04/05/2018 16:20 BST | Updated 04/05/2018 16:20 BST

The Power Of The Oratory Trumped By Big Data

Reuters Staff / Reuters

I was recently privileged to hear Bob Woodward of the Watergate Affair speak in the US, giving his views on the current state of the world and the role that the press is currently taking and how this is perceived. This was around time that Carole Cadwalladr’s investigation into Cambridge Analytica first made its appearance in the Guardian for the wider world to see.

With this week’s announcement that Cambridge Analytica has shut down due to its recent actions, it appears we are just at the beginning of the ramifications and revelations around this. During Woodward’s speech, I posed a question to my colleague about whether investigative journalism, at the scale of that which Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein undertook to expose Nixon and Watergate, still exists.

The ‘barriers to entry’ for this type of journalism are lower than ever before but the potential blowback on an expose is heightened due to the era of transparency (or perceived transparency) that the digital revolution has brought about. Is the world in the current flux that it is in because journalists can no longer take the risks that they used to because everything can be immediately checked and verified – as demonstrated with the downfall of Amber Rudd and the Windrush Scandal?

One area of the Cambridge Analytica revelations that particularly fascinated me was around the fact that the firm had tested some of Trump’s most prominent slogans such as ‘drain the swamp’ and ‘build the wall’. I particularly zoned into the concept that the power of oratory is actually a methodical process that can be fine-tuned to influence listeners in terms of ‘catchphrases’ that this can override the power of the orator.

It is widely acknowledged that Donald Trump is not a classic speechmaker compared to other orators. His manner can be described as forceful and dominating without the nuances and rhythm that is associated to inspirational speeches. So, does this mean that big data or ‘moneyball analytics’ can curtail the power of the emotion that a rousing speech delivery can bring?

To deliver a speech with true substance and content, the speaker is drawing on their years of experience and expertise to distil key messages and thoughts into a format which draws in an audience. The speech should both entertain but also ensure that listeners take home certain messages to use in their lives, whether professional or personal, to help them achieve great success.

On this basis, having a research company testing out key phrases and impacts on audiences to ensure messages are delivered to maximum effect should not be completely shocking. Surely it is a just a natural extension of a process to manage risk and ensure that a speech delivers the impact desired?

And yet the revelation, embedded alongside much more worrying exposures, still disappointed me. I asked myself why I reacted this way and it comes back to my question about the society we live in, the politics we are faced with and the world we are experiencing.

We don’t necessarily have answers to the polarized environment we find ourselves in. We are concerned about the ever more extreme views that seem to infect society, from all corners of the political spectrum. Individuals are navigating through a world where direction and structure has broken down. We want to be educated and guided but we have lost faith that any one particular view is the right one. Life is more nuanced now than it has ever been, or maybe we are just more exposed to the nuances. As such, we don’t want definitive leaders but rather leaders who provoke discussion, draw us in with questions and broad theses which can be discussed and debated in conversations all around us. Individuals should be able to draw their own conclusions and manage their own lives based on the information that is available to them and the conversations they have with the wider world.

It concerns me that what was revealed with the analysis that Cambridge Analytica undertook on Trump’s phrases is that politics and leadership are increasingly becoming the ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. The discussion that should take place as part of a democratic society is being curtailed as messages are managed and sculpted at such an early stage, potentially resulting in people’s beliefs being targeted without their conscious involvement. Does this mean that we are being stifled in our ability to form opinions which are outside the profile that has been built up for us in this data-driven world?

This leads me to ask myself a question which both terrifies me and empowers me to understand the current state of society. In a world where choice on the surface is more prevalent than ever before, are we actually less free in terms of our freedom to form opinions for ourselves?