Did Big Data Break Democracy?


How Analytics Changed Democracy Forever

2016 shook the world. In June, the UK voted to leave the European Union, a result that few pollsters believed would occur. In November, the United States voted to elect Donald Trump, a candidate few thought had a chance at winning. Among the explanations for these two seemingly unlikely results has recently brought attention to several parties, in particular Cambridge Analytica.

The company is linked to Robert Mercer, a billionaire computer scientist and pioneer in artificial intelligence when the field was still relatively young, working first at IBM in the early 70s. A supporter of right-wing publications and funds, Mercer has been cited as one of the most influential billionaires in politics. While his donations have been significant, his efforts to support Brexit and the Trump campaign have garnered the most attention.

Data & Democarcy

Cambridge Analytica performs data analysis and campaign management, with a specialty in web services. Although it was not founded by Mercer, his family owns a large portion of the company. Data analysis is important for all national-level elections; crafting effective messages is important for winning votes. However, Cambridge Analytica goes beyond what most similar companies provide, and their activities have raised legal and ethical questions.

Online advertising has a major advantage over other types of advertising: It can be extremely targeted. Targeted advertising, which propelled Google’s success, is now a major component of political campaigns. Cambridge Analytica has taken this targeting to a new level, and the company claims to have four to five thousands data points on every adult in the United States. This targeting policy is controversial, as it’s outlawed in many European nations due to privacy laws. However, the company operates in the United States, where these types of advertising campaigns are legal.

As more and more news breaks about Russia’s alleged meddling in foreign elections, others are placing the spotlight on Cambridge Analytica and Robert Mercer. Writing for The Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr, perhaps the leading reporter on Cambridge Analytica and Mercer, reports on strong connections between the company and various Russian entities. Much of the company’s data comes from Facebook, and Facebook itself has become a major advertising platform. Through Cambridge Analytica and Facebook advertising,  parties were able to deliver highly targeted ads, most of which supported Brexit and the Trump Campaign.

Recently it was reported by the Daily Beast that Cambridge Analytica’s Chief Executive had contacted WikiLeaks to ask for help finding Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, something Julian Assange has confirmed but Trump’s team has played down.

Flipping Social Media

Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 were lauded for their social media engagement, and many experts cite the campaigns’ online research for drumming up support. It was widely accepted that Hillary Clinton’s campaign would have an online advantage as well, a narrative most believed during the election. However, online activity has been cited by many as a reason for Trump’s surprise victory. Targeted advertising, and dubious ads, proved to be far more effective than many predicted.

©Matt A.J

Those leading the Brexit campaign were accused of peddling false and misleading statistics and information, entirely legally. In the run-up to the presidential election in the United States, countless news stories that were objectively false made an impact on Facebook. Photoshopped images and false statistics were used by multiple actors across social media, and there are reports of connections to both Cambridge Analytica and Russia-affiliated groups. An investigation led by Robert Mueller, is still sifting through the details.

Did Big Data Break Democracy?

Whether you’re pro-Trump and Brexit or not, effective democracy demands an informed public. While the internet has been lauded for its ability to educate and inform, some of its potential dangers are now coming into focus. News spreads quickly online, and rebuttals to false stories almost never receive as much attention as the false news itself. Cambridge Analytica and alleged Russian efforts were not particularly expensive, but they certainly had an impact. The concept of regulating the news is entirely untenable in the United States and the United Kingdom, but some are concerned about elections dominated by distorted truths and outright lies, potentially funded by foreign entities and groups that report almost no information to regulators. If the electorate is misinformed, how can democracy thrive?

2016 will likely be noted at a watershed year. Surprising voting results shocked the world, but coming to terms with this new reality remains an ongoing discussion. Experts are fearful of a future not determined based on facts but instead on misinformation. Politicians are rarely regarded as entirely honest, but billionaires and foreign nations are now playing a large, and unregulated, role in online advertising. Will voters become better at detecting fake news? Do they even care if news is fake if it fits a narrative they want to believe? As investigators and reporters unveil new information about politics in 2016, many parties will be working to determine how to respond going forward.