This past weekend, “The Circle,” starring our dream gal-pal Emma Watson, premiered. For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, “The Circle” capitalizes on our intrinsic fear that people are constantly watching us and influencing our decisions through our computer screens. So what is big data? How does it actually work? Can it truly affect what and how we think? Even though we think we’re strong enough to deflect an ad’s influence, big data can be used to do a lot more than promote.
What is Big Data?
There are digital traces of everything we do: every social media “like,” every Google search, every credit card purchase — in person or online. Even when we’re not actively using our smartphone, digital traces are stored for how far and how quickly we walk or travel daily (which can be used to provide information of emotional stability), according to Vice.
All of these traces can be used to build a predictive profile of our personalities filled with thousands of data points. For example, data scientists have been able to create algorithms that can use a certain number of “likes” to determine someone’s skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), sexual orientation (with 88 percent accuracy) or political party affiliation (with 85 percent accuracy).
All of these digital traces combine to create a massive database that can be tapped for essentially any type of group you want to target—and they can get pretty specific.
What does it do?
Big Data can often be used for the purpose of advertising to serve you up relevant ads based on what your digital trace allows data science to learn. Example: my client (who is an older man) always gets targeted with Metamusil ads (not sure why he shares this with us) or I personally was targeted with advertisements for “Homesick” candles in Northern California scent when I moved to the East Coast.
But Big Data has more recently become involved in something outside of traditional advertising — politics.
How is it used to influence elections?
Remember that massive digital database? It can basically be used as a tool to search out specific groups and subgroups. That could mean “trendy millennial females that are open to making purchases online” to be targeted an ad for block-heeled sandals, but it could also mean “baby-boomer Hispanics that are undecided voters living in rural areas of Florida”—seriously. Those people can then be targeted individually, served stories that will resonate with their specific personality type, values and concerns. You can see how this can be immensely influential in something like an election.
The Big Data company that advised the Brexit campaign, Cambridge Analytica (the American operation of Strategic Communications Laboratories in the UK) was also was the company behind Trump’s online campaign.
Cambridge Analytica boasts that is has 4-5,000 data points on every adult in America. While this feels uncomfortably invasive and manipulative, the 2016 elections were not the first to use technology in unprecedented ways during a campaign. Obama himself had a grassroots presidential campaign that harnessed digital and social media in way that had never been done before, and has often been considered “the first social media president.” The campaigns for Trump’s presidency and the Brexit just took that further — arguably significantly and evasively further, leaving us with an ethical question of how much companies, and more importantly our government, should be able to use of our public, social information to manipulate the specific outcome that they want.
And while this might make you want to throw your laptop and cellphone into the ocean and go live off the grid, we all know that it’s not necessarily a realistic option in today’s society. What we can do is be aware of the use of this technology and how it affects what we absorb every day, moving forward by filtering that media and seeking out reliable sources for where we gather information.