Why big data may be having a big effect on how our politics plays out

 in The Conversation: “…big data… is an inconceivably vast mass of information, which at first glance would seem a giant mess; just white noise.

Unless you know how to decipher it.

According to a story first published in Zurich-based Das Magazin in December and more recently taken up by Motherboard, events such as Brexit and Trump’s ascendency may have been made possible through just such deciphering. The argument is that technology combining psychological profiling and data analysis may have played a pivotal part in exploiting unconscious bias at the individual voter level. The theory is this was used in the recent US election to increase or suppress votes to benefit particular candidates in crucial locations. It is claimed that the company behind this may be active in numerous countries.

The technology at play is based on the integration of a model of psychological profiling known as OCEAN. This uses the details contained within individuals’ digital footprints to create user-specific profiles. These map to the level of the individual, identifiable voter, who can then be manipulated by exploiting beliefs, preferences and biases that they might not even be aware of, but which their data has revealed about them in glorious detail.

As well as enabling the creation of tailored media content, this can also be used to create scripts of relevant talking points for campaign doorknockers to focus on, according to the address and identity of the householder to whom they are speaking.

This goes well beyond the scope and detail of previous campaign strategies. If the theory about the role of these techniques is correct, it signals a new landscape of political strategising. An active researcher in the field, when writing about the company behind this technology (which Trump paid for services during his election campaign), described the potential scale of such technologies:

Marketers have long tailored their placement of advertisements based on their target group, for example by placing ads aimed at conservative consumers in magazines read by conservative audiences. What is new about the psychological targeting methods implemented by Cambridge Analytica, however, is their precision and scale. According to CEO Alexander Nix, the company holds detailed psycho-demographic profiles of more than 220 million US citizens and used over 175,000 different ad messages to meet the unique motivations of their recipients….(More)”