Is real democracy dead in the age of digital data and social media?

Brexit. The US Presidential elections. The annulled Kenyan elections. Three seemingly democratic processes.

The end result of each has come of a shock to the world. No-one expected Brexit. Hilary Clinton was basically assured of victory. Uhuru Kenyatta won in Kenya, with observers backing the outcome – until he didn’t, the results being declared null and void.

How much of a role did data and social media have to play in the results of each? And where is the data justice in this? With the current state of big data, social media and politics, is real democracy dead in the digital age?

It is now no secret that data manipulation and social media unduly influenced people – if not the outcome – in both the Brexit vote and the US presidential election. Adam Henhall writes “Michal Kosinski’s behavioral mapping techniques by British data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica impacted on the major electoral outcomes of 2016”, having “developed a method to analyze individuals in minute detail based on their Facebook activity.” (Henshall, 2017)

The Kenyan election is now under suspicion of also being unduly influenced (Dahir, 2017). British data firm Cambridge Analytica was hired or used in all three campaigns. The firm “mines both online data and individual psychometric profiles in order to personalize political messaging and communicate with both supporters and undecided voters”, and is partly owned by the Mercer family, who largely supports conservative candidates and causes. (Dahir, 2017)

In the UK, a recent poll has found that nearly half of those who voted ‘remain’ in the Brexit vote would have won the referendum if social media did not exist. In the same poll, half of people surveyed in the UK believe social media played an important role in Donald Trump’s election as United States president. (Singh, 2016)

Using social media and big data, the data firm and the respective campaigns had the possibility “to have an intimate knowledge of a huge number of people. The result of this knowledge? Facebook becomes a huge search engine, not just for people but types of people.” (Henshall, 2017)

So where is the data justice in this?

Linnet Taylor outlines three proposed pillars of a notion of data justice as being (in)visibility, (dis)engagement with technology and antidiscrimination. (Taylor, 2017)

She states that the “idea of data justice is necessary to determine ethical paths through a datafying world.” (Taylor, 2017) It’s an admirable and noble thought. One we should certainly aim for. But in reality – given the stakes involved with data and social media during elections and high-stakes referenda – is it feasible?

As we’ve seen, social media platforms like Facebook have played a huge – and controversial – role in shaping what media consumers see in their information feeds during election campaigns, based on the data that is mined in the lead up to them. The data produced by these platforms are inevitably linked, by one means or another, to firms like Cambridge Analytica, which in turn usually involves political links or influences through their owners. You could argue that families, companies and organisations that own media like television stations or newspapers often have overt or covert ties to political parties, usually by who they’re owned, and that those links often influence editorial decisions. However the difference here is that while it’s a personal choice on which newspaper you pick up or click on, or which television channel you switch on, social media platforms and their associated data firms are collecting data on you, the consumer, first in an attempt to then influence your decision. With this means, you as the media consumer are not necessarily being given a choice.

It’s the invisibility and disengagement with technology that Taylor writes of that is in doubt. As she writes:

How is it possible, though, to formulate principles of data justice without allowing them to be shaped by the global community of data producers? A vision of data justice that takes power and politics into account must necessarily also be rooted in local experience. (Taylor, 2017)

Perhaps it’s a case of aiming for the moon, to land amongst the stars if we fail. But is that good enough?

With the power and the influence of data and social media platforms, and the seeming tough challenge ahead of implementing proper means of data justice, is real democracy dead in the digital age?

Given powerful influencing factors behind these political processes, with three examples of earth-shatteringly unexpected political results to illustrate this, the answer could well be yes.



Works Cited

Dahir, A. L. (2017, September 19). Hillary Clinton says Kenya’s annulled election was a “project” of a controversial US data firm. Retrieved from Quartz Africa:

Henshall, A. (2017, February 3). How Social Media and Big Data Shaped the Brexit Campaign Strategy . Retrieved from Business 2 Community:

Singh, A. (2016, December 2). Brexit campaign would have failed before advent of social media, say remain voters in new poll. Retrieved from The Independent:

Taylor, L. (2017, February 16). What is data justice? The case for connection digital rights and freedoms on the global level. Forthcoming publication. Tilburg University.

2 Replies to “Is real democracy dead in the age of digital data and social media?”

  1. Hi Joanna!

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

    I personally do not believe that real democracy is dead in the digital age, although the highly developed analytical techniques and algorithms used to influence political outcomes and general public opinion surely are a scary threat. Never before have our access to various information been so great but still we run the risk of developing tunnel vision, when information is sorted out with or without our consent.

    Like said, there is not a question about that data manipulation, and social media is influencing political elections, but important to mention here is that the influence can be both pro and against certain political opinions, which is a democratic process, although there are actors behind trying to influence you.

    On the positive side ICTs have helped to develop a resurgence of new genres and ways of communication, which as mentioned by Lievrouw (2013) in Alternative and Activist New Media have made big corporate actors on the media landscape not assured the same power as they once had, as the categories of media audiences, consumers, users and participants are no longer clearly categorized, but are now interlinked, creating new opportunities for individual expression.

    Also, data on consumer behavior has been collected long before our digital age, in order to influence us, whether to buy products or vote for a political candidate. The difference in our day and age is that the datafication of information has made this process magnified.

    In the end it comes down to be an aware consumer, which makes this topic highly important in order to put the issue of data manipulation as a threat to our democracy in the spotlight.

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