As The World Goes Online, Politics is There to Meet Us

As the world goes online for work, fitness and socialising, it is no surprise that politics is moving online too. Through the use of established data-driven campaigning techniques, politicians are hoping to adapt and thrive like the rest of us in this situation. Campaigns and Elections, a self described “how-to” journal of politics, are hosting webinars such as “Campaigning Amid COVID-19: How Democratic Fundraising Can Adapt.” The data-driven political campaigning consultancy Blue State Digital are publishing resources under the headline “How to Talk About the Coronavirus”. Other companies are looking to join in the positive community spirit, such as NationBuilder, a customer database software company, who are offering their services for free for any civil society group providing emergency or relief work at the moment.

Whilst political campaigners who already have experience using technology are going to double down on their data-driven tactics, those without that expertise are going to be doing some quick catching up.

Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics Team have identified five digital campaigning trends that we’re likely to see more of in the coming weeks and months.

(1) Adapting targeted messages. Data-driven methods to personalise and target political messages are already common practice in any political campaign. These same techniques will now be used to calibrate the message based on individual’s different responses to the coronavirus pandemic – from working from home to increased anxiety about public health.

One of the most common methods used to test such messages is A/B testing, which we have shown to be a standard tactic in political campaigns across the world. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 used up to 50,000 variants of adverts to test which material was landing better than others. Now that online messaging will be one of the primary channels for reaching potential voters, we can imagine A/B testing will be used to understand what language, images and content are most persuasive during various stages of lock-down and different emotional responses to the crisis. For instance, did an image of community response or a strong leader get more engagement? Did language of military action to handle the coronavirus pandemic or of increasing welfare support from the government get higher engagement from online audiences?

Political campaigners may also make increased use of digital listening, a technique campaigns already use to track the content and sentiment of what people are talking about on online platforms such as Twitter and public Facebook pages. Just as young people writing about politics in Taiwan did not know that their online comments would lead to Dr. Ko, a Mayoral candidate, trying out basketball and street dancing to gain their support, now our tweets and posts about coronavirus could be collected for political purposes. Have you been tweeting about your success with new online yoga classes and healthy eating? You could be hearing more about a political party’s health policies.

(2) Investment in underused techniques. As people stay at home more and face to face campaigning becomes less possible, political campaigns may also turn to established but underused digital targeting techniques that can reach people directly in their homes. For example, companies have boasted of services to deliver political ads to specific voters through Addressable TV, which relies on internet-connected TVs to show individualised adverts to viewers based on profiles of their watching habits, combined with other profiles built from consumer data or voter files.

Similarly, face-to-face conversations that might have been part of door-to-door canvassing efforts may now be replaced with chatbots. We can expect that this digital technology may receive investment to improve how realistic a conversation feels, which will rely on collecting vast amounts of personal data based on individuals’ interactions with the bots.

(3) Increased risk of breaches, leaks and hacks. The shift to online and digital campaign techniques will encourage an over reliance on technologies that often do not live up to their professed effectiveness, such as the smartphone app that failed during the count of votes for a Democratic Candidate in the United States. In particular, some campaigners have never had the money or skills to invest in advanced technology. For example, in the UK the larger parties have access to advanced customer relationship management databases, but some local politicians are using Excel spreadsheets that they circulate via email. Not only does this method take much more time, it also carries a lot more risk for security breaches. Breaches, leaks and hacks are not uncommon, and now campaigners are suddenly trying to organise online, we can expect an increase in leaks and hacks of databases holding important personal information. The data in these files and apps can include people’s addresses, their past or expected voting habits and any affiliations they have with political groups – all valuable information to any political candidate.

(4) Heavier reliance on digital consultants. Whether they are already tech-savvy or suddenly having to engage with tech, most political campaigners will rely on external companies and consultants to help deliver their data-driven campaigns. Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team have already documented 329 such companies, and we are continuing to find more through our research. As many of the campaigns’ expected voting models and targeting tactics will have to be completely revised, political campaigners will rely more heavily on these companies to mediate between the political party and citizens. These companies will become even more influential to the ways global politics is carried out, and the ways in which politicians and citizens interact will become more heavily influenced by a group of for-profit, tech companies, mostly based in the US.

(5) New and unexpected methods worldwide. Finally, we need to pay attention to the global development of data-driven campaigns. While many of the aforementioned companies first established themselves in the US, some have gone on to work for politicians in other countries. Just one example is Jeremy Bird, the founder of the digital campaigning consultancy 270 Strategies, who began working on the Obama 2008 campaign. He then went on to work for V15, an independent Israeli organisation that campaigns to replace Israel's current government. Data-driven campaign techniques can also vary widely per region. For example, the use of WhatsApp for political campaigns in Malaysia, Brazil and India, particularly connected with spreading misinformation, is far more prevalent than its use for political purposes in Europe and the US. The lack of global oversight and regulation on digital campaigning could see more of these new unexpected channels of political influence spring up and adapt in different regions around the world.

With more and more people heading online, and the media’s attention and political resources invested in the coronavirus pandemic, there will be those ready to take advantage of under-regulated data-driven technologies to attempt to make political gains. Political groups will have more access to, and more use for, our personal data, now being generated faster than ever before.

Amber Macintyre is a researcher in campaigning and technology.

Thank you to the extended Data and Politics team for their ideas and feedback.

Published 3rd April 2020