Mind-Reading Algorithms are Stealing our Democracy! This is the bold statement from Fat Rat Films, as it launches its latest documentary short. And the film is just as melodramatic as the title - expert interviews intermingled with a 1950s’ style horror pastiche, where data harvesting computers are the monster of choice.
This may only be a 10-minute documentary, but the story behind it is huge. The recent Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data scandals have made big data into big news, and what has become abundantly clear is that the issue is a complex one. This new documentary breaks down the topic, and acts as a springboard to get people interested in the story.
Whistleblowers have come forward to claim that Cambridge Analytica used personal data to create targeted Facebook adverts, which may have been used to persuade people to vote in particular ways. Although as yet not proven, this could have been a wide-reaching problem, and it is claimed it affected both the US election and the UK’s Brexit referendum. The story is complicated, and after a year immersed in research, Mind-Reading Algorithms director Adem Ay says it is about a wider societal problem.
“Our film is about how political marketing has got smarter, because people are leaving lots of data on social media, and marketeers have access to it. And it’s about whether you should be worried about this and whether things like democracy or privacy are under threat,” he explains.
Now that data is mainstream news, and the world’s eyes are firmly placed on both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, the Fat Rat Films team has had a slightly different experience than they expected.
“Nothing’s proven yet, there are lots of investigations going on. But a lot of this stuff has been known about for a very long time,” Adem says, referring to allegations made against both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
The reason the story is big news now, he believes, is that Facebook is suddenly in the line of fire. It has become a story that millions of people feel directly involved with, as they ask, “was my data stolen?”
Uncovering the data story
Adem originally struck on the idea when he read an article in Das Magazin.
“The article was insinuating that all these strange things that were happening in world politics were due to bizzare, mind-reading technology,” Adem remembers.
The technology, he explains, uses data from Facebook to analyse personality traits. With a big enough pool of data, correlations can be made between people’s Facebook Likes (which pages or products they have ‘liked’) and intimate details about their personality, such as likely political leanings - on a statistical level.
“You can find out the most amazing amount of things from very innocent looking information. The platform holder can then sell that information to advertisers,” Adem adds. Those advertisers can create carefully crafted messages - possibly even to swing voters, just as the Cambridge Analytica whistleblowers have now claimed.
Adem’s first thought - why wasn’t this story everywhere? His next thought, which he says half-jokingly: “Are we going to end up living in a totalitarian fascist world because of this technology?”
He now says this might have been an overreaction, but is still fearful of the damage that misuse of data can do. He paints a picture: what if a totalitarian government uses data to search for certain types of people, in order to persecute them. Could these algorithms be used to find, and even round up, specific groups - perhaps those with opposing political views, specific faiths, or particular sexual identities.
“You can see how the information can be used to really damage people and affect people’s lives in a really real way. And that’s why this stuff is genuinely scary; regulators need to be held in check and companies need to take responsibility for the powers that they have at the moment.”
Adem says that every single person he interviewed for the film said something that surprised him. After being immersed in the topic for nearly a year, he’s heard about data algorithms in relation to elections, marketing, and business - in the form of clicks for ads.
“Until the business side of it changes, until people stop making money from incendiary things, it’s not really going to change,” he says.
As far as he can see, the scandal all centres around money, corruption, and outside influence, which have been swept up in the tangled web of algorithms.
“It will take a truly seismic revolutionary change to make these things better,” he says.
This film was never intended to be an attack on Cambridge Analytica. On several occasions, Adem tried to get a representative from the company to be interviewed, but was unsuccessful. He focused instead on finding people with different takes on the subject, who could broaden the conversation.
Mind-Reading Algorithms are Stealing our Democracy! is a film to raise alarm bells. It is intended to show people where things are going wrong, and to get them engaged with the topic.
Adem has himself always been sceptical about social media, and the use of data. This is why he’s never had a Facebook account, and why he’s only ever used Twitter to promote his films. However, this doesn’t make him feel any further from the clutches of the mind-reading algorithm monsters that his film depicts.
“Even if you’re not on the Internet you can’t get away from ‘big data.’ Big data is like the fuel source that’s fuelling all of these engines - data does not just come from the classic social media sites. It comes from your TV watching habits on cable, it comes from loyalty point cards, and so many other things. Basically, in this world, if anything’s free - it’s not really free,” he explains.
His closing pitch (created of course not with the use of mind-reading algorithms, but from his passion and belief in the importance of the topic): “You should watch this film, because - whether you know it or not - it’s about something that has affected you and will affect the world in which you live.”
Adem has another good point. There is nothing wrong with the technology itself. Technology is neutral, and can be used for good. It is how people use it, or abuse it, that matters.
In What the Zuck, TechCrunch's Mike Butcher, Josephine Goube of Techfugees, and Adam Goswell of Lush discuss how the still-breaking scandal at Facebook is likely to impact businesses and as as individuls think about data and how it's used.