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Will big data destroy democracy?

Speed read
  • Politicians and advertisers use voters' personal information to change behavior
  • Social media allows direct access to the public and politicians
  • Microtargeting destroys the shared understanding need for democratic debate

Chief among those elements required for sustaining a heathy democratic government is a shared understanding of issues and candidates. But in the age of big data, this mutual understanding has been fractured. Can our democracies survive?

That was the topic of a discussion at Cloudflare’s Internet Summit earlier this month.

Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law & Leadership at Harvard Law School and Darren Bolding, Chief Technical Officer for Cambridge Analytica (CA) discussed changes to democracy in the age of big data.


Influence merchant or propaganda machine?

A quick refresher: CA is a company that specializes in using personal data to craft communication strategies that change behavior.

Big data v Democracy. Lawrence Lessig and Darren Bolding discuss the effect big data and microtargeting bring to elections. Courtesy Cloudflare.

Backed by well-heeled right-wing donors, CA provided computational infrastructure and data analysis to the Trump team which then constructed different versions of their Trump.

A prominent fount for CA is the constant stream of personal interests and opinions shared by each user of Facebook. Voter personality is well discerned from this constellation of behaviors exhibited. CA mines this data and advises focused messaging.

CA’s analysis relies on custom high-performance computing clusters – upwards of 560 processing cores and over 130 TB of data storage. Total data analyzed during the 2016 election campaign approached 13 TB, analysis possible via a data cloud accessed through Amazon Web Services.

CA told the Trump team what buttons to push in their so-called ‘dark’ ads. These ads were surrendered to federal intelligence committees and were revealed to be foreign-backed microtargeted ads of voters in swing states Michigan and Wisconsin.

Changing a voter’s mind: Is it really that different from getting a consumer to swap toothpaste?

So influenced, a minority of voters pushed candidate Trump over the top in key states, enabling him to take the electoral victory and vault to the White House. (Trump carried Wisconsin by 22,748 votes and Michigan by 10,700.)

Back to the future shock

This is a tired story by now. Truth be told, psychographics, data analysis, micro targeting and the like are familiar to other political camps as well, and have been used by marketers for some time.

But just because everybody’s doing it doesn’t mean it should be done, or not on every occasion, Lessig contends.

Given the awesome power big data bestows, Lessig understands democracy as a realm apart, one in which citizens are poorly served if their elections can be altered by presenting enough positions on an issue for the purpose of ensnaring as many voters as possible.

“When you shift from the focus of commerce or culture to democracy, you realize that the very same technologies undermine the ability for us to do democracy the way we’ve done it before.”

<strong>Big changes are afoot. </strong> Lessig and Bolding disagree about the impact that microtargeting will have on democracy. Bolding (bottom) expects greater individual control over information and access to decision makers, whereas Lessig expects it to contribute to the misinformation streams that sunder the bonds of community. Courtesy Lawrence Lessig; Daren Bolding

Big data-fueled influence campaigns change a community’s shared understanding. By representing a candidate in myriad ways, the understanding of that candidate is individualized, trickling down each social media shaft to the voter at the bottom who thinks she’s seeing the same candidate as her neighbor.

“Respectfully, if you think that politicians have not been going around saying different things to different groups of people – they’ve been doing that since the beginning of politics,” Bolding counters.

In Bolding’s view, it is better for democracy for citizens to be able to engage with a candidate and have that candidate share their opinions about your interests.

Lessig knows the duplicity of politicians is as old as the hills, but he finds a new development in the disjunction between the multiple images presented via microtargeting (courtesy big data, psychometrics and CA) and the governance machine the candidate has constructed over the course of the campaign.

“When you have the technologies that CA and other have begun to develop perfected, the project of winning and election is separate from the project of governing.”

Sharing economy

While a shared understanding is considered a bedrock principle for a functioning democracy, Bolding and CA dispute that such a shared understanding has ever existed. Diversity of opinion and experience have always been the case, and are a strength of a democracy, Bolding insists.

“The act of democracy is actually allowing people to choose who their representatives are or to affect the policy. I think it’s actually beneficial that people who have different points of view, different interests, and different subjects of things they think are important, they should have those issues addressed.”

“But the problem is if they’re doing that based on a completely disparate understanding of the world (e.g., some think climate change is real, some don’t),” says Lessig. 

Bolding: “As long as the campaign is consistent and does not change its point of view…” Lessig: “Wow! — When have we ever seen that?”

“If there’s no common set of understandings, it might be good for winning elections but it’s not going to be good for building the democracy we need to govern.”

So, is big data the enemy of democracy? 

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