It seems like every shady idea Republicans have to rig elections is tried out in North Carolina first. We had the most extreme gerrymandering in the nation following the reapportionment in 2011. We had the most extreme voter suppression program that “would target African Americans with almost surgical precision” to limit access to the polls for people who might disagree with the Republican agenda. Now, it looks we might have been victim of a voter manipulation scheme that played on voters fears and prejudices using data stolen from Facebook.
Cambridge Analytica, a shadowy data firm that started in Great Britain, used North Carolina as its testing ground to manipulate voters. They brag on their web site that they used data to motivate 128,000 GOP-leaning voters to go to the polls in the US Senate race in 2014 that Thom Tillis won by less than 50,000 votes. . Revelations this week indicate that the data may have been stolen from Facebook users without their consent or knowledge.
According to campaign finance reports, the Tillis campaign paid Cambridge Analytica $30,000 and the NC GOP paid them $150,000. WRAL reports that the GOP was the firm’s fourth largest client in 2014. Rep. Patrick McHenry also paid the firm $15,000. Neither Tillis nor McHenry has responded to reporters. The firm was key in helping Donald Trump win in 2016 and helped Brexit pass in Great Britain.
So how might the firm have influenced the election here? Let’s go back to 2014. Incumbent Kay Hagan held a consistent but narrow lead over Tillis for most of the election cycle in an environment that was tough for Democrats across the nation. In September, two events dominated the news that seemed to turn the election. ISIS released videos of beheadings of western journalists and an Ebola outbreak in Africa started fears of an epidemic.
The rapid rise of ISIS lead to questions about Obama’s policies in the Middle East and the Ebola scare fueled irrational fears that the virus would reach America. Both stories dominated news cycles for weeks. Looking back, the ebola story might well have been exploited to create fear. The virus was confined to a few West African nations and was very difficult to transmit. The people being infected were mainly relatives of victims and health care workers without sufficient protection. It had to be spread through contact with bodily fluids. Low quality health systems were one of the the main reasons for the rapid spread, but that’s not what certain people in the US believed heading into the November election.
In October, I observed a focus group of “Walmart Moms.” Clearly, their biggest fear was Ebola based on false information. One woman claimed that it was scary because it was so easily transmitted. Other members of the focus group nodded in agreement.
Republicans jumped on this fear calling for banning all flights from Africa, as if the continent were a single country. With the data they had, Cambridge Analytica could have easily played on the fears of low-information voters to manipulate them with disinformation and drive them to the polls. Regardless, just a few weeks after the election, Ebola stopped scaring people.
Hagan almost won the election by keeping the race focused on North Carolina issues and Thom Tillis’ record as House Speaker. In October, the dynamic shifted, driven largely by fear of ISIS and Ebola nationalizing a race that had been localized for most of the cycle. Cambridge Analystics could certainly have used their stolen data to reach people they could scare. Would it be enough to change the outcome of the election? We’ll probably never know that for sure, but it could cast doubt on the legitimacy of Tillis’ election.
The whole episode follows a trend in NC GOP political strategy. Instead of trying to convince the people of their policies, they’re spending an inordinate amount of energy on manipulating the electorate. They’ve used unconstitutional legislative tools to discourage voters and gerrymander districts. Now, they’re using stolen data to play on the fears of low-information voters. In other words, they’re undermining democracy and rigging the system.