News Brief

Data and information is power – and a risk to political authority

Digital technologies have changed the modern application of power. Political leaders mobilize large resources to win information wars on Twitter and Facebook. Rarely a day passes where new and viral instances of “fake news”, sometimes produced by state employed trolls, don’t pollute social media networks and monopolize our attention.

Much of this was on discussion one evening earlier this week in a small room above The Rugby Tavern near Holborn in London, where author and researcher Carl Miller spoke about the changing nature of power, the battle for information and disruption in politics.

Miller is the co-founder and research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, which is part of a London based think tank called Demos, and is a joint venture with the University of Sussex about the impact of technology on our society and democracy. He is also the author of last year’s “The Death of the Gods: The New Global Power Grab”, which was published last summer. You can read an extract from the book here.

Miller’s entertaining lecture was titled “The Death of the Gods – through a tweet darkly”. He opened with a brief introduction about the near decade long presence on Twitter by President Donald Trump, but then moved quickly to discuss some of the themes of his book. These included how he once accompanied police to raid a cybercrime factory in the UK (which turned out to be one person), his exploration of industrial fake-news outlets in the Balkans and his encounters with Russia’s hybrid information war.

Miller said his primary motivation was to research the changing nature of power. “It’s an idea we don’t speak anywhere near enough,” he said. “Power is the ability to reach into someone else’s life and change what their life is like. It might be coercive with a gun; it might be financial with incentives; it might be attitudinal; it might be soft power.”

One notable example of how personal data is used as power saw him recount his attempt to obtain details of all the personal information held about him. To his horror (and, it must be said, some amusement) he discovered he had been given an arbitrary “green ranking” as well as an “indulgence ranking”. He was less surprised to find out he had been demographically segmented as “young and struggling”.

Over the course of an hour, Miller spoke vividly of the challenges faced by politicians and political processes. His only encouraging example was that of Audrey Tang, the civic hacker who was part of Taiwan’s Sunflower protest movement which led to the defeat of the government in 2016 when the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen became the first female president in the nation’s history. Tang now works as Digital Minister, responsible for open government and innovation.

Miller predicted similar political changes in countries like the U.K. “We’re gonna have a whole new generation of politicians come in, I think, that are at least going to be born out of the massive animé and anger which so many people have for our current democratic process,” he said.

The most sombre section of Miller’s lecture ended with a somewhat unnecessary theatrical flourish. “I think the tectonic plates are shifting for the first time about what democracy itself actually looks like,” he said. “For the first time really, we’ve had in this country since 1649 when there was gunpowder hanging in the air and we just beheaded our own king.”

Miller’s lecture is part of a monthly series held by the online technology magazine, The Register. All lectures are open to the general public.