Influence in Industry Summer School


I recently had the pleasure of taking part in Tactical Tech’s ‘Investigating the Influence Industry’ summer school; a two-week long online course exploring the increasing power that data collection has over our lives and how that data is being harnessed during election cycles. It’s been an eye-opening experience and has shed light on plenty of new, at times concerning, areas to explore.

Tactical Tech is a Berlin-based NGO looking to explore and explain the impact that digital technologies are having on individuals and wider society. They aim to develop tools and practices that increase public awareness around technologies growing influence with frequent events and workshops focused on not only improving understanding but also having participants examine how advancements in technology affect them and their work.

As Dr Amber Macintyre, the program leader, pointed out during the opening day, a goal of the summer school was to ‘go beyond’. In practice this meant looking further than just the US and UK as is often the case during discussions on data and election influence, particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Instead, the course would look at a host of lesser-discussed countries and the range of tools deployed across them during election periods. The goal of this being to assess what data was being collected on potential voters and how it could be harnessed to influence the outcome of an election.

The week began with looking at why collecting data during elections is so powerful. As the speaker pointed out, effectively all data is useful, whether it be political affiliations or what shows you watch; when an actor possesses this information they can begin extrapolating and inferring new pieces of data, ultimately building up a prospective ‘data portrait’ of you. This snapshot can then be used to predict what adverts, what language, and what issues you are most likely to relate and engage with, potentially persuading your vote. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a process that needs to be carried out for each voter, once a sufficient amount of data is gathered, it becomes possible to start filling in the blanks on new voters by inferring from previously collected information. This means that even the most privacy-conscious individual is effected by these practices given parties can simply pull from the data they already have on other similar voters.

Although the range of topics covered in subsequent days is too many to discuss in this post, the particular issue I found most interesting was the prevalency of candidate-focused election apps. In some cases applications were designed to gamify the campaign trail by having supporters win in-app points by calling their local representative over certain issues or putting up posters for their preferred candidate. While this approach may seem a somewhat fun twist on political engagement, what actually lay underneath some of these apps were vast data collection tools. Of the apps discussed, some were granted permission to monitor the users location, access their contact list, and record surrounding audio, in addition to a slew of other questionable permissions. All with the goal of collecting as much data as possible.

The power of data is only going to rise as platforms find new ways to harness our beliefs, dispositions, and biases. This power is then going to be furthered by the increasingly advanced algorithms dedicated to deducing the most effective means of influencing our opinions and actions. The ‘Influence in Industry’ summer school has helped shine a light on the serious ethical questions we need to discuss over where and how influence-oriented algorithms are deployed in society. It’s vital that the public be informed on how this affects them and that such usage of data be done in a transparent and fair manner.