number of 87 million accounts that had been suggested by other whistleblowers, declaring:

    Now I’m blowing the whistle on the whole industry. The problem starts with the Silicon Valley tech platforms, which track our every movement and make us easy to target.

da Empoli is probably right when he states that it is not enough to draw attention to similarities between the catastrophic rise of xenophobic and fascist parties of pre-war Europe and today´s populist parties, what we now are witnessing is partly an entirely new phenomenon fuelled by innovative and manipulative technocrats who sell their expertise to unscrupulous politicians. The wicked at heart probably know something that the pure of the heart do not comprehend.

However, are companies based on technical expertise on mass communication evil entities? I doubt if they can be characterized like that. More likely they are like most other big companies trying to find answers to their clients’ demands while expanding and increasing profits for their shareholders. They are part of a complex system, which is extremely difficult to scrutinize and regulate. For example, Wall Street’s collapse in 2008 was not the result of some vicious plan, but of thousands of actors’ self-serving behaviour within an unregulated financial market. The mass manipulation staged by communication companies like Casaleggio Associati and Cambridge Analytica is perhaps just the beginning of a Brave New World where the financial market controls politics to an even greater extent than today. A liquid world described by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman – an existence dominated by a diffuse fear, fragmented and non-anchored, freely floating around without any clear cause or destination, where threats are perceived everywhere, without being clearly defined.4

1 Allen, Woody (1974), “The Scrolls,” The New Republic, August 31.
2 da Empoli, Giuliano (2019) Gli Ingegneri del caos: Teoria e tecnica dell´Internazionale populista. Venezia: Marsilio.
3 Orsatti, Pietro (2010) ”Grillo e il suo spin doctor: La Cassaleggio Associati,” MicroMega No. 5, September 30.
4 Bauman, Zymunt (2007) Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

China Wants to Mainstream Environmental Protection

Credit: UN Environment

By Junjie Zhang
KUNSHAN, Jiangsu, China, Oct 2 2019 – In the 2014 China-US joint announcement on climate change, China promised to peak its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions around 2030. Later this commitment was cemented in the Paris Agreement signed in 2016.

However, China’s climate ambition has been shadowed by its dwindling economic growth rate, which declined from 14.23 per cent in 2007 to 6.6 per cent in 2018.

As the world’s largest emitter and second largest economy, China is striving to strike a balance between economic growth and climate mitigation. The climate-economy trade-off has become even more tricky in recent years especially as the China-US relation sours.

On the one hand, the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement shakes the foundation of China’s climate commitment. On the other hand, the deceleration of economic growth, partly thanks to the ongoing trade war between China and the US, constraints China’s capacity to curb its GHG emissions.

China is searching for efficient means to reduce GHG emissions while continuing to grow its economy rapidly. Its climate mitigation efforts are focused on five areas: upgrading industrial structure, cleaning energy mix, improving energy efficiency, reducing non-energy related GHG emissions and increasing carbon sinks.

These policies are generally aligned with China’s overall economic growth strategy that targets developing new industries such as information technology and renewable energy as well as cutting overcapacities in backward industries such as iron and steel.

Junjie Zhang

China’s structural reform

In order to better design and implement its climate policies, China is in the process of streamlining climate regulations through institutional reform. China’s climate regulatory regime went through significant shakeup in 2018.

The most notable change was the shift of the Climate Change Department from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) to the newly established Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE).

The rationale of the reform is to consolidate the regulations of climate change and environmental pollution. Global warming and air pollution originate from many same sources; air pollution control measures — such as improving energy efficiency, switching from coal to renewables and shutting down backward production facilities — will also lead to GHG emission reductions.

Therefore, the co-control of GHGs and air pollutants, instead of targeting individual pollutants, can lower the cost of both climate and environmental regulations.

Air quality has become a top priority for the central government since 2013. The tightening air pollution control policy becomes a significant contributor to China’s GHG emission reductions.

By linking the climate change issue to the air pollution concern, climate policy can also gain more support from local governments since for them air quality has a much higher priority than climate change.

Credit: UN Environment

The reform enables the climate regulator to take advantage of many policy instruments at the MEE. In 2017, the MEE established a nation-wide emission permit system to consolidate fragmented environmental regulations. It is becoming the core regulatory tool for the emissions from stationary sources.

The emission permit system keeps track of facility-level information about production, emission, and pollution control. Although the system only covers environmental pollutants at this moment, it can be easily adapted to include GHG emissions.

Incorporating GHGs in the emission permit system can ensure that GHG emission reductions are measurable, reportable, and verifiable (MRV). In this sense, shifting the GHG regulation from the NDRC to the MEE helps to harmonise climate and environmental management.

China’s reform of climate regime is overall positive. With the pledge to build ‘a community with a shared future for humankind’, China is determined to continue its path of low carbon development.

The institutional reform has the potential to expedite climate change legislation. Without a law of climate change, the NDRC tended to use departmental rules to regulate GHG emissions. Because the NDRC has powerful influence on economic and energy matters, the rules are generally followed by other ministries and local governments.

In comparison, as a newer and weaker ministry, the MEE is more likely to advocate the rule of law for climate governance. The MEE has strengthened its power through environmental legislation. A case in point is the revised Environmental Protection Law promulgated in 2015.

The new law gave the MEE teeth to dramatically strengthen environmental enforcement. Therefore, the MEE would have more incentive to advocate climate legislation than the NDRC. Should this happen, it will bring China’s climate commitment to the next level.

Mainstreaming climate legislation

The ministerial shake-up also re-opens the debate of alternative climate policy instruments. Specifically, whether to use carbon market or carbon tax to regulate GHG emissions is becoming a live topic again. The Climate Change Department in the NDRC era advocated carbon market.

It created seven regional carbon market pilots in 2013; it also announced the establishment of national emission trading scheme in 2017. When MEE took over the climate regulatory power, it also inherited regional and national carbon markets.

Unlike the NDRC, the MEE has no particular reason to stick to carbon market. Carbon tax should be a viable policy option given that China started environmental tax in 2018. It would be convenient to incorporate GHGs in the existing environmental tax code.

Carbon tax has several advantages over carbon market. In general, carbon tax can provide a more certain price signal to emitters. In China’s context, carbon tax requires legislation, which is important to cement China’s long-term climate commitment. In addition, carbon tax can prevent local governments from interfering the implementation of national climate regulations.

As evidenced in the regional pilots, excessive intervention by local governments can lead to the failure of carbon market. Furthermore, carbon tax can leverage the power of the Ministry of Finance (MOF). The MOF is influential in setting key economic policy agenda. Its involvement can strengthen the compliance and enforcement of climate regulations.

However, the reform of climate regulation also comes with some concerns. The major concern is the weakening linkage between climate change and economic issues. Climate change is not a pure emission problem but also a comprehensive economic problem.

As China’s macroeconomic and energy regulator, the NDRC can move forward the climate agenda by including it in industrial, investment, and energy policies. In comparison, the environmental ministry has much less capacity to influence the national agenda of economic development and energy transition. It will be challenging for the MEE to coordinate various ministries that have more power than the environmental ministry.

A related concern is whether the MEE can tackle the economic and financial challenges associated with the regional and national carbon markets. The MEE has the capacity to ensure the MRV of GHG emission reductions, which is the foundation of a functional carbon market. However, carbon market is intrinsically connected with the financial market.

The MEE needs to work with other ministries, such as the NDRC and the securities regulator, to make sure that the operation of the emission trading scheme does not create unintended economic and financial consequences.

China’s reform of climate regime is overall positive. With the pledge to build ‘a community with a shared future for humankind’, China is determined to continue its path of low carbon development.

Whether China can further move forward its climate agenda hinges on the determination of the top leader, which is influenced by the economic consequence of climate mitigation and the global climate commitment. The new environmental ministry has the right expertise and resources to design and implement climate policies.

The ‘war against air pollution’ which had been declared in 2013 has demonstrated the MEE’s capacity to tackle the tough challenge of environmental pollution. Once climate change becomes the top item on its agenda, there is no doubt the MEE can support China’s climate ambition.

This article was originally published in International Politics and Society

*Duke Kunshan University is committed to building a world-class liberal arts university that offers a broad range of high-quality, innovative academic programs. It was established as a partnership between Duke University in the United States and China’s Wuhan University.