12 Nov 2019

Review: Data versus Democracy

The power that online information and the routes of its dissemination have recently been made aware to the wider world in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s referendum to leave the European Union – the term “Cambridge Analytica Scandal” is a very familiar one.

By Tom Dent-Spargo



A new book has hit the markets, titled “Data Versus Democracy: How Big Data Algorithms Shape Opinions and Alter the Course of History” written by Kris Shaffer, from Apress Media LLC. Robotics Law Journal’s Tom Dent-Spargo got his hands on a copy to review, and to examine some of the issues included within.


The book has a simple structure of two parts. The first, entitled “The Propaganda Problem” delves into the issue of information overload that our human brains are attempting to deal with, armed only with our brains that are little different form our prehistoric ancestors. It examines how the different sources of information online compete for our attention at all times and how this can be weaponised into shaping our opinions and the ways in which we vote and organise our societies. The second part is a collection of three case studies, followed by the conclusion. The examples analysed are the rise of the American Alt-Right after Ferguson and GamerGate, Russian interference in elections and the new digital Cold War, and how bots and digital forms of revolution have been used in the global South.

The structure works well as a way to outline the issues that the average person faces when logging into social media or reading the news every day and encountering reams of information that their brains just aren’t suitably equipped for, then highlighting how this inability to cope with the Information Age we live in can be used against us with these examples that are so familiar and relevant.  

The Propaganda Problem

Apparently we live in the Information Age. Not according to Shaffer, who says that it’s actually the Attention Age in which we currently reside. Information is too abundant, available, and accessible to drive an economy, and there is far too much for anyone to take in. Our attention is instead the capital that drives economies. The reason our attention is so sought after is because our brains are hardwired for information scarcity – they developed during a time in which information was not an easily available commodity, so are trained to to evaluate and assess dangers based on very little information in their surroundings. Shaffer draws a good comparison with food in this regard, which, while not being a true revelation, helps to contextualise what he’s talking about with information abundance and biology. 

The example he uses is of his favourite dessert, which tastes so good to him, but we know now is incredibly bad for us in anything more than small quantities. Despite the knowledge that it is not healthy, we continue to crave things like this that are bad for us and it’s because of how our tastes evolved. The humans that survived were the ones that were able to find nutritious foods and these survivors passed on their genetic dispositions for certain things like protein and fat. This is because they were finding fat in a food scarce world – we need a small amount of fat in our diets, so it follows that the successful prehistoric humans were the ones who were able to find it. It’s a miracle of evolution really. Except now in today’s world, with technological advances in agriculture and so on, we are not food scarce (excepting the conditions of global poverty) and so the part of our brains that seeks out fat can get as much of it as it wants, which leads to a host of problems. It’s the same with information. As he puts it, “We’re so tuned for information scarcity that consuming modern media is like trying to drink from a firehose.”

Shaffer examines this problem of our attention and its limitations from a very economic perspective, highlighting how companies online can target us as they compete for our attention, noting that “the attention economy makes it good business sense to design platforms for addiction.” Platforms need to collect data on their new commodity: us. And this collection often comes when we’re at our most unguarded. This is so that they can microtarget adverts on an individual basis, something not possible before the internet. When it’s every single platform attempting to do this at once, our attention is necessarily divided, leaving us open to online propaganda, which is often laundered through well-meaning people sharing disinformation online in good faith – but to bad effect. Think of your relatives sharing questionable content on Facebook, possibly without even reading it themselves. That disinformation is now disseminated to a wider audience, further than would have been possible with print-based propaganda.

Data collection is obviously a thorny legal issue in the present world. Companies are always at odds to stress how much protection they afford the individual, while still collecting huge reams of personal information for anyone who wants to access their services. Cyber attacks can obviously target customer databases, but if recent scandals have shown anything it’s that some of these huge breaches of data can come from big companies acting within the law – or at least upholding the pretence of it. Defining the rights of our data and the responsibilities of those who hold it (ostensibly on our behalf) is of vital importance, given how it has been shown that our opinions can be manipulated and literal votes in an election changed thanks to algorithms.

Ferguson, GamerGate, the Alt-Right

The first of the three case studies in the book looks at the dramatic and alarming rise of the American Alt-Right. Shaffer first brings up the examples of Ferguson and GamerGate to illustrate how online platforms were used in similar ways but to strikingly different effect, both to evade law enforcement and any legal scrutiny of the actors involved. 

At the time of the Ferguson protests and rallies following the shooting of Michael Brown, only some people were informed about it online: Twitter users. Thanks to its reverse chronological timeline (since replaced by an algorithmic one, more akin to Facebook) videos and images of the events shared by people on the ground were able to be disseminated. Meanwhile, what were Facebook users seeing crop up on their timelines? The ice bucket challenge. Facebook’s big algorithm showed its users videos of people dumping a bucket of ice over their heads (apparently in the name of awareness of ALS) rather than draw their attention to a far more serious matter, all because engagement was calculated to be higher. 

Twitter was further useful to the protestors for organising their activities, so they could stay one step ahead of the police. People who became associated with being a beacon of truth in relation to the protests were able to disseminate the right information to the right people when the hashtags got clouded by overuse. It’s impressive how useful Twitter was during this time, but one has to wonder how the next Ferguson will get the news out there now that Twitter’s newsfeed has switched to an algorithm based on engagement. It begs the question, do these companies have a responsibility to show this type of news? As a social media platform, maybe not, but could they not also be described as a news and media company? It’s a tricky question that doesn’t yet have a resolution.

Twitter unfortunately became the incidental villain of GamerGate, the targeted harassment campaign against “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs) and women in video game media, in particular Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, for daring to look at video game content with a critical lens. The perception to GamerGaters was that the diversification of gaming was an attack itself against them (predominantly straight white males) and that they were now a minority. 

Twitter became the battleground. Memes and attacks were born in the message boards of the notorious 4Chan and its sister site 8Chan, where the platforms there helped train posters in how to create viral content. They tested the waters on Reddit and then moved content to Twitter to start this “war” on SJWs, apparently in the name of video games journalism ethics. The public nature of Twitter added oxygen to the fire. Despite many attempts on the part of those attacked by the new movement – the Alt-Right – law enforcement was slow and ineffective, not knowing how to deal with this new threat and form of harassment. Twitter was hesitant to shut down posts in the name of free speech (despite being a privately owned platform perfectly capable of banning people for content that breaches their own guidelines). A judge told Zoë Quinn to get a new career if she didn’t want to deal with this, perhaps she should stay off the internet. “When she reminded him that her work as an independent game developer required not only an online presence, but a public social media presence, he responded, ‘You’re a smart kid. ... Find a different career.’” An appalling comment from a judge that most certainly would not have been said to a man in the same position.

The emergence of the Alt-Right in the wake of GamerGate has serious implications, given recent political elections where votes have been case due to online campaigns. A lot of these fights aren’t new – racial tensions and misogyny did not begin with these incidents – but the ways they are being fought is, and current law enforcement and regulation appears unable to deal with this new battleground. Access to the internet is swiftly becoming recognised as a fundamental human right now, given its importance in our lives. Do these companies have a legal requirement to lay down the law online? Perhaps it is still a question in the realms of morals and ethics, rather than law at present.


Overall, a very well written book that has an engaging style of writing, doesn’t become dry or bogged down in the details, but still showcases the depth of knowledge that Shaffer has on the subject. His analysis and positions on these issues is clear from the way he writes, and the structure of overview followed by case studies works to cement the nuances of the issues of information and online propaganda in the reader’s mind. It’s accessible and it provides a satisfying read to those looking for deep analysis of this emerging problem faced by the world. 


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