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Democracy at Risk: The Terrifying Power of Big Data

March 21, 2017

Here is my short article that appeared Tuesday morning in On Line Opinion.

Democracy at risk: the terrifying power of ‘big data’

The ‘digital revolution’ continues to change the world in profound ways. Everyday computers and other information technologies reach further into our lives, often in subtle ways, reshaping global society so swiftly that the deepest impacts can easily escape notice.

But whereas the early developers of the World Wide Web envisaged a new age of openness and egalitarianism, what we are actually seeing is the rise of surveillance capitalism on an unprecedented scale. This article warns that recent digital innovations are putting nothing less than democracy at risk, and that a society administered by the control of ‘big data’ is closer than most people realise.

What is ‘Big Data’?

Big data refers to the collection of the ‘digital traces’ that we all leave as a result of our online activity. Essentially everything we do online is recorded, from the websites we browse and the terms we type into Google, to the purchases we make and the posts that we ‘like’ on Facebook or ‘retweet’ on Twitter.

There are now IT companies that collect and store all this information on supercomputers and create digital profiles on individuals and households. One such company – Cambridge Analytica – boasts of having digital profiles on every adult in the United States – 220 million people – with each profile being based on 5,000 separate pieces of data.

Most of us are vaguely aware that this sort of thing is going on. We know Big Brother is watching us on the Internet, even if we don’t exactly know how, who, or to what extent. After all, we’ve all probably seen adverts on our sidebar that ‘coincidentally’ reflect something that we searched for earlier in the day or last week. By having access to big data – access to our digital histories – marketers are now able to directly expose us to adverts that reflect our specific and individual interests and concerns, increasing the chances of manipulating us into making purchases.

But using big data to manipulate consumers into buying this or that product is one thing – objectionable enough, to be sure, in an age already saturated with advertisements. What is far more concerning however is the fact that big data is now being used for political purposes in ways that few appreciate. This technical innovation is so new that regulatory frameworks have not yet caught up, to say nothing of culture understandings, meaning that those wielding the political power of big data seem to be not so much governed as governing.

How Big Data is being used for Political Ends

Big data provides surprisingly deep and accurate insight into our personalities. Dr Michael Kosinski, a psychologist, is one of the pioneers in this space, having developed a sophisticated method for analysing personality types based on Facebook activity. With an average of merely 68 Facebook ‘likes’, Kosinski’s models are able to predict with incredible accuracy a person’s skin colour, sexual orientation, religion, intelligence, and even their political affiliations, among other things.

Research (reported here) has shown that 70 ‘likes’ provides enough data to offer deeper insight into an individual’s personality than friends could provide; with 150 ‘likes’, this offers more reliable insight than an individual’s spouse could provide. And there is no shortage of such data. Facebook now has 1.6 billion users, providing the primary means for people in the 21st century to receive news, socialise, advertise, and communicate. All this online activity is recorded.

It is clear enough how big data can be and is used for commercial ends. The more a marketer knows about us, the more they can tailor their adverts to resonate with our individual desires, concerns, income brackets, hobbies, lifestyles, etc., influencing our purchasing practices. But could big data be used to manipulate us not just as consumers but also as citizens, influencing our voting habits and political outlook? This type of manipulation is in fact already taking place under the surface of elections today – Donald Trump was ahead of the curve in this regard – and everyone who cares about democracy should be very concerned.

The political use of big data essentially employs the same strategy as commercial uses, but for different ends: not to sell a product but rather a political vision. First, detailed profiles are created on millions of individuals, shaped by their online activity, and based on those profiles IT companies hired by political parties are able to develop strategies for how best to manipulate people, in their individuality, with the aim of changing or securing political allegiances in society.

Cambridge Analytica – noted above – is one such firm, whose parent firm SCL Group states that it specialises in ‘election management strategies’ and ‘messaging and information operations’. Cambridge Analytica was involved in both Trump’s campaign and the Brexit ‘Leave’ campaign, helping both campaigns achieve their political goals. Shouldn’t the very phrase ‘election management’ by private firms be raising alarm bells? Who or what are these firms that have begun to manage elections? And what do these new forms of shaping public opinion mean for democracy?

The worrying thing is that we might find ourselves being manipulated or ‘managed’ without being aware of it. Suppose Cambridge Analytica or some such election management firm was trying to persuade a certain demographic – say, left-leaning environmentalists – to vote for Trump. It would not direct a campaign advert towards this group that highlighted Trump’s policies on climate change, which environments widely regard as regressive. But perhaps an advert that highlighted the fact that Trump does not support the pro-corporate Transpacific Partnership Agreement might be effective, subtly inducing this group to adopt a more positive view on Trump.

Now imagine this type of strategy being employed across a society, day after day, advert after advert, approaching different personality types in different ways to maximise influence. By managing which individuals are exposed to what, and when, it is quite clear that big data has the power to influence public opinion in unprecedented ways and with significant – and potentially undemocratic – political implications. Think of it this way: would you want private, politically motivated firms choosing what books you read? Obviously not, because that would clearly colour your resulting outlook.

Big data can also be used politically in a different way too – to test campaign ideas, strategies, and language, in extremely nuanced ways. Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, is quoted as saying that ‘Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven’. For example, on the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump’s team reportedly tested 175,000 different ad variations to determine which would be most effective with which demographics. Microscopic variations were tested – different colours, captions, headings, photos, etc., – and based on the results, different political adverts were directed to different people, in order to optimize the desired manipulative impact. Again, campaigning based on big data is providing a new means to shape public consciousness in ways that few appreciate.

Of course, powerful vested interests have always distorted public opinion by being able to afford a disproportionate access to mass media. The Murdoch press, for example, certainly shapes public consciousness through its concentrated media, which is worrying enough from the perspective of democracy. Big data now offers a terrifying new level of sophistication and power.
As futurist, Richard Slaughter, notes:

In order to protect the wellsprings of life, culture and meaning, we need to get serious about limiting the power and reach of Silicon Valley and the Internet oligarchs. We need strategies that allow us to free the ubiquitous algorithm from their grasp and, in so doing, gather collective courage to re-design ‘the Internet’ and re-frame its multiple uses. It needs to be ‘liberated’ for more respectful and constructive uses. This is quite obviously not a case of rejecting ‘technology’ wholesale but of locating it within a broader frame of understanding and value. The latter will include ‘the market’ but not be dominated by its current reductive and out-dated framework.


The game of political campaigning has changed, and almost everyone is still playing the old game. If the rest of culture and indeed our political regulations do not catch up quickly, democracy as we know it will continue its worrying decline. We will find that elections are ‘strategically managed’ by digital propaganda machines – whether on behalf of politicians or the transnational corporate elite – in ever more effective ways through technological manipulation of political consciousness in society, thus making a farce of democracy. Orwellian dystopias no longer lie merely in the realm of fiction.

It was philosopher John Dewey who once wrote: ‘Every generation has to accomplish democracy over again for itself’. His point was that, at each moment in history, citizens and nations inevitably face unique challenges and problems, so we should not assume that the laws, institutions, and practices inherited from the past will be adequate for today. Big data is the latest challenge to democracy – and it is a threat that runs deeper than most people realise.



Teaser photo image: By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Samuel Alexander

Over the last ten years Dr Samuel Alexander has been a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia, teaching a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Economy: Critical Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ as part of the Master of Environment. He has also been a Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and is currently co-Director of the Simplicity Institute. Alexander’s interdisciplinary research focuses on degrowth, permaculture, voluntary simplicity, ‘grassroots’ theories of transition, and the relationship between culture and political economy. His current research is exploring the aesthetics of degrowth and energy descent futures. His books include Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary (2019, co-authored with Brendan Gleeson); Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future (2018, co-authored with Josh Floyd); Art Against Empire: Toward an Aesthetics of Degrowth (2017); Just Enough is Plenty: Thoreau’s Alternative Economics (2016); Deface the Currency: The Lost Dialogues of Diogenes (2016); Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits (2015); Sufficiency Economy: Enough, for Everyone, Forever (2015); and Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation (2013); he is also editor of Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009) and co-editor of Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future (2014). In 2016 he also released a documentary called A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity, co-produced with Jordan Osmond of Happen Films. Alexander blogs at

Tags: big data, democracy