Big Data and Voter Manipulation

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I’ve written on this blog about the rise of misinformation in politics, but nothing comes close to the nefarious level of manipulation concocted by a company called Cambridge Analytica. A friend of mine brought an interesting automated system to my attention. Here is how the system works:

By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.

How effective is this system?

Most recently, Analytica helped elect U.S. President Donald Trump, secured a win for the Brexit Leave campaign, and led Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign surge, shepherding him from the back of the GOP primary pack to the front.

Who owns and controls the system?

The company is owned and controlled by conservative and alt-right interests that are also deeply entwined in the Trump administration. The Mercer family is both a major owner of Cambridge Analytica and one of Trump’s biggest donors. Steve Bannon, in addition to acting as Trump’s Chief Strategist and a member of the White House Security Council, is a Cambridge Analytica board member. Until recently, Analytica’s CTO was the acting CTO at the Republican National Convention.

The company has over a million personality tests from which they can extract data. Cambridge Analytica holds 4,000 to 5,000 data points for every adult in the United States. The company has information about what car you drive, the foods you eat, and even golf membership.

The power of these systems may be overstated.

Some people doubt the efficacy of these automated systems. One Republican scientist said: “If you get a voter on the phone, why are you asking them what their favourite ice cream is or what their favourite colour is — why don’t you just ask them who they’re going to vote for?” He thinks information about cars, food, and golf membership is useless. He prefers the direct approach: Simply call voters and ask them about their political views.

The Republican scientist might be right. Cambridge Analytica worked for Ted Cruz before they began work for Donald Trump . Obviously, Cruz lost his bid for the presidency.

Here are the comments of Eithan Hersh:

Eitan Hersh, a Yale professor and author of “Hacking the Electorate,” a study of data mining in presidential campaigns, said Cambridge Analytica’s claim about predicting personality is “basically impossible. . . . You can do better randomly guessing.”

I think Hersh’s comments are a bit hyperbolic, but he is not totally off the mark. The reason I think big data is more helpful than Hersh suggests is because the system doesn’t just provide information about how people might vote. Cambridge’s data tells you where to hold rallies, where to send volunteers, where potential donors live, and it gives information about TV ads.

At this point, I think these systems are helpful, yet troubling, but not decisive. My main concern is the use of false information to influence voters.

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