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Has a digital coup begun? Is big data being used, in the US and the UK, to create personalised political advertising, to bypass our rational minds and alter the way we vote? The short answer is probably not. Or not yet.

A series of terrifying articles suggests that a company called Cambridge Analytica helped to swing both the US election and the EU referendum by mining data from Facebook and using it to predict people’s personalities, then tailoring advertising to their psychological profiles. These reports, originating with the Swiss publication Das Magazin (published in translation by Vice), were clearly written in good faith, but apparently with insufficient diligence. They relied heavily on claims made by Cambridge Analytica that now appear to have been exaggerated. I found the story convincing, until I read the deconstructions by Martin Robbins on Little Atoms, Kendall Taggart on BuzzFeed and Leonid Bershidsky on Bloomberg.

None of this is to suggest we should not be vigilant. The Cambridge Analytica story gives us a glimpse of a possible dystopian future, especially in the US, where data protection is weak. Online information already lends itself to manipulation and political abuse, and the age of big data has scarcely begun. In combination with advances in cognitive linguistics and neuroscience, this data could become a powerful tool for changing the electoral decisions we make.

Our capacity to resist manipulation is limited. Even the crudest forms of subliminal advertising swerve past our capacity for reason and make critical thinking impossible. The simplest language shifts can trip us up. For example, when Americans were asked whether the federal government was spending too little on “assistance to the poor”, 65 per cent agreed. When they were asked whether it was spending too little on “welfare”, 25 per cent agreed. What hope do we have of resisting carefully targeted digital messaging that uses trigger words to influence our judgement? Those who are charged with protecting the integrity of elections should be urgently developing a new generation of safeguards.

Already big money exercises illegitimate power over political systems, making a mockery of democracy: the battering ram of campaign finance, which gives billionaires and corporations a huge political advantage over ordinary citizens; the dark money network (a web of lobby groups, funded by billionaires, that disguise themselves as think tanks); AstroTurf campaigning (employing people to masquerade as grass roots movements); and botswarming (creating fake online accounts to give the impression that large numbers of people support a political position). All these are current threats to political freedom. Election authorities such as the Electoral Commission in the UK have signally failed to control these abuses, or even, in most cases, to acknowledge them.

China shows how much worse this could become. There, according to a recent article in Scientific American, deep-learning algorithms enable the state to develop its “citizen score”. This uses people’s online activities to determine how loyal and compliant they are, and whether they should qualify for jobs, loans or entitlement to travel to other countries. Combine this level of monitoring with nudging technologies — tools designed subtly to change people’s opinions and responses — and you develop a system that tends towards complete control.

Potential for participation untapped

Already big money exercises illegitimate power over political systems, making a mockery of democracy

That’s the bad news. But digital technologies could also be a powerful force for positive change. Political systems, particularly in the anglophone nations, have scarcely changed since the fastest means of delivering information was the horse. They remain remote, centralised and paternalist. The great potential for participation and deeper democratic engagement is almost untapped. Because the rest of us have not been invited to occupy them, it is easy for billionaires to seize and enclose the political cyber-commons.

A recent report by the innovation foundation Nesta argues that there are no quick or cheap digital fixes. But, when they receive sufficient support from governments or political parties, new technologies can improve the quality of democratic decisions. They can use the wisdom of crowds to make politics more transparent, to propose ideas that don’t occur to professional politicians, and to spot flaws and loopholes in government bills.

Among the best uses of online technologies it documents are the LabHacker and eDemocracia programmes in Brazil, which allow people to make proposals to their representatives and work with them to improve bills and policies; Parlement et Citoyens in France, which plays a similar role; vTaiwan, which crowdsources new parliamentary bills; the Better Reykjavík programme, which allows people to suggest and rank ideas for improving the city, and has now been used by more than half the population; and the Pirate party, also in Iceland, whose policies are chosen by its members, in both digital and offline forums. In all these cases, digital technologies are used to improve representative democracy rather than to replace it.

Participation tends to be deep but narrow. Tech-savvy young men are often over-represented, while most of those who are alienated by offline politics remain, so far, alienated by online politics. But these results could be greatly improved, especially by using blockchain technology (a method of recording data), text-mining with the help of natural language processing (that enables very large numbers of comments and ideas to be synthesised and analysed), and other innovations that could make electronic democracy more meaningful, more feasible and more secure.

Of course, there are hazards here. No political system, offline or online, is immune to hacking; all systems require safeguards that evolve to protect them from being captured by money and undemocratic power. The regulation of politics lags decades behind the tricks, scams and new technologies deployed by people seeking illegitimate power. This is part of the reason for the mass disillusionment with politics: the belief that outcomes are rigged, and the emergence of a virulent anti-politics that finds expression in extremism and demagoguery.

Either we own political technologies, or they will own us. The great potential of big data, big analysis and online forums will be used by us or against us. We must move fast to beat the billionaires.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

George Monbiot is the author of the best-selling books Feral: rewilding the land, sea and human life, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain.