Big Data: The Real Kingmaker in Democracy

data breach minimal graphic design

Neuromarketing is all about monitoring consumer behavior to strategize businesses and this isn’t a foreign concept anymore. You might have been through this situation where you are browsing a headphone on Amazon and then you begin to see the ads of headphones on various websites. It was fine until the time Edward Snowden became an internet sensation. The whistleblower was a former contractor for the CIA and he left the US in May 2013 leaking to the media details of internet and phone surveillance by the American media. What followed next was the revelation by Washington Post and several other newspapers that NSA tapped directly into the servers of 9 internet firms including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Bing. This surveillance program was called PRISM. Several political confrontations followed this revelation that includes Edward Snowden seeking asylum and Russia extending support to him. However, some of his latest tweets have created a stir in India and pointed fingers at the social media giant Facebook. In his Twitter post, he mentioned the misuse of Aadhar by Indian banks.

So, data breach is not a new phenomenon in 2018. However, the exposure of the rough tactics played by Cambridge Analytica to manipulate voting and electoral process in the USA, India, Kenya and several other countries has come as a big blow to the general public all over the world. Thanks to the whistleblower Christopher Wylie! The latest data breach saga has not only created an air of tension among the users of social media and advertisers but also become a premonition of the death of Facebook . However, the most bitter inference that has stemmed from the Cambridge Analytica row is that data mining and artificial intelligence has now become the kingmaker in democracy.


Why Is Cambridge Analytica Making Headlines?

Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a British political consulting firm that combines data mining, machine learning, and strategic communication for the electoral process. In 2014, it was involved in 44 US political races. In late March of 2018, New York Times and Observer claimed that CA exploited the private data millions of Facebook users. This was against the agreement of Facebook which claims to protect the privacy of its users. Further, in a video by Channel 4, the CEO of CA Alexander Nix said that CA used dirty tricks like bribe and sex workers to entrap politicians.

It all began when a Cambridge University professor named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan violated the policies of Facebook in 2015 and passed on the data of users to Cambridge Analytica from an app he developed that uses the Facebook login. The app is ‘This is Your Digital Life’ which provides personality prediction based on a few responses by the users. Over 270,000 people downloaded the app. CA was able to collect not only their private information but also of their friends’ on Facebook. He also shared the private data of users data with Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, Inc. All these became public when Mr. Wylie reported about the breach of privacy of users to the media

What was so horrendously wrong with this move was – the data sharing was against the permissions of the users. This data was used for psychological profiling of the people in different regions and then used to strategize political campaigns. CA claimed that it can develop a new type of political targeting based on the OCEAN personality test (You can take the test here) and not just demographics like age, sex, race or region. However, this is against the freedom of people and in fact, a threat to the existence of democracy.

History of Cambridge Analytica

Strategic Communication Laboratories Group-SCL Group, founded in 1993, is the parent company of Cambridge Analytics (CA). SCL started as a messaging and PR firm. It also used to perform some standard operations like summarizing news reports for its clients. CA was formed in 2013. Its clients include governments and politicians in Indonesia, Thailand, and Kenya. It vouched for its expertise in ‘psychological warfare’. Cambridge Analytica generates a psychological profiling of the voters.


Instances of Data Breach by CA to Restructure Socio-Political Campaigns

1.Honour Killing Project, India

According to the document made public by whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a division of the parent company, SCL Social did a project for an unknown client on honour killing in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, between 2009 and 2010. The main objective was to ‘understand the convoluted socio-cultural ideology that drives these murders’. It proposed several remedies based on the study that can prevent such a heinous offense. Well, in this case, the data analysis has led to a constructive social development. However, it’s not clear how the data was obtained in this case or whether CA monitored the private data of the Facebook users of the kins of the ‘khap’ victims. If it has done so, it’s against the ‘right to privacy’-an intrinsic part of the ‘right to life’

2. US Presidential Election

Donald Trump becoming triumphant in the latest presidential poll was not something easy to assimilate for many factions and ethnic groups. The Indian media was quite vocal about his past misdeeds and was biased in favor of Hilary Clinton to an extent. Now, it has been revealed that SCL created US election campaign tools at a cost of more than $500,000 using “data modeling” based on machine learning algorithms targeting 100 million or more Americans.

3. Brexit

During the Brexit, Aggregate IQ which is another sister company of SCL focussed on a narrow group of 5-7 million people bombarding them with ‘calculated’ advertisements. Wylie had told earlier that three pro-Brexit groups – BeLeave, which targeted students; Veterans for Britain, and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party – all used the services of AggregateIQ to help target voters online. As we all know that the Brexit poll results were very close, so it is imperative of the role of SCL and AIQ. Those 5-7 million people comprised approximately 5% of the voters.


So, I can say that some of the political victories in the last few years are pyrrhic – there is a question mark on the transparency of the electoral process. There are speculations that big data has aided President Donald Trump to clinch victory in the last electoral. SCL boasts about its interference in Nigerian elections in 2007 long before Cambridge Analytica was formed in 2013. It claims that it organized rallies in Nigeria to debilitate support for the opposition in 2007. In a press interview, Christoper Wylie, the whistleblower, who was once a contractor at Cambridge Analytica, said that the Indian National Congress was its client. This has started a row of political debates in India with BJP seeking an apology from Congress. With CA boasting of its role in getting Donald Trump the president, the role of Big Data analytics in politics can’t be underestimated. In fact, it turns out that a political party hiring a better analytics firm is likely to win. This shatters the essence of democracy. So, the ultimate question that needs to be answered is-‘Who is the ultimate kingmaker-people or AI and Big Data?

2 Replies to “Big Data: The Real Kingmaker in Democracy”

  1. Dawna Grealish says: Reply

    good stuff. I will make sure to bookmark your blog.

  2. Lyla Hearin says: Reply

    This is a impressive story. Thanks!

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