‘People You May Know’ Reveals a War on Democracy Being Waged With Big Data

Screen shot from trailer of 'People You May Know.'

As a journalist taking assignments in war-torn areas, London-based American expat Charles Kriel developed an interest in big data and its use in disinformation campaigns. This eventually led to his appointment as special advisor on fake news to the House of Commons’ DCMS (Digital, Culture, Media, Sport) select committee as it investigated the roles Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and Russia played in influencing the Brexit referendum.

Disappointed with Britain’s lack of political will to pursue needed regulation of tech companies, Kriel and film director Katharina Gellein Viken, determined to bring what they’d learned about big data manipulation, microtargeting, and tech companies’ undermining of civil society to the broader public. 

The result is the new documentary People You May Know (go to trailer), starring Kriel and directed by Viken, which spotlights the role played by churches, many of which use big data for microtargeted outreach, in the information manipulation ecosystem that continues to erode democracy in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. Distributed in the United States by Sundance and available on Prime Video, this must-watch documentary couldn’t be more timely for an election cycle marred by turbulence, uncertainty about such fundamental matters as peaceful transfer of power, and a right-wing Christian power grab.

On October 13, Charles and Katharina sat down (over Zoom) with RD’s Chrissy Stroop for an interview about their creative process, their film’s reception, and the serious threat that big data manipulation represents to democracy. 

This interview, which will be presented in two parts, has been edited for length and clarity. Read part II here

Part 1

CS: So, your film covers a complicated topic with a lot of moving parts that can be tricky to follow. What would be your thirty-second elevator pitch summary of what you want viewers to walk away from People You May Know with?

CK: What’s important to understand is that the Koch brothers commissioned a religious charity, Cofi, and a religious software company, Gloo, to work with Cambridge Analytica to create a platform where churches could specifically target people who are suffering from mental illness or grief in order to recruit them into the churches, and then to weaponize them for the politics of the far Right. 

CS: So tell me more about how you came to produce this specific film with this specific focus.

KGV: Well, so, Charles and I are quite recent partners, but we’ve known each other about ten years. And I knew that Charles had done work for civil society and as a journalist in war zones and that kind of thing, and he told me early on that he was interested in Cambridge Analytica, and I watched him do a couple of talks on the subject. And then he wrote a paper for NATO about the potential influence of the Brexit referendum by Cambridge Analytica.

He was then called to the DCMS select committee in the UK, who had been the first to form a committee to really look at the social media companies and what they were doing, and this was back when everyone was at the level of, well isn’t Facebook a nice thing that connects people? And then Charles came into the room and said they should be broken up under antitrust laws, and have you heard about Cambridge Analytica and five-factor personality profiling? Everybody’s jaw dropped, and they invited him to be special advisor the next day. And I said that we have to document this journey and this process.

I’d done a celebrity piece before, and I think initially I just wanted to do something serious; I wanted to look into fake news. And then Carole Cadwalladr’s story [co-written by Emma Graham-Harrison] with whistleblower Chris Wylie broke and the headlines just rolled across the world. I followed the committee for a year. They went to America, the first committee to ever do so, to interview Google, Twitter, Facebook. And as these tech companies lied, and they lied some more, it became a very interesting story. Then it turned out that there was very little will in the UK to pursue any of the regulation that the committee recommended for microtargeting and those issues.

So we kind of wondered, what’s the conclusion of this film? Where does it go? Because Charles had placed himself at the middle of this story, people kept coming to him with evidence. One of them, Brent Allpress, who you’ve seen in the film, just said, listen, I’ve got this connection between Cambridge Analytica and church. When we looked into it, we said, well, we’ve just had a baby, but we have to go on the road and look into this story. So we put our three-month-old baby in the back of a car and drove across America. That’s how it all came about.

CS: What a remarkable story! Charles, what is the origin of your interest in big data and personality profiling?

CK: So, probably about eight or nine years ago, someone asked me if I would go into a conflict zone and work with independent local journalists, and help them try to get digital. In post-Soviet oligarchic, authoritarian states, getting digital was one of the best ways that these journalists could get their message out. So, this offer came up, I was very excited about it, and that’s how I found myself in Nargorno-Karabakh.

I loved doing that work, and I did more and more of that work, in worse and worse places. I’ve worked everywhere from Mongolia and Tajikistan to Iraqi Kurdistan. In situations like that, you find yourself doing lots of work that was almost like counter-radicalization; it was definitely counter-disinformation. That’s what you’re helping the journalists with. So I became really informed on that kind of work, and every dark alley that I went down in these war zones or frozen conflict zones, I would find Twitter, Google, and Facebook.

You’ve signed yourself in [to the church’s app], you’ve signed in your children, you’ve shared your vulnerabilities…but it’s not just mental health, it’s vulnerabilities in general.
CS: Which is fascinating. Troll farms became a big topic in 2016. Were you picking up on anything like that, the organized use of trolls, before 2016?

CK: I was picking up on the methodologies already in place; they just hadn’t been scaled in the way that troll farms scaled things. The methodologies of disinformation and radicalization, and now election manipulation, are all incredibly similar. The difference is to what scale you operate. When the troll farms really kicked in, that was around the time of the annexation of Crimea [in March of 2014].

With social media, what you’re able to do, and what Cambridge Analytica has done, is they do data harvesting, and from those data harvests, they’re able to develop really detailed profiles of individuals, and then they can microtarget those individuals. They can do so to scale. So it’s not just, I need to find somebody in a community who’s vulnerable, and I’m going to target them specifically, and try to flip them and then they’ll be able to influence their friends and so on.

It’s all of that, but I’m going to do a million of them. The power of that is incredible. And then when you dig into what we focus on in the film, that Cambridge Analytica and Gloo were using church networks to identify people who were mentally ill and target them, it’s a really evil system.

CS: So let’s talk more about how churches use microtargeting and the findings you explore in People You May Know.

KGV: When I approached people about this initially in the churches, I talked about the modern outreach programs, and how churches are growing digitally in general. And it’s interesting, because churches have traditionally been slow on the uptake with social media and getting digital. Of course, outreach and evangelism is part of the church’s DNA, and that’s fine. And so you start to use social media for that, you’ve got live broadcasts on Facebook, and it gets started kind of slowly at first.

But then, what we found that really scared me is that a lot of smaller churches have adopted a complete digital interface. And this has happened so fast, because you want sign-in, you want to protect people’s kids, and you want to be able to track people and donations and all these things. And the churches themselves very often tell me, oh no, we don’t do that, we hire this software company, they’re very nice, and they do all of our stuff.

CS: So they’re buying that system from companies like Gloo, is that right?

KGV: Yeah, and there’s plenty of them. There’s Church Community Builderthere’s a lot of them that we ran into. And even if the church itself goes, well our privacy policy is of course we don’t share any data with anybody, the software company doesn’t protect the data at all, or they might be very bad at it. So if you go into the appand they very often will have downloadable appsyou might find that your data is free to share with anybody. And of course you’ve signed yourself in, you’ve signed in your children, you’ve shared your vulnerabilities. Charles mentioned mental health, but it’s not just mental health, it’s vulnerabilities in general.

After all, as a European, it’s interesting to watch how churches in the States, they fill every need. You have preschool, you have a couple’s night, you have childcare, you have all this stuff that’s free and really hard to say ‘no’ to.

CS: Sure. I like the way you emphasized that in the film, because I think it’s a really important American reality that many Europeans probably don’t grasp. Just, the extent to which it’s difficult for those who aren’t religious to get themselves plugged into a socially supportive community, which you need all the more because we hardly have a social safety net in America.

KGV: Absolutely. Down here in Alabama, church daycare is the thing to do.

CS: And of course there’s also Vacation Bible School every summer. From where I sit now, as a kid who grew up in right-wing culture-warring churches, I do consider the evangelism aspect of these programs predatory. But I also see that there aren’t a lot of alternatives for most people.

CK: You can see that this happens in other functions of life too. Joining a church in a new town is the way to get quickly integrated into the community. It’s comparable to the role of the village pub in the UK. There’s a story that just broke in the past week. We have a track-and-trace system—it’s not working very well, but a track-and-trace system in Britain for COVID. And you go into a pub, and you have to download an app. You put your details in. 

And that’s fine, but the pub didn’t build the app, a third party built the app. And we’re now hearing people say that pubs and restaurants have been selling this data to data brokers. But I’ll bet you it’s not the pubs and restaurants selling the data. What the pub and restaurant owners are doing is scrambling for a quick solution, thinking, we’re not coders. What the hell do we do? So they find an app, and they download the app, made by a company similar to Gloo, and they’re just harvesting data.

KGV: And it’s easy, and also in terms of churches of course, social media is cheap. Traditional outreach might have been much more time-consuming and expensive, whereas now using data you can easily find people who might be open to an invitation.

Part II, in which Kriel and Viken will discuss issues related to the coming election, including the Council for National Policy, a secretive conservative Christian organization leveraging these powerful tools to change the country, can be read here. — eds

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