In the documentary People You May Know, Charles Kriel, special adviser to the U.K. Parliament on disinformation, and filmmaker Katharina Gellein Viken unpacked the political connections between religious fundamentalists, oligarchs, and the company Cambridge Analytica, whose infamous mishandling of the personal data of millions of Facebook users was revealed in 2008. Even though Donald J. Trump may have exited the White House, as Kriel notes in the following telephone interview, these connections go well beyond placing Trump in power to fundamentally shift the balance of politics in the United States.
What prompted you to make this documentary?
I’ve been a broadcaster since I was fifteen years old. About ten years ago, I started working in conflict zones. I was asked to go to Nagorno-Karabakh to work with some local journalists and help them figure out how to go digital. I started doing more work with local journalists, who were finding themselves suddenly in a country that was ruled by an oligarch dictator, where information and radicalization were key. So, I have done a lot of work countering disinformation and radicalization. At the end of every dark alley I went down doing this kind of work, I found Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Cambridge Analytica.
Then when Brexit happened and Trump won shortly afterward, I was in the U.K. and got obsessed with trying to understand what had happened, because both of those things took people by surprise. When I started looking into this, Cambridge Analytica really started jumping out. They were drawing up very detailed personality profiles on people, a practice that has been done forever in marketing. Also, Cambridge Analytica along with Facebook were able to micro target to scale.
In the documentary, you said, “We were talking to the right people but were asking them the wrong things.” Could you elaborate on this comment?
We were spending an awful lot of time on the data side of the story. We weren’t managing to chase within the context of the Select Committee how so much of this data was actually being acquired. We could see that it was coming in through Facebook, and that was a worthy pursuit for a parliamentary committee, because it’s something you can deal with in terms of legislation. But we weren’t seeing how it was being collected on the ground.
What prompted you to journey from the U.K. to the U.S. Bible Belt?
I was advising the DCMS (Digital, Culture, Media and Sports) Select Committee in the U.K. When we wrapped up our work, it felt like we had done all we could given that our role as a select committee was fairly limited. However, we weren’t exploring the American side of the story. As I’m an American from the South, I wanted to continue pursuing this investigation. The most logical place for me to continue pursuing it was in the South, because it’s known to me. Also, the southern churches are deeply involved in politics.
Explain the connection between U.S. churches and Cambridge Analytica.
Expansionist churches that grow like franchises have been a big deal in America for the past twenty years. To help these churches grow, they were sold outreach programs designed to bring people into the fold with a focus on those individuals who were in troubled times and under duress. This material was based on the surveys designed by Alexandre Kogan, who did the initial data collection for Cambridge Analytica. These surveys were rewired in the context of religion.
How did churches use these surveys?
The data from these surveys were inputted into systems that functioned similarly to Google Maps. Within the geography of a given area, this data could pinpoint areas with high incidents of divorce, addiction, or mental illness. They could then use these data to find places to plant a new church, where they could then utilize outreach to target people with these conditions. This is where it all starts to get uncomfortable, because now you’re talking about targeting off the basis of people’s physical and mental health data. I find it very concerning that they would take data from vulnerable people who are going to a particular church and then use this data to persuade this person to vote for the Republican ticket.
What would be the advantage to the Koch brothers wanting this data?
Historically, they’re not particularly interested in moral crusades but rather in deregulation and the ability to manipulate an electorate. Combine that with Robert Mercer and his daughters, who were board members of Cambridge Analytica. You find patterns of very wealthy conservatives interested in conservative politics financing data platforms to gather as much data as possible on the electorate.
Having detailed psychological data, consumer data, graphic data, and economic data on every citizen in the United States is like striking gold. It’s said that data is the new oil. My witty answer to that is, well then, who are the dinosaurs?
Why do the Koch brothers target churches, given that they aren’t particularly religious?
The Koch brothers have been big funders of the Council for National Policy (CNP), which is one of the most powerful conservative organizations in America. Their mission statement more or less was to rewrite the U.S. Constitution by 2020 according to Christian law. This would entail eliminating women’s rights, abortion rights, and marriage equality, as well as impacting issues such as term limits. Also, this would weaken the federal government in terms of its power over the states to do civil rights legislation and environmental regulation.
How does the CNP intend to achieve this objective?
Their strategy has been to call for a Constitutional Convention. They’ve done this by impacting state legislators with their own brand of Republicans, with the need to acknowledge two thirds of states to do this. They are a couple of spaces away from being able to do that.
The work of two subjects in your documentary, Katherine Stewart and Anne Nelson, have been featured in humanist publications. How was their research helpful to you in crafting this documentary?
Their work was absolutely vital. This film pivoted two or three times in terms of the direction we were going with our investigation. We were getting somewhere in terms of learning about data and so on. Then in a random tweet I saw how Anne Nelson was talking about the CNP. Her research laid out in black and white the political shift that has been happening across my entire adult life.
This made me go back and look at the history of conservative religion and its relationship to abortion rights. Conservative Protestants didn’t really care about abortion that much until around the late 1970s. Then it became an issue that was utilized to build a political coalition. So, a lot of that came together. Suddenly, the strangeness of the Trump phenomenon began to make more sense when I saw just how many people on his cabinet and advisors were members of the CNP.
How do you make the distinction between groups that are conservative versus those that are radical?
I consider radicalization to be the process of indoctrinating somebody into an ideology and taking them right up to a point of activism that’s right on the edge of leading to violence or disenfranchising others. You can present this radical with truth and different perspectives, and it does not matter. They will not listen and not acknowledge it, and they will not take part in that. Now, this doesn’t mean that, say, your eighty-nine-year-old grandmother who watches Fox News all day has been radicalized. Even though she refuses to believe something if you told her the truth, she’s not an activist because she’s not on the edge of violence or disenfranchising others.
Why do you think humanists would be interested in this particular documentary, given that they aren’t attending these churches where this material is being mined?
I don’t think anybody would want to see all their personal details of their mental health and wellbeing exploited by anybody for political gain. We need to be informed and develop a real resilience in the face of a flood of disinformation. It would be nice if we had some standards in place that are done by independent nonprofits and NGOs or civil society-driven governments. Also, I think we need to act to rebuild our institutions.
In the documentary People You May Know, Charles Kriel, special adviser to the U.K. Parliament on disinformation, and filmmaker Katharina Gellein Viken unpacked the political connections between religious fundamentalists, oligarchs, and the company Cambridge Analytica, whose infamous mishandling of the personal data of millions of Facebook users was revealed in 2008. Even though Donald J. …