Data Politics and Artificial Intelligence

Cambridge Analytica was a British political consulting firm which combined data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process. The Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal involved the collection of personally identifiable information of up to 87 million Facebook users. The data was allegedly used to attempt to influence voter opinion on behalf of politicians who hired them.

The data was collected using an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” created by data scientist at Cambridge University Aleksandr Kogan. He provided the app to Cambridge Analytica whom in turn arranged an informed consent process for research in which several hundred thousand Facebook users would agree to complete a good survey only for academic use. However, Facebook’s design allowed this app to not only collect the personal information of people who agreed to take the survey, but also the personal information of all the people in those users Facebook social network. In this way Cambridge Analytica acquired data from millions of Facebook users. Some of the app’s users gave the app permission to access their News Feed, timeline, and messages. The data was detailed enough for Cambridge Analytica to create psychographical profiles of the subjects of the data. The psychographic profiles were constructed data on locations of each person, behavior, values, activity, attitudes, opinion and interests. For a given political campaign, the data was detailed enough to create a profile which suggested what kind of advertisement would be most effective to persuade a particular person in a particular location for some political event. It is important to highlight that Cambridge Analytica also assisted US President Trump’s election campaigns.

Facebook Mark Zuckerberg apologized to the general public calling it an “issue”, “a breach of trust” and a “mistake” when the scandal was leaked. I was lucky enough to be in DC when the events unfolded and attended in his testimony to congress on 1oth April 2018 Zuckerberg admitted it was his personal mistake that he did not do enough to prevent Facebook from being used for harm. “That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech.” During the testimony, Mark Zuckerberg publicly apologized for the breach of private data: “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here”.   

Zuckerberg in his written testimony to Senate acknowledged the Russian meddling with elections and slow response of Facebook in dealing with the issue. He also shared that groups like APT28, DC Leak and Internet Research Agency (IRA) having links with Russian Intelligence agencies were actively spreading disinformation and manipulating people in the U.S., Europe, and Russia by using Facebook as a platform with fake accounts. APT28 also known as Sednit, Pawn storm, and STRONTIUM are groups that serve the political interests of the Russian government, which includes helping foreign candidates that are favored by it to win elections (such as when they leaked Hillary Clinton’s emails to help gain traction for Donald Trump during the United States 2016 Elections). Internet Research Agency is a Russian company, based in Saint Petersburg that is engaged in online influence operations on behalf of Russian business and political interests. United States Intelligence Community in their recent report described the Agency as a troll farm financed by Russian President Putin also having close ties with Russian intelligence services. The agency has employed fake accounts registered on major social networks, discussion boards, online newspaper sites, and video hosting services to promote the Kremlin’s interests in domestic and foreign policy including Ukraine, Syria and the Middle East as well as attempting to influence the 2016 United States presidential election. More than 1,000 employees reportedly worked in a single building of the agency in 2015. DC Leak is a website that was established in June 2016. Since its creation, it has been responsible for publishing leaks of emails belonging to multiple prominent figures in the United States government and military. Center for Cybersecurity Pakistan research firms confirm the project has hallmark of Russian intelligence matching the attack pattern of the GRU hacker group Fancy Bear.

According to the DC Leaks site “About” page, their aim is “to find out and tell you the truth about U.S. decision-making process as well as about the key elements of American political life.” Of themselves, they say that they were launched by “the American hacktivists who respect and appreciate freedom of speech, human rights and government of the people” similar to things trending in the digital sphere in Pakistan.

The revelations about Cambridge Analytica the big data firm that misused Facebook data to target voters with propaganda should have Pakistani policymakers thinking seriously about how information communication technologies and data will affect our upcoming elections and challenge governance in future. There are increasing concerns that foreign governments have started to invade online spaces and that social media is undermining true spirit of democracy, broadcasting conspiracy theories, fake news and enemy states sponsored disinformation campaigns like seen in US elections, Ukraine, and in the shape of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in Pakistan.

Civic data brokerage is becoming the new oil business. The strategic combination of Artificial Intelligence, big data and computational propaganda filled with disinformation can distort political processes, spread uncertainty and mistrust and interfere with a citizen’s ability to make sound political decisions. Building a strong democracy requires a pluralistic climate of opinion and the ability to negotiate public consensus. But powerful global actors are increasingly leveraging big data and Artificial Intelligence to manufacture consensus, manipulate public opinion and subvert democratic processes.

As Pakistan prepares for the general elections, our capacity is dangerously unprepared to confront challenges at the intersection of privacy, social media transparency and data driven campaigning. Social media is creating a number of challenges for democracy and addressing these issues will be critical for improving the future health of our digital public sphere. We are coming of age where citizen’s especially young ones use social media to find news and information that directly informs their political identity and shapes their opinions about politics. Yet, many people do not realize how much data is collected about them or the extent to which their online experience is individualized by algorithms. AI systems and advertisements based on their personal information and digital footprint.

While many people have been demanding more digital advertisement transparency and better education programs to protect users from disinformation, these solutions don’t address the deeper, systemic problems grinding away at democracy. The confluence of surveillance capitalism, big data analytics and lack of algorithmic transparency alongside widespread shifts in how individuals consume political news and information have the potential to exacerbate the challenges we are seeing around fake news, computational propaganda and voter suppression. If we want to protect the integrity of our democratic processes, Pakistan needs to immediately develop legal and technical mechanisms that address issues to do with data privacy, political campaigning and use of Artificial Intelligence for propaganda and distorting political opinions.