Weaponized Data


A weaponized data environment has resulted in a democratic process that favors those with access to money, savvy, and technology. Cambridge Analytica and Trump’s victory are the logical result. But It’s not too late to reclaim our data and our democratic process.

In 2010, I was just freshly out of grad school and entering the job market in New York for the first time. I ended up being hired as a strategist at one of several tech startups that spun out of the 2008 election. Having worked on public policy campaigns at the state and local level in California, I was excited to move up the ladder to national and global campaigns.

In California, I had worked on campaigns designed to educate citizens and engage them in their systems of governance. I had worked to educate families about new rules on standardized testing in public schools. I had worked to simplify new rules for foster care agencies to access state funds to support young adults aging out of the foster care system. I had never worked on a campaign to get a candidate into office.

In my new role, I mainly supported nonprofit and foundation clients, but the political campaign legacy was imprinted on the technology we used, and its limitations. I left a few years later, discouraged by the primary focus on raising money and sending petitions. I was dogged by the sense that very little of my job had to do with strengthening the citizen’s role in democracy as I understood it.

Here’s the thing about the campaign process: By changing people’s opinions, you control the outcome of the election. Campaigners learn what motivates people to vote for each candidate, and persuade people to vote for your candidate — or to not vote for the opposition.

The steps in the campaign process are simple:

  • Data: Gather as much data as possible on voters
  • Analysis: Segment voters and predict how each segment will vote
  • Persuasion: Create and test messaging to change voter preferences
  • Distribution: Get the right message out to the right voter

The process of political campaigning has always been about using data to craft sophisticated messaging that persuades voters to back a candidate regardless of policy position. Campaign success is determined by money, marketing savvy, and technology. More money lets you do better research and reach more audiences. Marketing savvy improves your data analysis and your messaging. Better technology amplifies your effectiveness in any step.

This is the process that Cambridge Analytica demonstrated mastery over in 2018. But here’s the thing: There was no incentive for them not to hoard data as their unfair advantage in the campaign. Campaigns are built on a foundation of weaponized data. But it’s not just the weaponization of our data that is the problem. It’s the entire premise that using data to persuade people to vote for a political leader equates to good leadership. It makes our entire democratic system weaker and more subject to outside influence.

Globally, people are already distrustful of institutions and how they use data even before the recent revelations. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey of trust in the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs, reveals staggering levels of distrust in populations around the world. And it’s corroding people’s willingness to share good data: over a third of consumers worldwide admit to giving fake personal details to companies because of a lack of trust. Without high quality data, the decision we make will be even more compromised.

Rebuilding the data ecosystem will help rebuild trust between people and their institutions. To do that, we need to take a different approach to people and their data. Instead of using their data against them, we need to empower citizens to leverage their data to promote good governance.

There are promising actions being taken on reclaiming data for good governance. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which is slated to go into effect in May of this year, will be the most ambitious effort yet to restore ownership to citizens over their personal data. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals initiative has been steadily evolving a powerful framework for coordinating the use of data to drive global governance across shared outcomes. And yet, there remains a vast chasm that lies between people and their personal data, and the massive, complex datasets used to evaluate large-scale collaborative efforts like the SDGs.

There are other institutions engaging citizens through data to inform policy making. Avaaz is an example of an institution that uses digital engagement and data to empower its members. Not only does the organization rely heavily on its 46 million members for funding and petitions, but it also taps them for ideas and direction. Last year, I was privileged to help the Center for Global Policy Solutions to produce the Health Equity Design Lab, a series of workshops and summit through which we crowdsourced a policy agenda to advance women’s wealth and health equity from nearly 200 health researchers, practitioners, advocates, and community leaders. You can view the initial slate of recommendations that were developed.

Experiments in deliberative democracy are showing us what’s possible when you directly involve people in the policy making process. In June 2011, California Forward convened a statewide sample of registered voters to deliberate on the problems facing the state for a project called What’s Next California. Based on a thorough evaluation of the pilot, What’s Next California showed that it is practical to convene a microcosm of the state’s voters to consider propositions in a balanced and thoughtful way to inform the agenda setting process for ballot initiatives. Neuroscientist Mariano Sigman and behavioral economist Dan Ariely have been exploring how we interact to reach decisions by performing experiments with live crowds around the world. Their TED Talk reveals how decision making in small groups can lead to healthier democratic outcomes.

Moving Democratic Process Forward

Many of the most exciting ideas today for engaging voters directly in democracy — and there are many — are at the cutting edge of data science and decision science. As much as Cambridge Analytica’s use of illegal data is a clear violation of public trust, we need to understand that the system itself by which we elect our leaders has built-in vulnerabilities. What will help?

  • Spreading the decision making process across more people
  • Breaking decisions apart into less consequential parts
  • Increasing the use of many different forms of data to drive decision making
  • Allowing science to drive innovations in our democratic system

Let’s hope that this catastrophic event triggers the changes we need to move democratic process forward.

You can also find this blog post on Medium.

Deepthi Welaratna