Big Data

I was visiting with an Amerian expat friend and we were lamenting, as we often do, how our country of origin has moved so far from the fundamental principles we were taught, such as equal treatment for all, regardless of race, creed, or color. “Yes, and then there is the whole ‘big data’ connection . . .” she said. “Wait a minute,” I said, “what does ‘big data’ have to do with democratic principles?” “I guess you haven’t heard of Cambridge Analytica,” she replied. I said, “No, but I’m going to find out about them.”

Cambridge Analytica is a company that claims to combine massive data collection with sophisticated analysis and strategic media placement to influence elections in the USA. Their website claims that they have worked for “brands, political organizations, and advocacy groups all over the world,” but it is primarily known for its work for Donald Trump and for the pro-Brexit campaign in the UK. Its CEO, Alexander Nix, says, “Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual. So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.” In other words, they have four or five thousand pieces of information about me (and you) and have placed me (and you) in one of their 32 personality types. I didn’t even know this company existed, much less that they have presumably been manipulating me to vote for the candidate who has purchased their services. I feel violated and queasy. I need to digest this information and maybe have a strong drink to calm my nerves.

Now I’m beginning to get the picture of what “big data” means—five thousand pieces of information about 230 million people is close to a trillion pieces of data. That would require the services of large super-computers to scan and analyze the data and highly intelligent people who know how to do the job. Who are these people? When the company was formed in 2013, it hired most of its staff from researchers at Cambridge University in England. That is why it called itself Cambridge Analytica. Super-computers and Cambridge University researchers cost lots of money, and Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund billionaire, has the money that has funded Cambridge Analytica.

How does CA get its five thousand pieces of data about me? Here is a hypothetical, but typical, scenario: I’m looking at my Facebook account and see an article or a photo posted by a friend. I click “like” and move on. Pretty innocuous, you say. Well, I have created several pieces of more-or-less public data that can be easily harvested by the ever-watchful computers that never sleep. What do they now know about me? They know where I was at that moment and that I was reading my Facebook homepage. They know that I clicked “like” for that particular article or photo. All good pieces of data. In the period from 2008-2012, Michal Kosinski of the Psychometrics Center of Cambridge University developed a profiling system using online data such as Facebook-likes that is able to create a profile of an individual that is more accurate than friends or relatives can create. It is his algorithm that Cambridge Analytica is refining and applying to the data it collects.

What does CA do with the results of its profiling? It knows where you are and what news sources you use. Then it creates a unique message aimed at the needs and predilections of each of the 32 personality types and aims the message at you as specifically as possible. They call this behavioral microtargeting. Rather than traditional large-scale ad buys, CA concentrates on small local markets to get the most “bang for the buck.”

In the recent US presidential election, CA worked for Ted Cruz’s campaign until Robert Mercer withdrew his support for the candidate. Then it started to work for Donald Trump. I have seen Alexander Nix take much credit for Trump’s success, although the Trump campaign has described CA’s role in the 2017 election as “modest.”

It is interesting to note that Cambridge Analytica seems to work for candidates that Robert Mercer supports, leaving me with the impression that you can’t measure CA’s level of involvement by the amount the candidates spend with the company. CA is clearly under the direction of Robert Mercer, and it is his money that funds the organization. He is well-known as an alt-right supporter of such organizations as Breitbart News and the companies who produced the book and movie “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.”

June Mayer expressed her concern that the tactics used by CA cross the line between persuading voters to support candidates and manipulating them in her March 27, 2017 article in The New Yorker. Michal Kosinski, the man who developed the original algorithm used by CA, has said, “there’s a thin line between convincing people and manipulating them.”

Here are two thought questions for you: Has Cambridge Analytica crossed that line and become an agency for manipulating us? If so, what should we do about it?

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