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Big data’s power is terrifying.

Online information is already being used to manipulate us. We must act now to own the new political technologies before they own us.

Has a digital coup begun? Is big data being used, in the US and the UK, to create personalised political advertising, to bypass our rational minds and alter the way we vote? The short answer is probably not. Or not yet.

A series of terrifying articles suggests that a company called Cambridge Analytica helped to swing both the US election and the EU referendum by mining data from Facebook and using it to predict people’s personalities, then tailoring advertising to their psychological profiles. These reports, originating with the Swiss publication Das Magazin (published in translation by Vice), were clearly written in good faith, but apparently with insufficient diligence. They relied heavily on claims made by Cambridge Analytica that now appear to have been exaggerated. I found the story convincing, until I read the deconstructions by Martin Robbins on Little Atoms, Kendall Taggart on Buzzfeed and Leonid Bershidsky on Bloomberg.

Either we own political technologies, or they will own us. The great potential of big data, big analysis and online forums will be used by us or against us. We must move fast to beat the billionaires.

 Twitter: @GeorgeMonbiot. A fully linked version of this column will be published at monbiot.com

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cguthier

I do design and copy for people and great causes.