On 16th February, 2018, United States Justice Department senior counsel Thomas Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals over a campaign to influence the 2017 US election. Mueller cited foreign bodies working for the ORGANIZATION, accused of stealing social media profiles from the world’s biggest social network to ‘sow discord in the US political system’. The claims were so fantastical and grandiose as to read like science fiction. Commentators noted the similarities to the script of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (MGS2), a 2001 video game by acclaimed director Hideo Kojima. The lines between fantasy and reality were blurred further when actor Paul Eiding, who played Colonel Campbell in MGS2, read Mueller’s transcript, which was later overlaid onto an MGS2 cut-scene causing a flurry of social media interest.

Amusing as it was, the meme was shared and forgotten within 24 hours, with few pausing to consider the accuracy of MGS2’s predictions of a digital society where personal data held the key to behavioural manipulation. The topic is currently making headlines via a firm called Cambridge Analytica, who harvested over 57m Facebook user profiles to create targeted advertising aimed at influencing voting intentions. The meme became the story, distracting us from closer inspection of Kojima’s work. The irony is that MGS2 had warned us how memes were hindering the transmission of worthwhile information by cluttering the world with trivial data.

“In the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness. Never fading, always accessible. Rumors about petty issues, misinterpretations, slander. All this junk data preserved in an unfiltered state, growing at an alarming rate. It will only slow down social progress, reduce the rate of evolution.”

Rose and Colonel Campbell, MGS2

Hideo Kojima’s misunderstood MGS2 foretold of a shadowy organisation called The Patriots who aimed to control society through digital manipulation, using social profiling, targeted memes and stealthy pervasion. MGS2’s ‘villains’ aren’t an exact analogue of a social media giant like Facebook, or even a data firm like Cambridge Analytica, but more a system of control in which we are active, if unwitting, participants. This is not science fiction, but rather an uncanny prediction of the digital society in which we live today – which affects us all in subtler, more sinister, ways than Mueller’s investigation into voter manipulation – that has already changed our political landscape and capacity for debate.

How has the world been influenced by data profiling and manipulation?

Cambridge Analytica are a data profiling firm currently at the centre of a global scandal about digital privacy and voter manipulation.

In the last two years, global politics has been transformed by a series of events that defied traditional analysis. While once unthinkable, the emergence of Brexit and Donald Trump dominated the news agenda, as traditional media battled to comprehend a changing landscape. These events have been attributed to a rise in populism, social media and political dissatisfaction; fuelled by simmering racial, economic and nationalist tensions. 

What’s only just receiving scrutiny, is the role of big data and personal data profiling in manipulating people’s behaviors – and, in turn, their voting intentions – by targeting their fears and prejudices. In the last few weeks, news outlets like The Guardian, Channel 4 and the New York Times, have intensified their focus on the activities of a firm called Cambridge Analytica – more on them to follow – as part of a wider, systemic, exploitation of Facebook (leading to the #deletefacebook hashtag) and other social media user data.

By exploiting the rules and algorithms that drive Facebook – the world’s biggest social network, with two billion global users – this UK technology company claims to have swung the vote in favour of its backers. More surprisingly, the impact of Cambridge Analytica on current global events carries uncanny similarities to how MGS2 manipulates its lead character, Raiden – and the role of the game’s shadowy ‘enemy’, The Patriots.

How did MGS2 predict our modern digital society?

MGS2 forced you to play as new protagonist Raiden not series hero Solid Snake to make a wider point about the information age and the nature of free will

MGS2 forced you to play as new protagonist Raiden, not series’ hero Solid Snake, to make a wider point about the information age and the nature of free will.

MGS2 is a dense, meta-textual, sequel to one of PlayStation’s most famous games; one that took its fans years to understand. Notionally, it’s a good vs bad tanker heist, where you play – much to many fan’s dismay – an unknown, fop-haired, soldier called Raiden and not the original game’s hero, Solid Snake. This ‘bait and switch’ of the main character is intentional, and used to relay the game’s theme of societal control, the rise of the internet, and the nature of free will. The game’s big twist is that you, the player, are an active – but unknowing – participant in the S3 Plan, aka The Selection for Societal Sanity (camouflaged behind its trial run, the Solid Snake Simulation… look, no one said this was straightforward…), run by the game’s real villains The Patriots. Confusing? Sure, but obfuscation is the point, since systems of control work best when operating by stealth.

MGS2’s closing scenes – where player character Raiden confronts his commanding officer Colonel Campbell, and his girlfriend Rose, who have both deceived him – lift the veil on The Patriots’ plans to manipulate society via information systems, bearing uncanny resemblance to the online world of 2018.

VIDEO: Colonel Campbell outlines the birth of The Patriots and a new digital system of control:

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