Is Big Data Ruining Democracy?

Some worry that big data gives more power to authoritarians than it does to consumers.


Marketers value big data as a tool to identify prospective customers and discover new marketing opportunities, though it certainly has a downside.

Specifically, there are concerns that the big data revolution is damaging to democracy, by providing even more power to authoritarianism.

Political scientists like Ian Bremmer warn that, although the information revolution has the potential to provide consumers with more transparency, governments are exerting more control by leveraging big data.

The Dangers of 'Filter Bubbles'

Bremmer and others note that algorithms on platforms like Facebook and YouTube strive to get people to spend more time on these platforms, specifically by crafting echo chambers that cater to one's fundamental set of beliefs.

Rather than nurturing an environment of open dialogue that embraces the Socratic method of new information, social media platforms have the incentive to maintain these filter bubbles, so people maintain comfort on these platforms and continue to engage via likes and comments.

Western society — and democracy, in general — should rely on discourse to solve problems. If contingents are set in their echo chambers with little in the course of an open dialogue, problems are unlikely to reach a resolution, which poses a substantial threat to democracy.

In substitution of citizenry maintaining a civil and productive conversation, it's likelier that the government will assume a more authoritarian approach as its citizens are busy complementing like-minded ideologies and ideas, in various spectrums.

Big data provides these social media platforms insight to help craft these filter bubbles, ultimately undermining civic nationalism in favor of tribalism. Conversely, China is a more considerable proponent of civic nationalism, with technology steering toward a more central discussion, even if differing views exist.

The Empowerment of Corporations and States

Today, the communication revolution seemingly exists for the accommodation of corporations and the state, rather than the individual. The emergence of big data provides evident, firm ends of the spectrum for the state and corporations to craft these filter bubbles around.

Prominent organizations control data and benefit from the data. Facebook, for example, tracks users’ web history via thousands of websites with the Facebook 'like' button.

Also, they tap into people’s external data by buying it from credit rating agencies and Dunnhumby, trace users’ location via posts and GPS and also have access to their phone's address book — upon sharing.

It’s common sense that placing social media users in bubbles that align with their preferences is likelier to result in likes, shares and general engagement, providing social media platforms that monetize these engagements incentive to keep things divisive and polarizing.

Also worth considering is the rising prominence of AI, mostly in the control of the state and larger corporations. As such, AI is unlikely to provide a solution to big data’s deterioration of discourse and democracy.

Additionally, since western societies have fallen so deep into globalism, where the ruling elites are not motivated to address disparity and inequality, there is no quick fix in sight.

The reality is that things will have to get worse for the ruling elites before changes occur — especially since general western society is so dependent on social media and the web in their day-to-day lives.

The Shift to an Orwellian World?

A dystopian Orwellian world of control suggests a climate where the government and corporations can tap into any citizen's interests, activities, whereabouts and more.

We already exist in a similar type of world, where dependence on social media and mobile phones makes it exceedingly easy for the government to hone in on any citizen.

In China, there are plans to provide scores to each citizen, based on credit history and general behavior, that will have an impact on privileges and access. India also has a biometric ID system, Aadhaar, that appears to be a detriment to lower classes.

In western democracy and beyond, an Orwellian world is becoming a reality, with big data facilitating it. Big data is making it easier for social media platforms to craft divisive filter bubbles for the incentive of more engagement, as well.

Overall, the prioritization of engagement and profit over productive discourse poses a severe danger to the existence of democracy. 


Read next:

Why We Need Data Visualization To Understand Unstructured Data