Communication and Politics in Times of Big Data

By Katu Arkonada on April 13 2019

A scandal was disclosed on May 2018, when The Guardian and The New York Times released reports based on information from Christopher Wylie, former employee at data firm Cambridge Analytica that personal data from about 80 million Facebook users had been harvested and they were utilized to create (political and psychological) voter profiles. With that, and through micro-segmentation, they received messages especially devised according to their profile. These messages could have been decisive for Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.

How was the data harvested? Through an app called Thisisyourdigitallife. A poll reported that 300 thousand users logged in through Facebook and completed a psychological test, delivering results voluntarily to Global Science Research (GSR). Involuntarily and hidden among privacy policies, those who made the test also gave in profiles of their followers, so the amount of profiles multiplied exponentially.

Cambridge Analytica, which bought the data to GSR, was a subsidiary to Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), property of Robert Mercer -main funder of the Republican Party campaigns, third most major donor to Trump’s campaigns and investor of 10 million dollars in Breibart News, a website chaired by Steve Bannon.

And here is where data mining and analysis (Mr. Mercer) meet with communications (Mr. Bannon), beginning with the era of fake news and electoral manipulation through micro-segmentation in a successful electoral campaign that resulted in Trump’s victory in the United States.

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook hastily affirmed they do not sell data to external firms, though this is a half-truth since it is in fact documented that it uses data as currency with other companies.

Facebook gathers our data particularly from the activity we carry out through its companies (Instagram or Whatsapp also belong to it), activity that yields very useful patterns for firms that may want to sell us something.

Then, and perhaps most important, our data is exposed through Facebook Pixel, an invisible code that follows our daily Internet steps when we download an app, buy products or services, or even when we fill in login forms.

For instance, when we feel monitored for receiving ads regarding a specific country we were searching about, Facebook Pixel is the one to blame.

Thus, and through geolocalization, data miners which gather information and data brokers who sell them out know where we live, where we study, what do we like to eat, which gym we use, where we spend our vacations or, of course, what do we like, but also our political fears.

The same thing is happening in the other platforms owned by Facebook. Instagram is number one in growth today and it represents over 60 per cent of the company’s new profits; it is to say, the top of the icing in case Facebook plunges. Whatsapp meanwhile is more effective for political marketing. Besides the experience of spreading fake news to aid Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil, the day is not far away when we receive personalized ads in that social network. These social media, together with Twitter, are useful not only to achieve votes but also to weaken your opponent’s vote.

This is all backed by the day to day fastest progress in Artificial Intelligence, a field in which China has 48 per cent of new investment over 38 per cent of the United States. New battlefields are based on predictive analysis through Big Data and the Embers system is the most outstanding of all. The Early Model Based Event Recognition using Surrogates aims at identifying patterns by analyzing millions of data, from tweets to satellite images, through real-time intelligence tools to predict dates, coordinates and the location of events before they take place, from demonstrations to migration and disease outbreaks.

According to Newsweek, Embers has already been used by the United States to predict different protests in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East.

Future is becoming past as we hand over our lives in the form of data, a new turn in trading our lives, in a real-time control not of what we consume but what we think and wish, opening a new dimension for political campaigns. The new battlefield is a combination between Big Data and micro-segmentation, fake news and the famous troll farms that foster opinion trends. Battlefields in the desert of reality.

PS: What a curious world in which Julian Assange is imprisoned for disclosing the truth for free while Mark Zuckerberg gets rich for manipulating our lives.

Source: La Jornada, translation, Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau