For those not savy, Cambridge Analytica (now renamed as Emerdata Ltd) used ill-gotten data troves, behavioral profiling, ad micro-targeting via Facebook, and Machine Learning to win elections and influence opinions and politics towards a populist, hyper-conservative slant worldwide. Medium had a fantastic article about how these systems work:
While using big data in election campaigning is not new, the efficacy of Cambridge Anylitica’s vast data troves, ability to microtarget on an individual basis, get feedback, and adjust their approaches rapidly is likely more effective than what has been seen in the past with previous data-driven campaigning. That’s not to say that Cambridge Anylitica has been holding back on this front, however: (if I recall correctly) their data insights were used to great effect in determining the location and sometimes even topics of Trump’s campaign rallies leading up to the 2016 election.
Cambridge Anylitica laid out the blueprints for how to use these kind of systems, it will be interesting to see what succeeds them in the coming years.
This is why internet privacy should be considered paramount. Taking a few simple steps to ensure your privacy online can go a long way to thwarting these kind of systems. Encourage others to do the same.
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What is the lesson? The lesson here is that when you design software, you create the future.
If you’re designing software for a social network, the decision to limit message lengths, or the decision to use ML to maximize engagement, will have vast social impact which is often very hard to predict.
As software developers and designers, we have a responsibility to the world to think these things through carefully and design software that makes the world better, or, at least, no worse than it started out.
And when our inventions spin out of control, we have a responsibility to understand why and to try to fix them.