Will Democracy Survive Big Data?

Isaac de la Peña
Jun 24 · 7 min read

(Initially published May 30th, 2017)

The victory of Emmanuel Macron in the recent French elections against Marine Le Pen has represented a setback against the growing impulse of populism and intolerance, following the victories of Brexit in UK and Trump in the USA, as well as a welcome respite for those of us who we believe in a common market and a united Europe.

The French managed to maintain their moral and intellectual authority against the United States in a debate that takes us to the USA renaming its “French Fries” to “Freedom Fries” when France opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and over a few more drinks we can even go back from favor to injury until World War II. But beyond that, France has an excellent opportunity, which will rarely be repeated, of reforming old institutions and channeling its future on the path of leadership in innovation, science and technology, galvanizing all those disenchanted by the conservative turn in the country that until now is a world reference. We wish half of that opportunity would fall in Spain. Of course, you know that the people have the rulers they deserve: we have a lot of work to do before making claims.

I must confess that I have remained scared until the last moment because, having witnessed the elections in French lands, I feared the worst. Listening to the media as well as talking with friends and acquaintances, I was surprised by both the wide support given to Le Pen as well as the general inability of the electorate to distinguish between the political programs of one and the other. Even after the first round, expressions such as “it is a choice between plague and cholera” or “it does not matter because they are all corrupt” were the order of the day. But how is it going to be the same to choose between a person who defends integration, openness and liberalism, and another that postulates autarky, border closure and social nationalism (I write it in this order so nobody will be altered)?

I also saw that in social networks, where all kinds of lies were spread about both candidates, Le Pen had a tremendous advantage in popularity, and that woke up for me the ghosts of the American election, in which all the respectable polls gave Hillary as the winner, but Trump reigned in social media. The subsequent result was a slap in the face of data scientists and those who, like me, believed in the infallibility of their forecasts, underestimating the hidden vote to one candidate and the real commitment to the other. A big slap in the face that questions the very notion that human behavior can be reduced to data, and that more information will help us build a better world. Here it may even have been detrimental because it led to a false sense of trust. Professing being a Democrat and making the effort to leave home and vote are not the same thing.

Even with red cheeks it took some time for me to perceive how deep is the Rabbit Hole that leads us to this parallel reality in which we live today, populated by alternative facts and fake news, not a Wonderland but actually a very scary world. Let us try to understand what is happening.

The digital revolution has hatched with a very peculiar effect: the amount of information that is produced doubles every year. This means, for example, that in 2016 we have produced as much data as in the whole history of mankind until 2015. We have created the whole science of Big Data precisely so that computers would be able to ingest all this information. What about human beings? Okay, a vast majority of that “data” are snapshots of cats in Pinterest, food plate photos on Instagram, ridiculous Twitter jokes and offensive comments on YouTube. But faced with the unstoppable flow of information day in day and day out our mind, no longer well trained to discern subtleties, simply surrenders and does not even try to assess what is true. There is no time because another stream of data comes in immediately. Thus our attention is reduced to the shocking bits, but in turn — and that is critical — does not question the established worldview, because that involves too much analytical effort.

The effect is enhanced because the global village that the Internet was in its time has been replaced by hermetic islands that are increasingly farther away. Our Facebook feed, our Google searches and so on are customized based on our previous interactions, in a way that we consume content that is already in line with our beliefs. Without being aware of it, we find ourselves in an echo chamber, more and more isolated, in which we can only hear our own voices. False news, ignorance, fear and xenophobia are wide open without any contrary vision, no counterweight being offered.

This breeds all the conspiracy theories that you may imagine, each one more absurd than the last. Macron is going to eliminate scholarships and public education. Obama had an army of blacks financed by the UN to take power. Hillary used secret codes in her emails to operate a network of pederasts. Even in the case that these stories are refuted after a few days they still have time to infect the minds of thousands of unwary individuals and cast doubt. What if it were true? Perhaps Trump’s genius is the hypocrisy of accusing the press of falsifying the news, when he is the first one to repeat and amplify the most absurd stories that benefit him and creating the most ridiculous conspiracies, such as Obama’s alleged illegal wiretapping.

A society in the style of Minority Report in which the technocrats who use the information to control us is deeply scary, we agree. But a world in which Big Data is used to confuse and misinform is not even scarier? It is worth wondering who benefits from the current climate, because you should not think it is a fortuitous effect. There are whole businesses set up for the sole purpose of spreading false viral news, so shocking that they push us to read, share, and infect other subjects. And I’m not so worried about click-bait that is looking to pluck a few bucks from the unwary reader with an infallible natural herbal method to lengthen his groin. I am worried about the much darker political motivations. The result of the fake news is an extreme polarization as can be observed today not only in American society but also in Spain, with parties so conflicted that political commitments are almost impossible, ending in fragmentation, possibly even in the disintegration of societies. And that benefits the country’s savior parents, who are always on hand to sell us security in exchange for our freedom.

How do we fight the current wave of disinformation and populism, so closely related? Obviously the most desirable thing would be to better educate individuals to make better decisions. We cannot completely eradicate our propensity to think based on stereotypes, because it is through stereotypes that the brain functions inherently. Before there were no foreigners, now there are, and that must be the cause of my unemployment. The only way to limit the effects of erroneous stereotypes is to teach to recognize them, to develop critical thinking, empathy, and especially skepticism, which is at the very heart of the scientific method; the only solid way we have of separating between fictions and facts.

A democracy does not flourish without basic conditions, and it needs an adult electorate, educated and sufficiently trained to be able to intelligently choose among the different options. But that takes a lot of time, and education does not seem to be among our present priorities as a society. We must also accept that there will always be a significant number of individuals who will choose not to be educated. A more realistic and immediate alternative is to get out of the bubble that constitutes our online lives and not to give up the common space to the demagogues and the false news. Do not succumb to stereotypes, ignorance, lies, especially when they come disguised as harmless humor to share with friends through an innocent Whatsapp message. Facts count, they are the only possible basis for dialogue.

The words of Stuart McMillen, the author of “Having Fun Until Dying,” now have more authority than even in the 1980s. During the Cold War we feared that the future would bring us a Big Brother, the social dystopia that George Orwell had outlined in “1984” and communism seemed to represent. But the alternate reality in which we have found ourselves submerged fits in more and more with what Aldous Huxley described brilliantly in “A Happy World.” It is not necessary to hide the truth, because nobody can recognize it in an ocean of irrelevance. It is not necessary to censor the information, since there is so much that we give up to process it and we take refuge in random distractions.

Algonaut

Musings on technology, philosophy and economics

Isaac de la Peña

Written by

Investor @Conexo_vc and formerly @Inveready. Partner @AgoraEAFI & @Alt_Insights. MIT technologist. Finance, algorithmic trading, AI, big data, mobile, web.

Algonaut

Algonaut

Musings on technology, philosophy and economics