Man versus machine: who controls the game?

Short thesis

2016 will be remembered for painful disillusions, featuring technology as an important agent, but for once not a positive one. Critical approach to what can be achieved with it – speaking of political and social changes – exploded and moved mainstream debate to the other extreme. Media around the globe did not hesitate twice before blaming ‘algorithms’ and ‘data’ for major political failures. As if it was technology driving us, not the other way round… So who is responsible – human or artificial intelligence? Can humans regain control in this game? Let’s talk!


Brexit reminded us that facts and knowledge ("what, actually, is the EU?") matter less than emotions and good narratives (“let’s make Britain great again”) – it is the latter that people understand and act upon. Emotions and memes spread faster than facts. It has always been that way, but before the era of social media not everybody could share what they feel. Now everyboby can click "publish" and become visible. But it is no longer humans, and certainly not the users, who control what *is visible* on the net. Welcome to algorithmic media paradigm!

Drumpf proved that to win presidential race one does not even need a majority of votes, not mentioning a minimum dose of respect for what that majority believes in. In fact, outright disrespect for those who think differently and shameless lies may help a lot. Especially if it goes in line with the tactical use of big data and targeting techniques. In Poland Kaczyński – leader of the ruling party – proved that it is even possible to ruin democratic institutions and still sell it to the society as a “good change”. An army of 'human bots' turned out to be helpful in shaping the debate the way government wanted it to go.

If everything in politics is a matter of narrative, the power lies in how this narrative is shaped and fuelled. We have no other choice than break this information asymmetry: find a way to control those who design the algorithms and build engines behind online media. But it is not going to be easy...

I would like to explore possible counter-strategies involving data, social media and civic activity. We have already seen many fact-checking initiatives emerging online. We have heard from Facebook that the company is willing to start flagging fake news. New European data protection regulation has prepared legal ground for “opening” algorithms and demanding more transparency from online platforms...

Will that be enough? What more can we do to regain control over the mechanisms and tools that shape our public debate and political processes? Who can be our natural ally and who is likely to be against us in this fight?