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Will Data Destroy Democracy?


8 min read

Lawrence Lessig, Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership, Harvard Law School and Darren Bolding, CTO, Cambridge Analytica

Moderator: Matthew Prince, Co-Founder & CEO, Cloudflare

MP: If there’s one person responsible for the Trump presidency, it seems there is a compelling argument that that might be you.

DB: I very much disagree with that.

MP: How does Cambridge Analytica work, and how did the Trump campaign use it to win the presidency?

DB: we take that data and match it up with lists of voters, and combine that data science to come up with ideas about you who might want to sell a product to, or in teh case of politics, this is this person's’ propensity to vote, this is the candidate they are likely most interested in. WE also do all the digital advertising. By combining data with digital advertising, we have lots of power.

MP: so you don’t want to take credit for having won the election; but the campaign's use of data and targeting was an important factor in the election.

DB: Yes, and what Cambridge did was basically a great turnaround story.

MP: larry you ran a presidential campaign focused on one issue; finance reform. Yet the candidate that spent half as much as HIllary Clinton won. Is finance still the issue or do we need to start thinking about data as the divider.

LL: My slogan was not “fix campaign finance” but “fix democracy first”. This means to fix all the different ways the system denies us a democracy in the sense that we are equal citizens. If you have a congress spending 30-70% of their time raising money, or gerrymandering, that is not a congress concerned with representing its citizens. This is not a system that produces citizenship driven to electing a president.

Our electoral college means that the vote of republicans here in california si worth nothing. These are all the ways in which we have a failed democracy.

I wanted to at least have a voice in the debate to rally around these issues.

What happened is the democratic party changed the rules just as i qualified to be on that stage. But i would suggest that the man who won took the same set of slogans - Drain the Swamp - and ran as full-force as he could and targeted as his opponent a woman who was “sold out” to these interests precisely.

I think it is the fundamental issue.

MP: One of the core tenets of democracy seems like a shared understanding.

If you have 15 different targeted messages, does that corrode the shared understanding?

LL: The truth is, in the half of DB’s world focused on commerce, it’s the best of all possible times. The half of the architecture of communication focused on giving people access to netflix, it’s the best of all possible times. We have to recognize that the internet is the best and worst of all possible times at the same time.

So when you shift to democracy, the same technologies undermine our ability to do democracy the way we did before.
It used to be that the process of winning election was same as building coalition.
It was in front, in plain sight, and when you won, you knew why.

When you have technology like Cambridge Analytica has perfected, the process of winning election is totally separate from governing.

MP: So Darren are you destroying democracy?

DB: The act of democracy is allowing people to choose who their representatives are. That doesn’t imply that everyone has to have the same shared context. I think it’s possibly beneficial that people with disparate points of view / interests they should have those interests addressed.

MP: But you work for a company that says they have a unique tech to do this better. What is it about the tech that makes it so much more better that doesn’t corrode shared understanding, on the other side?

DB: The shared understanding is out there is almost more cultural than anything. I think that having a conversation with you about the regulations that Germany might impose doesn’t permit you from knowing about other aspects of foreign policy with Germany; it’s just a specific thing you care about. Now if the messages are contradictory, that’s when it becomes a problem. But as long as people are maintaining consistent points of view, it’s not wrong to communicate about issues that are important to a specific set of persons.

LL: I wouldn't say that CA produced diffuse culture where there is no shared understanding. But what we don’t recognize enough is how extraordinary 1960s and 70s were for democracy, when everybody was focused on three television shows every night. America basically understood the same stuff.

MP: Former chair of FCC says that maybe this is actually the natural state today; in the 60s and 70s, 3 companies controlled profitable technology and spent more time being neutral and elevating conversation. Is this time period what we should be striving for or is that a reaction to fear of regulation?

LL: I agree this was extraordinary period. It defined how we understand democracy, and that period is gone.

That period is gone. I don’t wnat to return to it. Those three shows were too narrow in a number of ways. My point is that we don't yet have a good model for how to work a democracy where we all live in our own niche worlds of the basic facts.

The architecture of media today is just like the architecture of media in the 19th century.

Most journalism was partisan, all about rallying troops to own version of truth. The difference is that we have no way of knowing what the public thought.

The difference is that we have no way of knowing what the public thought then. We could only know what the politicians thought. We didn’t even have polling.

MP: But back then, you also had a particular understanding of what you were reading; today, FB has an algorithm, there is an editorial voice, and you don’t know what that is. There is some neutrality.

LL: Back then, media drove people to vote in a certain way or not. But today, the views of people about whether we should go to war in Iraq or whether immigrants deserve to be blocked, the views of the people matter directly.

Supposed to have a representative democracy, but we increasingly have a direct democracy composed for a public that doesn’t know anything about issues because we live in niche market bubble worlds that don’t inform us the way our broader world has in the past.

DB: data science is part of the solution. I can use a tool on FB to tell me what percentage of my wall is democrat or republican.

MP: So that’s the argument that we are only just getting used to tech. We will get better at being able to interpret these things and see through them.

DB: These tools also make it easier for smaller groups to get their povs out there into the general market. It costs less to get their message out there. You couldn't do that before because all the power was in a small number of hands. So
Data science available to anybody through FB is actually quite powerful.

I for one thing that if you are accurately representing what the populace is interested in, that is not a bad thing for democracy; that’s a good thing.

If the public is fractured, that’s what the public deserves.

LL: As a kid, as a republican, I was celebrating the internet, I was saying exactly what DB was, but we didn't think enough about the ways it would change the context in which we could have the conversation.

We have never had the ability of someone to speak to 30 million people without an editor standing between. This is new. But now a guy can tweet, and it is seen by 30 million people, and we don’t yet know how to run a democracy with that dynamic.

I hitchhiked across the soviet union when i was young. And was told that in the soviet union they have a better system of free speech than you do in America. We wake up and realize that every newspaper is lying to us; so we have to read 7-8 different newspapers before we understand the truth. This develops a better culture of critical understanding than you have in US.

We have become the soviet union; our parents don’t yet know how to deal with a world in which everyone is lying to you.

But our kids know, and can figure it out based on 7or 8 different feeds.

MP: So is the solution time? Over time, If Cambridge Analytica won the election, what is the next trick? Who will win the next one?

DB: I think personalization of information that will allow individuals to better communicate with people they know. Rather than have one person broadcasting, you’ll have personal relationship.
The dispersion of the central control over the message out to individuals is very powerful. Now instead of Donald Trump talking at you, you have someone else...

MP: It’s a way to trick the kids, then, isn’t it? If your friends are telling you something, that’s how you get the cynics.

LL: it’s certainly a wonderful development; but the problem is that if they’re doing that on the basis of a totally different understanding of the world. Some people think climate changes real; others false . If there’s no common gorond of understanding, that may be good for winning elections, but not for actually governing.

DB: you’re building a virtual community in each “town,” and each community is discussing what is important to them.

MP: I was just talking to an engineer in China, who said that democracy is great but it always drops below its lowest common denominator. How do we fix that if that’s the case?

DB: Our original founders wrestled with that idea; we have to keep trying.


Q: Does Cambridge Analytical make problems like Willy Horton worse or better?

DB: I don’t think it plays that much of a role one way or another. Your context is the ads that played during the Bush campaign?

I think it just makes the message more amplified.

LL: Here we have a real disagreement. You have an assumption that people can’t be inconsistent in how they represent their world view. If we have a technology that perfects ability to elect people, but not through public conversation, that encourages this dramatic

DB: as long as the campaign is consistent and does not change its point of view…

LL: when have we ever seen that?

Q: Where do you draw the line on ethical microtargeting? Are you creating models to target people on the basis of racial messaging?

DB: I don’t think Cambridge pushed any racially charged messages--

MP: do you identify people… do you have a category that is racists?

DB: we had 15 models. It never even came up.

MP: how do we set a framework or a social contract so that Cambridge Analytica doesn’t have a racist profile?

LL: Today story that broke about ProPublica and FB basically had an anti-semitic ad category to market to people who hate Jews, and had used algorithms inside of FB to target anti-semites.

Mark Zuckerberg is interested in finding what people want and catering to it; and that’s fine. In 99% of what we care about, that’s what we want. But in democracy, that’s a terrifying possibility.

Q: People make decisions based on knowledge & information they consume. We are now talking about driving mass behavior, which is different from just giving people what they want.

How can data science be used responsibly? What regulations do we need when social networks are driving mass behavior? If it’s not regulation, what other structures do we need?

DB: If you look at the EU, they have the GDPR, and there’s a control over how much information is available. People being aware of how much information they have to give up is going to be somewhat helpful. If you know what information you are giving up, you know what you are able to be targeted on. There will also need to be some sort of code of ethics about what is right and what is wrong to do with data. I am inherently not a fan of regulation. When you have that, entrenched players will create regulatory capture which will stifle innovation.

There should be some sort of element there. “Algorithms will find the worst in us if you let them go nuts.” And this is not all happening on one side of the spectrum.

LL: It’s fun and hopeful to talk about codes of ethics stifling the worst, but if the worst is profitable, the code of ethics will be eaten by the profit.

In one of Steven Bannon’s last interviews, he said, “What we want is the democrats to talk about identity politics every single day until the next election, and we’re going to talk about economic policy and we will beat them.” And you begin to realize that racism is just them playing the democrats. In our world of 2-second attention spans, what do you do to resist that?

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Ryan Knight|@yank

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