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Big Data: The New War and How to Wage It

Big Data: The New War and How to Wage It

May 8, 2018 | The liberal world order began losing the New War almost thirty years ago. The New War is not the war on terror, as espoused in the early days of the twenty-first century. The New War is disordered, decentralized, and disruptive to the extreme. It is a war over hearts and minds, as evinced by the 2016 election. This losing streak is not irreversible, however. The weapons of the future are data, and the Western-led world order must accept this new reality or make room for a new world order.

From Cold War to New War

One of the tools of this war came from the ashes of the Cold War. In 1990, a small psychological research firm was born in London, headed by Nigel Oakes—the Behavioral Dynamics Institute (BDI). Its focus would be on mass communication in the modern era. This institute’s leader, Oakes, would later spin it off into the Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL Group), specializing in the use of big data to analyse and target populations. Spanning from electioneering to counter-insurgency, this group’s force would metastasize into yet another form: Cambridge Analytica, now known as the research agency that utilized voter information across the United States in its efforts to elect Donald Trump president in 2016.

The Information Age was heralded at its dawn as an inflection point for human exchange. In theory, the power of the internet would allow people from all walks of life to share with one another. It would be a perfect marketplace of ideas, the ultimate discourse where the power of free speech would beget truth, as John Stuart Mill had postulated over two centuries ago. However, that dream did not come to fruition. Instead, we now spend our digital lives in siloed echo chambers, where false truths spread like wildfire, amplified by our collective groupthink. The systems we use to interface with the internet are built for this purpose: we share what we already like, we upvote what we already like, we only read what we already like; thereby, we unwittingly create the very echo chambers we decry by that feedback loop itself.

Worse yet, these echo chambers do not exist in isolation. They are instead monetized, politicized, and weaponized. Although agencies like Cambridge Analytica have obtained data from our social networks to use for their clients’ ends, it is the very systems we have bought into that are our downfall. People forget, but the truth of the matter is this: when the service is free, you—and your data—are the product. While we the people argued over the government’s ability to infringe upon our privacy, we the people willingly gave it up for free to private entities.

The (Anti)-Social Network

Cambridge Analytica—and, truly, any modern marketing firm worth its salt—have the ultimate American laboratory on their hands through platforms like Facebook. Through big data analysis and real time reporting of user data, firms like Cambridge Analytica can test targeted advertisements through A/B testing and iterate over and over again until they have determined the optimal messaging to sway their clients’ targeted populations. Today, firms can create curated experiences meant to guide their targets to their destination—whether that be making an online purchase or voting for a particular party.

This trend is not going to stop. There is no fighting it. The data genie is out of the bottle. Even if all Americans today embraced complete data privacy and swore off social media usage, there are still billions of other people online in other countries. By 2019, it is estimated that there will be 2.77 billion social media users worldwide. Firms and governments will certainly utilize this data to their own ends. The question is what to do about it as a body politic.

The ivory tower answer, I would presume, would be to encourage critical thinking skills and education. As wonderful as that might be, its efficacy is theoretical and its benefits would certainly take decades to take effect. This is a worthy long-term goal, but not in the short-term. After all, we may be able to educate the next generation of people, but there are already millions set in their ways and bewitched by fake news or “alternative facts.” Changing their minds is a monumental task—as Dartmouth researchers found in the form of the backfire effect. In the face of contradictory evidence to one’s views, a person is more likely to resist the truth than to accept it. Indeed: among the 22 percent of Republicans who believe Trump is partially or completely dishonest, 56 percent of them support him anyway.

If you can’t beat them, join them

There is another answer, however: acceptance and reutilization. First, the body politic must accept that their personal data is being pawned off to the highest bidder and that actors, foreign and domestic, will be actively manipulating them to political ends. Data is the perfect device to destroy a functional democracy from within, by hijacking the very functions of a democracy—free discourse being one of them—to cause it to implode in on itself. It is not as destructive or as expensive as a nuclear weapon, to use an extreme example, which is why its so attractive as means of power projection for when conventional war is untenable, but conflict necessary.

Second, understanding that these tools are not going anywhere, one must use them for the betterment and preservation of the Western-led liberal world order. If firms like Cambridge Analytica and countries like Russia—see the indicted Internet Research Agency—will use big data and underhanded techniques to undermine our democracy, then we must be prepared to use it against them. Like Radio Free Europe of the Cold War, these data weapons ought to be used to further American interests abroad. If that means we consider utilizing massive amounts of user data on foreign adversaries to determine weakness and exploit it, so be it. For even if we do not use these tools, our enemies certainly will be using them against us. This is just a twenty-first century spin on age-old realist power politics.

In an age where conventional war is unthinkable, our rivals have turned to unconventional means to hamper not only our nation, but our allies as well. For instance, Cambridge Analytica is under British investigation for meddling in the Brexit vote—a vote that conveniently economically weakens our ally, the U.K., and their relationship with the European Union at large.

In the end, the focus going forward should be to repair the faith in our institutions at home and to arm ourselves for the modern digital reality. This will be no easy task, but it will be necessary to win the New War. After all, our aircraft carriers, tanks, and ICBMs will be of no use when our electronic systems are breached by our rivals and our democracy tears itself apart.

Drake MacFarlane is a fraud analyst in Portland, Oregon and a graduate from Lewis & Clark College's economics and international affairs programs.


The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.

Photo by the author.

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