Recently, I had the chance to speak about Big Data during the ABN-Amro tennis tournament. The lecture, just before mine, was given by Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica. The auditorium was cram-full of Dutch entrepreneurs. They – just like me – listened in amazement as he described in detail how his team had shamelessly disrupted the democratic model by clever use of big data and artificial intelligence (AI). There was a sense of unease in the hall.
Let me explain how Cambridge Analytica set about that. The democracy that we all know works simply and efficiently: citizens elect their representatives, who tell the electorate what they stand for and then the people vote for or against them. Most of them rely on mass media to get their manifesto across. The sender’s message was important and was the same for every recipient. Smart marketing techniques tried to play on people’s sentiments but, eventually, each candidate had to show his (or her) colors.
Cambridge Analytica has put a stop to that. The debate about whether that has been achieved with illegally acquired data (or not), is not the crux of the matter. It is, of course, inexcusable how leaky Facebook was (or wasn’t). My main concern, though, is that we wanted to ‘find a stick to beat a dog’. And that, in any case, the threat hasn’t abated. What happened is, after all, but a forerunner of what technology has in store. If we don’t reinvent democracy pretty damn quick, things will go profoundly wrong.
We live in a digital world. The way in which people communicate – i.e. exchange data and, as a logical consequence thereof, leave digital traces all over the place – is totally new and an unstoppable process. We’re only at first base with this. Before long, we’ll all be talking into access control devices or they’ll be able to read our facial expression. How democracy was first shaped is no longer appropriate to today’s world and politicians must assume their responsibilities to prevent misuse of those new streams of big data. That very same data can, through the right political policies, be harnessed to invent a brand-new democracy. However, trying to stop those data streams is like… holding up a hand to stop a tsunami.
What Nix disclosed about the Trump campaign, was, among other things, astonishing: in the mass media, he got Trump to say: ‘Dear electors, you are unhappy. You have been mislead, for years now, by the traditional political class.’ Reminiscent, then, of the Brexit campaign.
After that, each citizen, based on his or her data, received messages that exploited his or her specific feelings of fear. That is sly psychology: people vote more readily against something than for something. Cambridge Analytica translated Trumps aversion to the Establishment into personal fears which then reached the right target group directly via the right channels. Cambridge Analytica actually distributed 50,000 different messages in Trump’s name, which endorsed people’s fears with the added tagline: ‘Trump understands and watches over you’. The Trump campaign was much cheaper than that of the other camp. They used the expensive and obsolete method of mass bombardment. Cambridge Analytica conducted a smart guerrilla marketing campaign.
Never before had a campaign managed to exploit personal fears on such a one-to-one basis. People sided with Trump not because of what he stood for, but because he endorsed their biggest personal fear. That’s why people who voted for Trump don’t have the sense of him being their president. They feel personally present in the White House. At long last… They revolted against the Establishment in Washington and believed they’d taken power. Not together, but each of them individually.
This is the ‘disruption’ of the democracy.
A democratic system, built around a central authority, is ill-equipped against a hyper-linked world in which blockchain is no longer a far-fetched idea, but the exteriorization of a new society in which central authority is replaced by an evenly distributed authority. In the gulf between the old world and the new, companies like Cambridge Analytica like to create the illusion that we live in a world of decentralized authority and that ‘every man for himself’, and lobbying against ‘others’ is synonymous with democracy.
It won’t help to wag our finger in anger at Facebook. It’s not about the hacked data. It’s not about how it’s been abused, no matter how revolting that may be. No, it’s about a world that has tilted and about government and politics that have no solution.
Democracy has to urgently remodel itself. Switch to a system, based on blockchain technology, so that it can survive. Otherwise, the next generations of big data analysts will cause grief, on a far greater scale, and we stand to lose that which mankind has built up over many centuries.
Blockchain as the ultimate form of democracy. No Central Establishment that the current electorate dislikes. Not a pretense of power for each citizen and their views, which left the door wide open for dictatorship, no matter how contradictory that may sound. But a shared power of us all and, therefore, of no one individual.
Uber managed to disrupt the taxi business, Airbnb the hotel sector, Amazon retail and, next up, the banks, because all traditional companies still think in centralistic structures while the disrupters employed the physics of the new world to prey on old companies and suck them dry. Democracy is being disrupted before our very eyes but our politicians, apparently, have not noticed the solution yet. Instead of protesting tomorrow about what happened yesterday maybe, for once, we should brainstorm how we can gear up our democracy for the ‘Day After Tomorrow’. Saving democracy will require a lot more than just 5 minutes of political courage.
This article first appeared in De Tijd in Dutch.