Investigations into the political role of data analytics are welcome, but they won’t explain why people voted for Trump or leaving the EU
Last May the UK information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, launched a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes. This involved an initial exploration of what went on in the Brexit referendum campaign but potentially also in others. And given the global nature of digital data, the investigation also involved an investigation into how “companies operating internationally” were using the personal data of UK citizens for political purposes.
The overall goal of this inquiry was to understand how personal information was used in political campaigns. The commissioner was concerned about the “invisible processing” of citizens’ private data by algorithms that carry out data-matching and profiling – which of course is what Google and Facebook do for a living. Their automated engines were originally built to facilitate the targeting of commercial messages at their users. But what became clear in 2016 is that those same engines had been “weaponised” by political actors to deliver targeted political and ideological messages, and that’s a very different game. “When the purpose for using these techniques is related to the democratic process,” wrote Denham, “the case for a high standard of transparency is very strong.”