The other night I watched the Netflix documentary “The Great Hack.” It was both a fascinating and disturbing look at how Cambridge Anayltica weaponized the enormous amount of data that is available for everyone in the US in order to swing the US election in 2016.
The Trump campaign was by no means Cambridge Analytica’s first national election for which they weaponized data. Their clients resided on every continent. Even though Cambridge Analytica is now defunct, other groups are already rising up to fill the gap because the strategy is so effective.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a saying, “Alcoholism is the only disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease.” In other words, denial is the fuel for dysfunctional behavior. What struck me as I watched The Great Hack was that nobody thinks they are susceptible to propaganda or targeted misinformation. Everyone thinks they are way too smart to be duped. Part of what makes the weaponization of data so frightening is our complete denial of its effect on us.
A few months ago, I read Yuval Noah Harari’s book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” In the third chapter on Liberty and Big Data, he predicts the following:
As algorithms come to know us so well, authoritarian governments could gain absolute control over their citizens, even more so than in Nazi Germany, and resistance to such regimes might be utterly impossible. Not only will the regime know exactly how you feel, but it could make you feel whatever it wants. The dictator might not be able to provide citizens with healthcare or equality, but he could make them love him and hate his opponents. Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in ‘digital dictatorships.’ (p. 66)
At a minimum, there are many of us who will remain skeptical of how the outcomes of every election going forward were attained. If trust in the democratic process is the foundation of democracy, the foundations are crumbling.