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Democracy at risk: the terrifying power of 'big data'

By Samuel Alexander - posted Tuesday, 21 March 2017


The 'digital revolution' continues to change the world in profound ways. Everyday computers and other information technologies reach further into our lives, often in subtle ways, reshaping global society so swiftly that the deepest impacts can easily escape notice.

But whereas the early developers of the World Wide Web envisaged a new age of openness and egalitarianism, what we are actually seeing is the rise of surveillance capitalism on an unprecedented scale. This article warns that recent digital innovations are putting nothing less than democracy at risk, and that a society administered by the control of 'big data' is closer than most people realise.

What is 'Big Data'?

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Big data refers to the collection of the 'digital traces' that we all leave as a result of our online activity. Essentially everything we do online is recorded, from the websites we browse and the terms we type into Google, to the purchases we make and the posts that we 'like' on Facebook or 'retweet' on Twitter.

There are now IT companies that collect and store all this information on supercomputers and create digital profiles on individuals and households. One such company – Cambridge Analytica – boasts of having digital profiles on every adult in the United States – 220 million people – with each profile being based on 5,000 separate pieces of data.

Most of us are vaguely aware that this sort of thing is going on. We know Big Brother is watching us on the Internet, even if we don't exactly know how, who, or to what extent. After all, we've all probably seen adverts on our sidebar that 'coincidentally' reflect something that we searched for earlier in the day or last week. By having access to big data – access to our digital histories – marketers are now able to directly expose us to adverts that reflect our specific and individual interests and concerns, increasing the chances of manipulating us into making purchases.

But using big data to manipulate consumers into buying this or that product is one thing – objectionable enough, to be sure, in an age already saturated with advertisements. What is far more concerning however is the fact that big data is now being used for political purposes in ways that few appreciate. This technical innovation is so new that regulatory frameworks have not yet caught up, to say nothing of culture understandings, meaning that those wielding the political power of big data seem to be not so much governed as governing.

How Big Data is being used for Political Ends

Big data provides surprisingly deep and accurate insight into our personalities. Dr Michael Kosinski, a psychologist, is one of the pioneers in this space, having developed a sophisticated method for analysing personality types based on Facebook activity. With an average of merely 68 Facebook 'likes', Kosinski's models are able to predict with incredible accuracy a person's skin colour, sexual orientation, religion, intelligence, and even their political affiliations, among other things.

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Research (reported here) has shown that 70 'likes' provides enough data to offer deeper insight into an individual's personality than friends could provide; with 150 'likes', this offers more reliable insight than an individual's spouse could provide. And there is no shortage of such data. Facebook now has 1.6 billion users, providing the primary means for people in the 21st century to receive news, socialise, advertise, and communicate. All this online activity is recorded.

It is clear enough how big data can be and is used for commercial ends. The more a marketer knows about us, the more they can tailor their adverts to resonate with our individual desires, concerns, income brackets, hobbies, lifestyles, etc., influencing our purchasing practices. But could big data be used to manipulate us not just as consumers but also as citizens, influencing our voting habits and political outlook? This type of manipulation is in fact already taking place under the surface of elections today – Donald Trump was ahead of the curve in this regard – and everyone who cares about democracy should be very concerned.

The political use of big data essentially employs the same strategy as commercial uses, but for different ends: not to sell a product but rather a political vision. First, detailed profiles are created on millions of individuals, shaped by their online activity, and based on those profiles IT companies hired by political parties are able to develop strategies for how best to manipulate people, in their individuality, with the aim of changing or securing political allegiances in society.

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About the Author

Samuel Alexander is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne and co-director of the Simplicity Institute.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Samuel Alexander

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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