Weaponising Fashion

A while ago, (social) media were abuzz with the news that Cambridge Analytica (CA), the notorious data mining company that illegally trawled some 50 million Facebook user profiles for political manipulation purposes in the 2016 USA presidential elections (although a first story appeared earlier about CA’s involvement in the Senate campaign by Ted Cruz) also ‘weaponised’ fashion as part of its campaign. CA apparently collected ‘likes’ that referred to fashion brands and design houses on the unsuspecting users’ Facebook pages and recorded responses like these.

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I presume that this is supposed to correspond, from left to right, to a ‘conservative – moderate – liberal’ orientation…

The data that CA gathered from Facebook accounts was mapped unto an OCEAN personality profile measuring the subjects’ respective Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. As Christopher Wylie, CA’s ‘director of research’ claims in his presentation at Business of Fashion’s annual VOICES meeting, fashion correlates strongly with these personality characteristics. More specifically, some brands correlate strongly with ‘liberal’ characteristics such as Openness and Extraversion, other brands point to a more conservative personality, characterised by Conscientiousness and Agreeableness.

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For Wylie, ‘fashion is a good entry point to people’s identity’, because we choose what to wear on a daily basis, and brands and styles reflect and reveal personal identities. All this makes it possible, he claims, to weaponise fashion as part of a systematic manipulation of the US electorate, to ‘re-segregate society’ and to lock people into their respective information ghettos. Customised information feeds lead to a ‘hyper-personalisation’ of society, in which people are manipulated according to their psychological profiles (of which their fashion preferences are a part). From a social science perspective it is interesting to note that this process of hyper-personalisation already begins with a methodological choice in which ‘culture’ and by extension fashion is defined as the distribution of attitudes among people. In other words, the very social nature of fashion is erased and reduced to an indicator attached to a target individual. The political ends here define the scientific means.

Whether Wylie’s argument actually holds water or reflect his attempt to dazzle the crowd at the BoF event is hard to gauge. There are no numbers given in his presentation expect for the Wrangler/A&F chart, which raises the question of its representativeness.

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The colour-coded OCEAN chart strikes me as somewhat less conducive in terms of supporting Wylie’s claim of a very strong correlation between fashion and personality traits, and even less so with regard to the political orientations that are the ultimate target here.

Arguably, Wylie’s presentation is most interesting and politically relevant when he refers to the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its attempt to control and dominate the spread of ‘narratives’ via social media. Culture and information here are considered but another form of weapon, with, as Wylie phrases it, ‘algorithms as the targeting system and cultural narratives as the payload’. What Wylie here seems to reference is DARPA’s ‘Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) programme. According to the agency:

SMISC will focus research on linguistic cues, patterns of information flow and detection of sentiment or opinion in information generated and spread through social media. Researchers will also attempt to track ideas and concepts to analyze patterns and cultural narratives. If successful, they should be able to model emergent communities and analyze narratives and their participants, as well as characterize generation of automated content, such as by bots, in social media and crowd sourcing.

This SMISC brief is now listed as ‘archived’, suggesting that it is no longer operative. It seems to have been replaced by a programme on ‘Computational Simulation of Online Social Behavior’ (SocialSim), the aim of which ‘is to develop innovative technologies for high-fidelity computational simulation of online social behavior. SocialSim will focus specifically on information spread and evolution.’

This suggests, no all that surprisingly, that the US military is very much interested in being able to control the dissemination of information and narratives and to manipulate their impact on social actors according to its needs. Precisely what role fashion here plays is unclear (a search for ‘fashion’ on the DARPA site produced no results), but given that research conducted within the SMISC programme included the tweets of Lady Gaga, perhaps it plays at least a marginal role.

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