Big Data Revolution: is social media turning us into cogs in the marketing machine?

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Micro-targeted advertising uses your data to profile and pitch to you. And they know more about you than you think.

Psychometrics is a sub-division of psychology that has been credited with the success of both the Brexit campaign and the election of Donald Trump. Following these triumphs, Big Data firm, Cambridge Analytica now look set to make a killing aiding resurgent European populist parties in upcoming elections.

So how does it work?

Everything we do, on or offline, leaves digital footprints. In 2012, psychologist Michal Kosinksi ascertained that with 68 of a person's 'likes' on Facebook, he could determine their skin colour, sexual orientation, political affiliations and intelligence with surprising accuracy. Kosinkski concluded that our smartphone "is a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out" whether we are aware of it or not.

This strategy works equally well in reverse. Using data from a selection of available sources – land registries, bonus cards, magazine subscriptions and shopping data are just some of the types of information collected by commercial data brokers – companies can psychologically profile individuals, making it far easier to sell to them.

Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, claims to have 'profiled' the personality of every adult in the USA. That's around 220 million people.

How is this useful?

According to Cambridge Analytica, "Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data driven". (Trump's recent tweet to this effect provoked some scepticism.)

Much has also been made of 'dark' facebook posts created by the Trump campaign specifically targeted to discourage Democrat-leaning, but infrequent, black voters from casting their ballot.

Cambridge Analytica were also involved in the Brexit referendum, encouraging 'persuadable' voters to support the Leave campaign. It is impossible to know how instrumental they were in securing the victory. Their exact methodology is unclear and some commentators have dismissed the entire practise as a form of "voodoo", no more than a political 'placebo for panicky candidates'.

The Problem with Big Data

Data science obviously walks a bit of an ethical tightrope because of its use of private data. We may not necessarily be troubled that our internet browsing histories, contacts on social media and even location are commercially available to retailers. Afterall, it helps them to target the ads we see more effectively.

When it comes to politics, however, things get a little murkier. If someone canvasses you for an election, you probably wouldn't want them knowing your political views and personality profile before they knock at your door. But there's an app for that.

The inevitable consequence of this is that we will hear only what we want to hear. The message will be tailored to suit us, which means it won't accurately reflect the policies or politics of the individual we're voting for.

Voodoo or not, Big Data is big news and people are buying. Following their highly publicised success in America, the psychometric scientists of Cambridge Analytica are ready to lend their support to any candidate who can afford them.

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