Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How Big Data May Make a Future Arab Spring Impossible

Originally published 02/05/2014 on Maus Strategic Consulting.com

To many, the Arab Spring showed the triumph of social media in coordinating political discontent to force authoritarian governments to heed the will of their people.
Unfortunately, the Arab Spring may also be the last time that such popular uprisings can be so successful. Regimes that might have once been threatened by such movements have taken careful note of them, preparing counter-measures that, with the aid of big data analysis, may dramatically tip the future odds in their favor. Indeed, these techniques may allow police states to become more stable and oppressive than they have ever been before.

Acts by a few regimes hint at some of these abilities and may offer suggestions of what is to come. Last month, the Ukrainian government tracked protestors via their cellphones and sent them mass text messages to inform them that they had been "registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” Iranian police used social media records to identify and arrest  thousands of protestors.  In Russia, Pro-Kremlin forces used swarms of Twitterbots to drown out dissent during the presidential elections. China devotes over 2 million people  (according to state media) to monitoring the diffusion of online opinion within and outside their country, and subtly influencing online discussion.

The ability to monitor and respond to political dissent in real time is immensely valuable to authoritarian governments, but even that may not the greatest advantage that social media and other information sources will offer these regimes.

The very social media tools that activists used to coordinate in movements such as the Arab Spring offer an unprecedented wealth of data on precisely how political dissent is sparked, flourishes, and forces reform--or how it fails.  Analyzing this data may offer a host of insights into how to prevent such dissent from gaining ground.

One could think of it a bit like Moneyball.
In the true story on which the movie was based, Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane used statistical analysis to evaluate the worth of potential players. His methods proved more reliable than the subjective gut reactions of talent scouts, allowing him to assemble a team that won more regular games than any other team aside from the Atlanta Braves, despite having the second lowest payroll in the league.

Similarly, by analyzing the social media data of political dissent in events like the Arab Spring, governments may be able to scientifically determine which individuals, ideas, and content actually present a threat to their own regimes and which will go nowhere if ignored.

It may even allow regimes to predict which individuals are likely to become dissidents in the first place, even before the potential dissidents think of themselves as activists.
Big Data-based Repression: COMING SOON
If predicting future protestors seems unlikely, consider that automated analysis of Facebook pages has been used to very accurately determine users' personality scores, as well as their sexual orientations, IQs, political views, and general happiness, based on Likes alone. Twitter has also been used to reliably predict private traits.

By analyzing the millions of data points about which individuals took part in protest movements such as the Arab Spring (and which of them actually contributed to such movements effectively), and what factors were associated with them either becoming active or remaining passive, governments can understand and deconstruct popular uprisings as they never could before. Armed with this, governments can identify who could be the greatest threat and proactively neutralize or pacify them, before they even become an issue.

Really the techniques aren't much different from how voter databases and quantitative analysis are being used in U.S. political campaigns. One senior adviser for Obama's 2012 election campaign bragged that by analyzing voter databases, they "could [predict] people who were going to give online. We could model people who were going to give through mail. We could model volunteers..." According to a campaign official, analysts would simulate the election "66,000 times every night" and brief Obama every morning on the results, allowing for a supremely efficient distribution of resources, which is widely considered to have given him a major advantage for his reelection.

It is generally acknowledged that governments are more capable of gathering data on their citizens than ever before, even aside from social media. GPS tracking on phones and cars make individual movements easy to monitor, particularly with facial recognition-equipped video surveillance. Credit cards, membership cards, discount cards, and smartphone payment, and online intermediaries keep a careful tally of most financial transactions. Digitization of medical, tax, legal, and other personal records allows them to be laid bare in an instant. Smart grids will allow for highly specific power usage monitoring. Wearable computers like Google Glass may make providing video surveillance into a fashion statement. And standardization of all of this data makes acquiring and centralizing it just a few keystrokes away. In authoritarian countries, all of this information is likely to be available to the government, with little if any of it accessible to private citizens, giving the current regimes far more information relevant to controlling the populace than would be accessible to any dissident.

Even if the data were accessible, governments have more resources to invest in the algorithms and computer processing for crunching all of this data to predict how government reform movements will develop than will likely be available to most activist groups--at least without external support.

In short, the rulers who were pressured into changing policies or leaving government during the Arab Spring may have been blindsided by the unexpected use of new technologies to organize anti-government voices, but the ones remaining know that these technologies cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, the transparency of social media makes it a rich source of data for regimes to understand and predict popular dissent, granting them far more calculated and effective means of crushing it.


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