When the Big Lie Meets Big Data

Peter Bruce in Scientific America: “…The science of predictive modeling has come a long way since 2004. Statisticians now build “personality” models and tie them into other predictor variables. … One such model bears the acronym “OCEAN,” standing for the personality characteristics (and their opposites) of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Using Big Data at the individual level, machine learning methods might classify a person as, for example, “closed, introverted, neurotic, not agreeable, and conscientious.”

Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica (owned by Trump’s chief donor, Rebekah Mercer), says he has thousands of data points on you, and every other voter: what you buy or borrow, where you live, what you subscribe to, what you post on social media, etc. At a recent Concordia Summit, using the example of gun rights, Nix described how messages will be crafted to appeal specifically to you, based on your personality profile. Are you highly neurotic and conscientious? Nix suggests the image of a sinister gloved hand reaching through a broken window.

In his presentation, Nix noted that the goal is to induce behavior, not communicate ideas. So where does truth fit in? Johan Ugander, Assistant Professor of Management Science at Stanford, suggests that, for Nix and Cambridge Analytica, it doesn’t. In counseling the hypothetical owner of a private beach how to keep people off his property, Nix eschews the merely factual “Private Beach” sign, advocating instead a lie: “Sharks sighted.” Ugander, in his critique, cautions all data scientists against “building tools for unscrupulous targeting.”

The warning is needed, but may be too late. What Nix described in his presentation involved carefully crafted messages aimed at his target personalities. His messages pulled subtly on various psychological strings to manipulate us, and they obeyed no boundary of truth, but they required humans to create them.  The next phase will be the gradual replacement of human “craftsmanship” with machine learning algorithms that can supply targeted voters with a steady stream of content (from whatever source, true or false) designed to elicit desired behavior. Cognizant of the Pandora’s box that data scientists have opened, the scholarly journal Big Data has issued a call for papers for a future issue devoted to “Computational Propaganda.”…(More)”