How the Sausage is Made: Big Data and the Democratic Process

The strategies of American democracy may appear to be set in stone, yet they continue to adapt to the technological advancements of the time. The invention of the printing press led to the widespread distribution of political pamphlets, television led to nationwide participation in presidential debates, and today, the collection and redistribution of digital data paves the way toward individual, personalized campaign messages without regulated imperatives of truth. 

While the realities of the internet and its data scaffolding are simply a fact of life in 2019, they may carry quiet yet sinister implications for our democratic elections. 

“Wanting to win makes people do questionable things,” said former White House correspondent for ABC News, Sam Donaldson, in 2008.

Fast forward to present day, and that wisdom seems especially relevant to Big Data’s influence on elections. A new system of dirty tricks has infiltrated political campaigns across the globe in the form of mining, analyzing, and selling the personal data of voters.

While the Trump 2016 campaign spent far more resources — one million dollars per day to be exact — toward data analysis than any other presidential campaign in history, it was neither the first nor only campaign to ever do so. In fact, the 2012 reelection campaign of President Barack Obama spearheaded this method of persuading American voters through data-driven social and digital media.

According to former Obama for America Director of Surrogates, Joe Reinstein, the 2012 reelection campaign was so successful because it created the “largest grassroots movement in political history” through the use of social media and data analysis. 

David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, approached Reinstein at the start of the reelection cycle and said, “it’s all about Twitter, Joe.” 

What made the Trump 2016 campaign’s relationship with Big Data different from Obama’s was its contracting with outside content developers, specifically a company named Cambridge Analytica, which targeted “persuadable” voters through data-driven psycho-behavioral analysis and modification. 

In the days of lighthearted and seemingly benign Buzzfeed quizzes, Facebook users were prompted to fill out a Cambridge Analytica survey entitled “The One Click Personality Test.” 

The gathered digital information provided the political consulting firm with “five thousand data points on every American voter” including their locations, likes and dislikes, buying habits, web searches, and personality profiles because the Terms and Conditions agreement few people read allowed them to do so. 

Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix claimed this information would be used to “predict the personality of everyone in the U.S.” and thus appoint persuadable voters with “highly targeted digital video content” favoring Trump’s cause. The sinister aspect of this data collection and redistribution lives in the creative content pushed onto American persuadables’ news feeds. 

Brittany Kaiser, a former executive at Cambridge Analytica, said their digital media’s goal was to “trigger” these voters until they “saw the world the way we wanted them to… until they voted for our candidate.” 

Mistruths, fear-mongering tactics, past conspiracy theories, and personal attacks were used to destroy the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton through digital content. In fact, the “Crooked Hillary” digital campaign was forged by Cambridge Analytica’s creative team rather than the Trump 2016 campaign’s staff. 

Since their deepest fears and hesitations were exploited and capitalized upon, “persuadables” were stripped of their political autonomy and given barely any choice in the election of our current president.

The problem with this notion is the perverted manipulation and commodification of user data in the context of what’s necessary to provide fair elections in this country. Campaigns throughout time have, of course, run on the persuasiveness of voters. But as former Cambridge Analytica developer and crucial whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, puts it, this was a nuanced and grossly “unethical social experiment” in which voter information was turned against itself. Data was directed to scorn truth, force its way into the screens and minds of vulnerable voters, and in turn crudely influence our democratic process. 

Before Cambridge Analytica and its parent firm, SLC, were suspiciously liquidated in 2018 due to the public ‘cancelling’ of their political involvement in both the Trump and Leave.EU Brexit campaigns, the company knowingly misrepresented the truth for their own monetary gains without much consideration toward the unprecedented political implications of their business. 

Democracy is destabilized toward deterioration when private interests pay their way into the electoral process as exemplified here. In this case, the political sausage was spiced with lies and greed, and so we must read the Terms and Conditions carefully moving forward to salvage our democracy. 

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