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The dark side of democracy

  • Published at 12:05 pm March 22nd, 2018
The dark side of democracy
The traditional way of how a democracy is carried out is no more. With elections around the world being manipulated through social media, it seems the internet has become the battleground, with the people being the targets. These days, you can know a person better by the digital footprint he leaves behind than by talking to his closest friends or even his family -- we leave so much information about ourselves in one single virtual space that finding out a person’s innermost fears and desires is as simple as sifting through all the data accrued in their social network of choice. Power-hungry politicians have discovered that, with the use of certain methods, technology can play a large part in changing the entire face of politics. Given how politics flows from culture, a change in culture could bring in a change in politics. To change that culture one needs to understand about the units of culture. So, what are the units of culture? Why, people, of course. That’s where Cambridge Analytica comes in -- a privately held company that combines data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process, to quote Wikipedia. The company has built a psychological profile of each and every American voter in every particular region by collecting tons of data. By way of a Cambridge professor named Dr Aleksandar Kogan -- who gathers data for research purposes but later agreed to share it commercially -- they found out that Facebook not only harvests data from any specific user but also branches its tendrils through to their entire friend network, creating a veritable web. The company was founded upon the use of data mined from Facebook. Everything from status updates, to likes, to even private messages were exploited by this organization. This data was later analyzed by data scientists, psychologists, and strategists in harnessing them as possible tools to influence voters. Cambridge Analytica created digital content and promulgated that content though fake websites, blogs, videos, photos, etc, as a form of propaganda to alter people’s perception and divert their understanding or knowledge of any particular event.
Steve Bannon, along with a Republican donor named Robert Mercer, funded Cambridge Analytica to bring big data and social media into the US political fold
The system was so well designed that people fell into the rabbit hole easily by consuming the content they generated. Recently, it was reported that around 50 million Facebook users were part of a massive data breach in the political PR firm’s research which they never consented to. Instead of facing the public on an open platform and sharing the objectives by a candidate, agents of political candidates propagated such perverted content and newsbytes to the people to change their views on certain events, fragmenting their understanding of those events in the process. Steve Bannon, along with a Republican donor named Robert Mercer, funded Cambridge Analytica to bring big data and social media into the US political fold. By the time Steve Bannon had become Trump’s chief strategist, the company had created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. This was the tool with which Steve Bannon waged his psychological warfare during Trump’s election campaign. Not limited to American soil, Channel 4 recently exposed how Cambridge Analytica worked under the radar in elections in Nigeria, Kenya, Czech Republic, India, and Argentina. Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix bragged that these sort of tactics, instantly having video evidence of corruption, are effective. The CEO now insists that his company was hyperbolic and had exaggerated some of the statements to impress clients. Using people’s data for advertising purposes is nothing unprecedented for big companies. It’s when such tactics spill over to governance and democracy, that it starts to become a matter of grave concern. Muhammad Siraj Uddin Ayaz is a freelance contributor.