Netflix Hit House of Cards targets Big Data

Mathew Sayer From our Perspective

*This post contains House of Cards Season 4 spoilers, don’t say we didn’t warn you.*

House of Cards may be fictional, but it is also very real. There’s a (sigh) ‘media savvy’ Baathist group called ICO, a New York Republican as the GOP candidate and data scientists tipping the election.

Frank Underwood (fictional candidates have slicker campaign sites than real ones), incumbent President, and his GOP rival Will Conway are both using big data (cough, mass surveillance) in their campaigns. Kevin Spacey has the power of the NSA at his disposal while Conway has the search engine Pollyhop at his. Conway’s public-private partnership was something Underwood threatened to use against him until a dialectic move by Conway changed the framing of its use.

In a webcast, Conway revealed that he was tracking people online, but ‘only’ in broad strokes, ‘only’ metadata. Conway decided to allow the public access to his call records, text messages, pictures and videos on his phone. Of course, the whole affair is micro-managed with the precision of silicon droplets on a circuit board. But by opening his life to the public Conway actually gained even more refined access to public’s opinion of himself and his campaign. When a curious voter visits his website, they submit to being tracked and analysed. Their clicks dictate if his next move is a portrait with his beautiful family or a saluting general joining his ticket.

Focus groups are nothing new, but they have their drawn backs. Mass electoral surveillance has only scaled the size of them upwards. Instead of testing phrases on the public the process has been reversed. Politicians can view what words and phrases are being used and take advantage. Keyword analysis is used to maximise the appeal of Frank and Claire’s speeches (‘together’, ‘becoming’). They’re suitably perplexed by the quants demands for clunky phrases to be transplanted into the text for the sake of a few more clicks and a better search engine ranking (watch me do it now, House of Cards).

Real elections are similarly swayed by the internet. Facebook are “excited about the targeting” and can influence voter turnout. Acxiom helped Obama get out the Walking Dead vote.

When you think no one is watching is when you’re most at ease. In our internet bubble, we are aware of the risks of letting people into our devices. But a lot of people (think about your parents) don’t have the time nor the inclination to move beyond the corporate internet because it is so damn convenient.

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. That argument ignores the power that each individual possesses in a democratic system. Recognising this power is of particular importance now that campaigns are spying on you; although they’ll use nicer legal terms. If We The People have a low opinion of politicians rest assured that a good deal of these psychopaths has a lower opinion of us; so let’s stop letting them take advantage eh?

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