NATIONAL Social Crisis

From K-Pop to Ismael Serrano: The Big Data Scandal

According to a 112-page analysis of “big data,” 19% of the comments on social media concerning the two-month-old Chilean movement were from outside the country. Additionally, the study claimed to find that  the authors of 31% of shared social media messages came from different countries as well. These findings have sparked controversy both inside and outside the Piñera administration.

In late December, the Piñera administration released findings from an analysis of big data to support its theory that outside governments and political parties were directly influencing the current political atmosphere in Chile. This theory has been widespread since the beginning of the movement when right-wing officials and citizens began to claim that leftist administrations from countries such as Venezuela and Russia were attempting to destabilize Chile.  Not surprisingly, this data and its message were met with controversy.

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What is Big Data?

Big data analytics is a process of analysis that takes large amounts of data from many online sources in order to find correlative patterns. Commonly, organizations use the data to identify market trends for better advertising. Internet websites such as Amazon, Facebook, and Yahoo have utilized big data to expand their markets and learn more about their customers. 

In Chile, the analytics program reviewed over 5 million authors posting about the movement on social media. They found that both news channels from Venezuela and Russia had been discussing the crisis since Oct. 19. They also discovered trends of certain political parties, such as Peronism in Argentina, were questioning the existing economic models in Chile. The government also made mention of certain celebrities, namely Spanish singer Ismael Serrano and the Argentine-Spanish actor Juan Diego Botto who were sharing videos of police brutality. 

Not all of these findings were encouraging the mobilization, however. Several findings saw trends of users who were against the Chilean movement though the government made sure to indicate that these were not at the same level or amount as those in support. Examples cited here were government officials and journalists from Venezuela and Argentina, respectively. 

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Controversy Regarding the Findings

One of the first controversies came minutes after the government presented its findings. After releasing information that a third of the people sharing information concerning protests were young people, the government pointed out that these young people were also fans of K-pop, comedian Paola Molina, and singer Mon Laferte. This confounded the public all along the political spectrum, as the reference to singing groups and minor celebrities seemed random and undermined the seriousness of the findings.

It didn’t help that the Minister of Interior, Gonzalo Blumel, stated that the analysis was “extraordinarily sophisticated,” when such supposed correlations seemed everything but. Thus, a storm of jokes appeared on social media in the form of videos, memes, and tweets poking fun at the big data analysis. 

More serious controversy involves the accuracy of the findings themselves. Several academics from the Instituto Milenio Fundamentos de los Datos (IMFD) contended that the findings were not reliable and actually skewed to reflect the government’s desire to prove foreign influence. They claimed that big data is not an accurate way to analyze government intelligence and that they told the administration as much. 

Juan Pablo Luna, who was present at the initial meetings, claimed that he attempted to inform Piñera’s cabinet that big data could not accurately obtain information of this nature because it was mostly used to obtain business strategies through social media. 

In an interview with La Segunda, Jorge Perez, also present at the meetings, said, “We told [Piñera ] that social media information cannot link foreign influences in disorders, nor identify people who generate disturbances.” 

Sebastián Valenzuela, the last interviewed academic at the meetings added that they were also concerned because the majority of the information gathered was mainly from one source, Twitter.  He went on to say that the information gathered had to do with people’s fears over police violence rather than any indication that foreign influences were attempting to incite violence but that “it did not matter to them.” 

At the end of the meetings, the three academics advised the cabinet to discontinue such an investigation as it could not provide accurate answers to their theories; but, as Valenzuela put it, “they clearly didn’t listen to us.”

The controversy around big data continues as government officials, including the president himself, discuss growing concerns that foreign powers are disrupting the country. Piñera even went as far as to say that videos showing violence in Chile were being filmed outside the country and were misrepresenting the political situation using the analysis of big data as his springboard. 

These statements are disturbing to some, as they seem calculated to undermine and distract from the public’s efforts to solve the socioeconomic and systemic problems that underlie the protests and the findings by national and international organizations that government security forces have committed human rights abuses during the crisis.

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