Russia 1, Data Science 0

Both sides in the 2016 election had access to the best statistical models and databases money could buy. If Russian influence (which as far as we know involved little more than the well-timed dumping of not exactly military grade hacked information, plus some Twitter bots and Facebook ads) was at any level decisive, then it's a slap on the face for data-driven campaigning, which apparently hasn't rendered obsolete the old art of manipulating cognitive blind spots in media coverage and political habits ("they used Facebook and Twitter" explains nothing: so did all US candidates, in theory with better data and technology, and so do small Etsy shops; it should've made no difference).

The lessons, I suspect, are three:

  • The theory and practice of data-driven campaigning is still very immature. Algorithmize the Breitbart-Russia-Assange-Fox News maneuver, and you'll have something far ahead of the state of the art. (I believe this will come from more sophisticated psychological modeling, rather than more data.)
  • If a country's political process is as vulnerable as the US' was to what the Russians did, then how will it do against an external actor properly leveraging the kind of tools you can develop at the intersection of obsessive data collection, an extremely Internet-focused government, cutting-edge AI, and an assertive foreign policy.
  • You know, like China. Hypothetically.

Whenever this happens, the proper reaction to this isn't to get angry, but to recognize that a political system proved embarrassingly vulnerable, and take measures to improve it. That said, that's slightly less likely to happen when those informational vulnerabilities are also used by the same local actors that are partially responsible for fixing them.

(As an aside, "out under-investment on security /deliberate exploiting of regulatory gaps we lobbied for/cover-up of known vulnerabilities would've been fine if not for those dastardly hackers" is also the default response of large companies to this kind of thing; this isn't a coincidence, but a shared ethos.)