Divide and conquer: identity politics in the internet age

24 Sep 2018


Defined in the Collins Dictionary as “political action, views, etc. based on identification with an interest group, esp. one organized around racial, gender or ethnic identity”, identity politics is a truly caustic mode of political rhetoric and action. Employed by many a politician from Powell to Trump, it is a tool used by the powerful to divide and conquer the political playing field.


Pandering to certain sections of society is not an inherently toxic political tactic - it is in fact a necessary function of politics given that politicians, parties and parliaments would be foolish, for example, to try market a policy on childcare to the childless. They would, however, be equally as foolish if they were to try turn those with children against the childless based on, say, the idea that latter contributes less to society than the former.


And yet one can muster up many examples of this divisive, dichotic form of identity politics. Enoch Powell postulated that Commonwealth immigration would leave Britain under the ‘whip hand of the black man’, Nigel Farage produced an infamous poster depicting a line of (mostly) men of Asian descent that claimed Britain was at ‘breaking point’, and Donald Trump has continually attacked minorities.


It appears that stoking animosity between domestic populations and immigrants is a rather effective political tool - Trump won the presidency, Farage realised his wish of pushing the UK out of the EU and Powell, despite being sacked from the cabinet for his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, amassed huge support and fundamentally changed the debate around race and immigration in Britain by conjuring up fears from a cauldron of mistruths and misplaced trust.


Identity politics, based on an ‘us and them’ mentality, works because, according to Karen Stenner, underlying beliefs and prejudices often remain in the subconscious, lying dormant until triggered by external stimulus.


Stenner finds that this trigger is often based around group related threats; Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson discovered that merely informing white Americans that they would soon be a minority increased the likelihood that they would prefer own ‘group’ and be warier of those outside it.  No wonder Trump captured the hearts, minds and votes of white America.


The worst part? These insidious identity politics have been supercharged by the advent of the internet, ‘big data’ and psychographics. Trump, along with Cambridge Analytica, launched a two-pronged attack on the American psyche and propelled himself into office on a wave of big data manipulation.


Hired by the Trump Campaign in June 2016, Cambridge Analytica was able to manipulate Facebook to supercharge the use of identity politics in the American presidential election. By administering supposedly innocuous personality tests to around one million Americans and extrapolating the data alongside ‘data points’ (pieces of data Cambridge Analytica legally purchased) the firm was able to group every single one of the 230 million American voters into carefully bundled groups known as psychographics.


Psychographics, using personality traits, can predict what a certain group of people are afraid of. This information was used by Cambridge Analytica to target people, en masse, with specifically designed political adverting that was designed to translate fears, which would have otherwise lain dormant, into votes.


This devastatingly divisive tool has ushered in a new dawn of societal antipathy in America; according to a 2018 poll 31% of Americans believe there is a second civil war on its way and a staggering 55% of Americans feel Trump’s presidency has done more to divide America than unite it. More shocking still is that one of the key tools used to sow this discord, psychographics, were not even fully operationalised with Trumps campaign - they were merely an auxiliary tool used in conjunction with traditional polling methods in order to make polls more accurate.


As we approach a technological revolution which is going to push big data, artificial intelligence and faceless, nameless algorithms into every avenue of a divided society we must ensure that these tools are controlled by regulation, responsible businesses and responsible politics.


We must ensure that these tools are kept away from the political sphere lest they are used to sow further discord and division throughout our fragile societies. We must ensure we do not let fear be weaponized, for fear displaces reason and without reason we are but animals.

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