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Have We Allowed Big Data To Become Too Powerful?

Many are questioning whether we can rein it in now it's gone so far

27Feb

There has been a significant amount of hand-wringing over the use of big data for certain activities, from its monetization through to using it to direct specific messages at specific people. It has been blamed for the huge political polarization we see in Western society today and it has also been credited with some huge breakthroughs in terms of elections, but not always in a positive way.

We have seen several media outlets call it in to question, The Guardian ran an editorial called ‘The Guardian view on big data: the danger is less democracy’ and even Scientific American had a piece called ‘Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?’. It is clear that big data is becoming more powerful, something we knew would happen, and will continue to happen, as more data is collected and the means in which it is analyzed becomes more powerful.

When discussing the use of targeted messaging  The Guardian went as far as saying:

‘Our model of democracy is based on public campaigning followed by private voting. These developments threaten to turn this upside down, so that voting intentions are pretty much publicly known but the arguments that influence them are made in secret, concealed from the wider world where they might be contested.’

Scientific American perhaps went even further, saying:

‘Our society is at a crossroads: If ever more powerful algorithms would be controlled by a few decision-makers and reduce our self-determination, we would fall back in a Feudalism 2.0, as important historical achievements would be lost.’

Both essentially have the same message - big data is becoming too powerful.

It is difficult to argue with this, given what we have publicly seen in elections since 2008, that the use of data has had a profound impact on their results. Cambridge Analytica, a formerly unknown company for many outside of the big data sphere, has now become synonymous with the misuse of data for manipulation, both for the EU referendum in the UK and Donald Trump’s victory in the US. The company have been very vocal in their work too, with their CEO Alexander Nix telling Sky News that there are ‘close to 4 or 5 thousand data points on every individual’ showing the depth of knowledge that they have exploited in their work. We also saw Obama targeting specific voters through data, utilizing complex algorithms to create targeted messages for specific voters and donors to help his campaign to two relatively comfortable victories.

However, as The Guardian rightly points out, there is a big difference between campaigning now and even 8 years ago. Where all campaigning was previously conducted relatively publicly, now it is done behind closed doors thanks to data. One of the most controversial uses in the most recent election was the Trump campaign’s attempts to suppress black voters who were overwhelming anti-Trump. In a  BusinessWeek article, with authors Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg talking directly to the Trump team, they found out that:

‘On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the ‘super predator’ line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: ‘Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.’ The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook ‘dark posts’ — nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as [campaign digital guru Brad] Parscale puts it, ‘only the people we want to see it, see it.’ The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. ‘We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. ‘It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.’’

It is clear that whoever is on the other end of this kind of campaign is going to struggle to retaliate, given they are unlikely to even know it’s happening.

As Scientific American points out, we are at a crossroads, but unfortunately, it is one that is unlikely to lead anywhere except straight ahead. The problem simply being that political campaigns want to be able to target specific voters and this is the best way to do it in a modern society. Therefore the people in power who need to make the decisions about controlling the way data is used in elections are the very ones who have benefitted most from it.

As data becomes even more powerful and the ability to manipulate people based on increasingly tightly defined attributes is commonplace, it is difficult to see how this use of data for campaigning can be stopped.

Most political campaigns have some in-house expertise in data, but the majority of the data work is simply outsourced to companies like Cambridge Analytica. These are the companies who could technically stop these kinds of things as those within the campaigns want to have the most powerful weapons, regardless of how they are being used. Even this is itself a difficult task given that it is not the job of the data company to know what the data is going to be used for, instead, its role is just to create the data.

We are therefore left with only a handful of institutions who could have a say over this, essentially minority parties in government and electoral commissions. The issue with the first is that they have very little power for something so big, we have seen across the houses in the US today that Democrats have very little say over policy, given that they cannot effectively oppose anything proposed by the Republican House or President, neither of whom are likely to try and pass a bill that helped them get where they are. Electoral commissions may have more of an impact and can certainly impose rules on campaigning methods and voter targeting, but they then have the dubious task of monitoring every message and seeing how and why it is being sent, all whilst not having any kind of data expertise in-house.

We have previously asked the question about whether big data will destroy democracy, and came to the conclusion that at the moment it isn’t. However, we didn’t look into the future as more data is collected and more power is used to analyze it. It is clear that the use of dark messaging combined with hyper-personalized targeting has had a profound impact on the electorate and election systems, especially when it comes to voter suppression, but how exactly can this be controlled and who exactly could do the controlling?

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