The Power of big Data: Be afraid!

Text: Žikica Milošević

Recently Vice published an article about the power of so-called Big Data (an enormous amount of data taken from the Internet), and how they might have propelled Donald Trump to victory, quite unexpectedly for some. It is actually a programme, a method of analysis that can tailor-make every message and every advertisement on the Web. You will see only what you care for. Is that the future of the Internet? Maybe, since it appears that Donald Trump knew you better that you knew yourself.

The “guilty person” is Michal Kosinski. A Pole. (Where are the Polish jokes now, ha?) An ingenious Pole from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) who developed a method to analyse you in few minutes. Your personality can be decoded only by your Facebook activity. Sounds spooky, but it is purely mathaematical. It is all about Big Data. So, everyone is pretty much aware what Big Data mean and how they are collected. For those who don’t, it is essentially, combining all the digital traces of everything on the Internet, both online and offline. Every click, every like, every Google search, every-damn-thing. Well, some girls are bigger than others, says Morrissey. So, some of the clicks are more important than the others, so the “like” click is especially important. What you like or love will shape your own personal space on the Web.

You have already noticed that, if you play bass guitar, all of a sudden all the ads you see on the Facebook page or Google talk about bass guitars. Or if you Googled “reduce headache”, you get the ad for Aspirin or so. That was pretty much it. And then, after Brexit and Trump’s victory, it became clear that much more is quite possible. And certain. Since there’s a small, tiny coincidence. The same company which had worked for Brexit Leave Team for the web advertising and online campaign, was exactly the same company which worked the web advertising and online campaign for the current American president. It was British Cambridge Analytica.

Kosinski used psychometrics, which measures psychological characteristics of the personality, and as it turned out, the psychologists have identified five crucial traits, called the Big Five. OK, but it was a static science until the Internet, and Facebook and of course, until brilliant Kosinski. His results have shown, for instance that “Followers of Lady Gaga were most probably extroverts, while those who “liked” philosophy tended to be introverts.” It was just a step from using it during referenda or elections.

And Kosinski soon developed simple but brilliant analysis. I. e. he concentrated on “likes”: “he was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves.” – says Vice. Scary? Not yet. Not completely. It is not only that the data from your internet and mobile phones could be used to determine your personality, but the results could be used to trace you. In other words, if I know who is clicking “likes” on something, I can reach out for you and know if you’re gay or straight, black or white, underground or common, radical rebel or a conformist. Etc. Then “Leave.EU,” supported by Nigel Farage, used Cambridge Analytica for a specifica campaign called microtargetting, which is in essence measuring people’s personalities by their digital traces.  All based upon Big Five model. And then everything that Leave team did as a message was data-driven. They know what you like and how you’ll react. The same happened in America.

The idea was that it is ridiculous that all the Afro-Americans can get the same message, or all Latinos or all women. Just because they have the same race, language or gender. And that is what Hillary did. It was called “blanket marketing” and it means, well, everyone is under the same blanket. On the contrary, Trump used personalised messages. Cambridge Analytica’s boss, Alexander Nix says proudly: “We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people”. And they targeted them. For instance, in Miami in Little Haiti neighbourhood, Trump recognized Haitians online and served them with the message of the failure of Clinton Foundation during the Haiti earthquake. It repelled Haitian Americans from voting for her. And it happened over and over again. The potential Clinton voters were targeted with messages: if you are a leftist, then you got one type of message, like, she betrayed Sanders. If you are gay, you get the video where Hillary opposes same-sex marriages a decade ago. So everyone got the desired message. Or the one that “suited them well”. So they behaved accordingly. Voted as they did.

And listen now. Maybe we are the last generation of people that read the same BBC page. Maybe in 5 years each one of us will have a different start page, according to our previous clicks and likes. Maybe we will be served tailor-made messages. Brexit and Trump campaigns are only the beginnings. Does that scare you?

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