Voter Data, Microtargeting, and the Digitization of Elections

Voter Data, Microtargeting, and the Digitization of Elections

by Ben Ballard

November 6th, 2018 was a day of milestones. The 2018 United States Midterm Elections drew a historic voter turnout, indicative of a population that is more politicized with each passing day. While we can see evidence of this in our everyday lives, it is most visible online, particularly on social media with the news we post and the opinions we share. It’s here that political campaigns—both in the US and around the globe—know they have the greatest potential influence. With the help of a growing industry of organizations offering digital services, political campaigns are becoming increasingly adept at leveraging voter data and technological expertise to win elections. This is creating a new industry centered around influencing voters that falls outside the limits of current regulatory frameworks. As a result, the individual voter is increasingly subjected to unabated microtargeting as their data is compiled, analyzed and shared.

Through data mining, candidates can shape their online messaging to effectively appeal to specific communities. The practice of compiling this information into databases has become an essential feature of the US electoral process and has been adopted in other countries such as Canada, Australia, and the UK. The MIT Technology Review recently published a comprehensive article on the trend and broader impact of technology on political campaigns, beginning with the first Obama campaign of 2008. It suggests that campaigns of the future will increasingly use data and algorithms to mobilize their supporters and target key constituencies. In addition, it points out that campaigns can’t do this alone, and are increasingly relying on tech professionals and contracted expertise for assistance. In response, a new breed of organization is on the rise specializing in the use of technology and campaign software. These companies are helping candidates maximize their digital potential and reshaping the way campaigns are run in the process.

One such organization is Tech for Campaigns, founded in February 2017 with the sole purpose of expanding the digital influence of progressive and centrist US political campaigns. At last count, they oversee 9,603 volunteers supporting 133 campaigns across the country. Many of the programmers, software engineers, and data scientists on Tech for Campaigns’ roster spend their working hours at top tier technology companies like Google, Facebook, Stripe, and Slack. These individuals spend their free time building websites, managing social media profiles, and analyzing outreach campaigns for candidates eager for their expertise. However, there is a rich ecosystem of businesses hoping to profit from this growing demand.

Firms like Campaign Solutions, which hosted the first online political fundraising campaign, have been profiting from the digitization of political campaigns since the 1990s. However, the companies currently moving into this new space are selling highly adaptable software in place of consultations. In many cases, these products were initially meant for use in the private sector. For instance, PhoneBurner, based in Laguna Beach, CA, is a primarily sales-centric web platform that allows sales-representatives to organize their call lists more effectively, helping them maximize the number of calls they make in a given work day. PhoneBurner is a natural fit for a campaign call center. It’s no surprise then that it’s started styling itself as “The #1 Dialer for Political Outreach,” promising a 400% boost to supporter engagement. Political campaigns represent a new market for these applications—one to which they can be retailored to turn a profit.

This trend isn’t unique to the United States. Political campaigns around the world know the role digital platforms play in winning elections and see them as the best way to maximize their reach. Capitalizing on this global demand for better, faster, and more fluid campaign management tools, a growing number of organizations have started to simultaneously serve political campaigns in multiple countries. Bangalore-based CallHub is a political phone bank, robocall, peer-to-peer texting, and text-broadcasting platform that is currently used in over 200 countries. CallHub is an effective tool for non-profits promoting and raising funds for issue campaigns, but has also been adopted in France by Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2016 presidential campaign and in Jill Stein’s 2016 US presidential campaign, as well as by Australia’s Greens Party, party leadership races in Canada, and “get out the vote” campaigns across the US. By providing detailed data analytics on messaging services and call campaigns, CallHub’s services allow candidates to effectively tailor their appeals to supporters. These organizations are becoming voter data silos with information on constituencies all around the world. As they proliferate internationally, the services they provide are quickly becoming necessities, as rival candidates begin to compete with one another using the same software.

These platforms are being used by candidates at every level of government. The Ireland-based canvassing platform Ecanvasser is being used by some 2000 campaigns in over 70 countries including Mexico, Austria, Nigeria, Cuba, Ukraine, India and Lebanon. The platform has also been adopted by candidates running for local office in Florida, Maryland, California, and South Carolina among other states. Constrained by limited resources, canvassing software like Ecanvasser is becoming an essential tool for running a successful campaign.

Ecanvasser, like all companies in this space, is capitalizing on a much broader and more troubling societal trend: the normalization of surveillance. The personal data of voters, combined with existing proprietary data, is being compiled, processed, and leveraged on an unprecedented scale. While a byproduct of this is increased voter engagement and more efficient electoral processes, its primary intention has become to influence the decisions of the individual voter. With international organizations now peddling web-based political software to campaigns around the world, compiling and potentially sharing voter data across national borders with interest groups seeking to sway elections, the fairness and legitimacy of those elections comes into question.

In the absence of sufficient data privacy laws there is little to disincentivize political campaigns from using platforms like these, even if they are hosted in a foreign country. It’s hard to predict how these services will develop over time; however, it’s likely that this trend will only accelerate in the future. Candidates will become more technologically savvy with each passing election, as they hone their ability to effectively target voters and broadcast their messages.

In the words of Cambridge Analytica’s Aleksandr Kogan, these companies are operating on the false assumption “that everybody knows, and nobody cares.” But we should care— it’s important that we question the kinds of data these organizations are compiling, what they are choosing to save and what they discard; how voter information is shared across borders, and what role foreign consultants and foreign platforms should play in domestic elections. Answering these questions is essential to developing new electoral norms for our digital age.

Image: National Voter Registration Day

Courtesy of Phil Roeder / Flickr


Ben Ballard is a first-year graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with a focus on International Information & Communication and Human Security. He is currently conducting work in ICT4D, digital governance, cybersecurity, and social network analysis. Follow Ben Ballard on Twitter at @wbaballard.

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