Data is the new 'oil'. Social media platforms such as Facebook now gather unprecedented amounts of data on literally billions of people. Data companies, many funded by the wealthy 'elite', have been systematically amassing, harvesting and storing massive amounts of this data. It is hugely valuable not only as a marketing tool, but as a political tool. Data is power.
Using sophisticated psychometric and psychographic algorithms, data companies are able to analyse the digital footprints produced by social media platforms like Facebook. This information can then be used to microtarget individuals with specially-tailored messages using the social media, even giving the messages an emotional slant to suit a specific personalty trait of an individual. The process is sophisticated and subtle, the messages skillfully crafted. Individuals can receive hundreds of messages from a multitude of sources and be totally unaware that they have been targeted.
The Trump presidential campaign used data to microtarget individuals extensively, and very successfully. The campaign was assisted by 'assigned' Facebook, Google and Youtube staff. Alarmingly, in Britain, unbeknown to the Electoral Commission, or anybody else for that matter at the time, data companies, funded by an American billionaire, used the British EU referendum as a testbed for the Trump campaign.
Under the radar, the 'Leave' campaign spent several 'covert' millions to microtarget individuals, bringing into question the legitimacy of the referendum.
What Britain and democracies across the world are now facing is a massive land grab for power by a very small number of excessively wealthy individuals using data. Unless we act to stem the assault on our democracy, we are in danger of losing control of the electoral process. Our future could fall into the hands of individuals with questionable intent whose motivation would have nothing to do with our best interests. Unless urgent action is taken we will be entering an undemocratic and frightening world.
We face a very real threat to our democracy which needs to be addressed with great urgency. The effect of social media and the data it generates is a new problem and one that particularly affects the democratic process. The game is changing. 'Big data' exists and it is not going to go away. It is essential that both the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner's Office have their powers reviewed and for new electoral rules to be drawn up to address the problem of data use. Both GCHQ and the security services need to work in support of the Information Commissioner's Office and the Electoral Commission, to ensure our democracy is not subverted, and that a workable system is devised.