Data and democracy

Writer and broadcaster Jamie Bartlett speaks to us about how data is set to play a bigger role than ever in targeting voters in the 2020 US presidential campaign and the difficult position of big tech companies

Listen to our podcast with Jamie here.

We are often told that the pace of technological change has never been quicker than it is now – but that it will never be so slow.

Against that backdrop, Jamie Bartlett believes it is fair to assume that the use (and abuse) of data will peak (for now) in the 2020 US Presidential election.

In The People vs Tech: How the Internet is Killing Democracy (and How we save it), Bartlett paints a disturbing picture of how the 2016 Trump campaign appropriated the latest ideas – and won the day.

“In 2016, the quality of the data, amount of the data and different targeting techniques, were very different to 2012. Everything was more accurate, more comprehensive.

“The improvement between 2016 and 2020 will be as great as 2012 to 2016, because of the sheer volume of data from so many different platforms and the ability to target specific groups of people in more refined ways. The quality and capability of targeting will be better because we spend more time online than we did in 2016.

“The demographic of the electorate has changed too. Far more voters in 2020 are au fait with the digital world; all those first-time voters aged 18-21 are used to their lives being digitised and getting information from online platforms.”

Does Bartlett think the relentless pursuit of digital answers by Team Trump will give Republicans the edge once more?

“We don’t always know until afterwards,” he says. “George W Bush was more switched-on than both Gore and Kerry, then Obama and the Democrats became the leaders and now it’s swung back to the Republicans.

“They invested the time and effort in 2016, with more adverts, more iterations of those adverts, and more money – but it was still only just enough. They got just enough of the right people in the right places with the right messages.

“It wasn’t about manipulating minds, or dark arts. The Republicans used what was out there more effectively. Will it bounce back? The Democrats certainly know how important data was in 2016.”

Bartlett is more interested in the bigger picture, the existential threat to democracy: “There is already a perceived illegitimacy about the 2020 US election – the loser is already primed to say ‘The other guy cheated. He was firing ads at you, no-one was checking them, we don’t know where the money is coming from, the Government can’t do anything – it’s not fair.

“If Trump loses, he’ll use all those slogans. That’s a threat to the very core of democracy.”

In The People vs Tech, Bartlett asks: “Have we given too much away to shadowy powers behind a wall of code, all manipulated by a handful of Silicon Valley utopians, ad men and venture capitalists? And what does that mean for democracy, our delicately balanced system of government that was created long before big data, total information and artificial intelligence?”

He argues all political parties are complicit in this descent into a tech-dystopia and says the likeliest prospect of change lies with regulators and the tech platforms themselves.

“We’ve seen some progress, like Facebook making it clear which adverts were political and insisting spending on them was declared. The platforms definitely understand they have a responsibility to do this, but the law does not demand it.

“The UK Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office have both said electoral laws need to be updated to reflect this [power of online advertising] but nothing has happened.

“In emerging economies, practically nothing is happening. Digital campaigns make widespread use of data collection and target people without their permission.”

Bartlett believes political parties often have little idea of what is actually happening with the data: “They just bring in the experts; they don’t know what is really happening.” He says Dominic Cummings understood this and brought in data scientists and even physicists to mine deep data for the Brexit campaign in 2016.

Four years on, Bartlett says there is much more sophistication: “Everyone was shocked by what Cambridge Analytica was doing in using Facebook data; now you have dozens of companies providing almost identical services.

“The expertise out there to understand data and use it for very specific electoral targeting is greater – and cheaper.”

Bartlett says there is a global tug of war over responsibility for online content.

“The tech giants are moving to a place where they are saying they need time to remove unacceptable content; they are giving a bit and governments are pushing back. I think we’ll be in this uneasy tension for some time.

“I don’t think tech platforms can be expected to be treated as publishers for every single piece of content that we users post – it’s not feasible.

“But they should be treated as publishers (with all the associated legal responsibilities) for every piece of paid-for content. That’s where they get their money from and they can monitor that.”

In one sense, Bartlett says, the tech platforms can’t win.

“The conservatives argue their content is being removed because the platforms are all run by liberals – and the liberals complain the platforms are full of racism, sexism and xenophobia.

“Both sides feel the others are ‘cheating’ and there is no clear set of rules and no-one is really in charge – so both sides feel aggrieved.”

Bartlett says this presents an existential threat to tech company bosses: “They believe in using networks and connections to bring people together through technology. But people cannot cope with total connectivity; we all have to filter information.

“Those who joined tech companies believing they could make the world a better place have a sense of disappointment at what the platforms have done, though not necessarily intentionally.”

During the pandemic, Bartlett believes the power of digital platforms increased even more quickly – but what can we do to halt the march of the machines?

“It’s pretty urgent we talk about this and it’s good that it’s being discussed in places like Edinburgh,” Bartlett says.

“In our online world, people are making decisions and we don’t really know who they are, where they are and why they are doing it.

“As more smart machines are deployed to do the work of human beings, our understanding diminishes further.

“How do we design a transparent and clear way of understanding technology – and the morality of that technology?”


  • Jamie Bartlett is a writer and broadcaster. He wrote The Dark Net, The People vs Tech and Radicals Chasing Utopia, presented the BBC series Secrets of Silicon Valley and co-wrote and presented the BBC podcast series The Missing CryptoQueen, about Dr Ruja Ignatova, founder of fake cryptocurrency OneCoin.

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