|When Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics research team began to investigate how personal and individual data is being utilised in modern, digitally-enhanced political campaigns, we were quickly struck by the unbalanced coverage, particularly in the media, of the methods and strategies of data acquisition, analysis and utilisation by political campaigns across countries and different political contexts.|
In collaboration with international partners, we produced 14 studies to identify and examine some of the key aspects and trends in the use of data and digital strategies in recent and/or upcoming elections or referendums in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Italy, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Spain – Catalonia, the United Kingdom and the United States. By working with journalists, digital rights advocates, lawyers, academics and data scientists, our multidisciplinary and practitioner-led approach has produced contextual overviews and tangible case studies of how personal and individual data is used by political campaigns in countries across the globe. With this collection of reports, we aim to expand our understanding of these issues beyond the contemporary, global-north focused coverage.
While the world watches to see whether the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro will be elected the next president of Brazil, Tactical Tech took a deeper look into a more systemic problem plaguing Brazilian politics: the thriving trade of public and private data by large data firms. Although much of the reporting about the Brazilian elections so far has focused on fake news – especially via WhatsApp and bots on Twitter, Coding Rights, Tactical Tech’s partner for the Brazilian country report, also delved deep into the data brokering industry, to find out how the larger structures behind the use of data in political campaigns work. Beyond how fake news is spread on social media, the interviews with the digital campaign strategists conducted by Coding Rights showed that the industry involves big telecoms and credit scoring companies making use of all kinds of data, from emails to phone numbers. All this information is available, to be used (and abused) in different ways by political parties, campaign strategists or anyone who can buy personal data.
In 2018, Brazil is facing one of the most intense elections in recent years. After 13 years and four consecutive mandates of the left party, Partido dos Trabalhadores, occupying the presidency (twice by Lula da Silva and twice by Dilma Rousseff), Dilma was impeachment in 2016. Ex-President Lula, who was in first place in the Presidential election polls, was arrested in 2018. Both the impeachment and Lula’s arrest were contested by leftist supporters. Now, during the 2018 presidential elections, Brazil sees the rise of the extreme-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Our Brazil country study shows that digital campaigning in a context with little data protection creates an environment that exacerbates the current situation of rampant social media attacks, fake news and political polarisation.
In 2015, Brazil's Federal Supreme Court (STF) declared corporate donations to electoral campaigns unconstitutional. As a result, the General Elections in October 2018 are the first elections that have forbade presidential campaigns from receiving any sort of financial support from private companies. However, other changes in the law now allow political parties, candidates and coalitions to advertise on blogs, instant messaging websites and similar Internet applications. It also allows "sponsored electoral content boosting," or what is more casually referred as sponsored ads. For the first time, content produced by candidates and their parties can be boosted on social networks that offer these services, including search-engine optimisation of this material.
With the debut of sponsored ads in the 2018 Brazilian elections, the country will perhaps experience the biggest push toward the use of personal voter data. Whereas voters were once primarily influenced by television and web ads, the introduction of content promotion in social networks, ad-targeting practices and the use of personal data for enhancing and directing propaganda online may subject voters to much more targeting and segmentation, yet potentially much less access to information.
Tactical Tech partnered with Coding Rights to investigate the role of data-driven campaigning in Brazil's elections. Coding Rights is a Brazil-based, women-run organisation working since 2015 to expose and redress the power imbalances built into technology and its applications, particularly those which reinforce gender and North/South inequalities. They have in-depth legal expertise, a deep understanding of the changing laws and perform multidisciplinary research to hack public policy in order to reinforce human rights values in the usage of technologies. Coding Rights worked directly with politicians on topics regarding political campaigns and personal data legislation. In this report they interviewed key players in the digital political campaign industry, previously identified in a report published at Oficina Antivigilância called Data exploitation for election means in Brazil: Between political polarization and a fragile data protection to its citizens (ES/PT), including André Torreta from A Ponte Estratégia (Cambridge Analytica's local partner) before and after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
On 14 August, Brazil approved their data protection law, which will go into force in the next 18 months. Because the current president approved the law with vetoes, mostly on the sanction mechanisms for companies who don't respect the new law, it is still unclear whether the rampant data broking for political campaigns will change in the near future. Below is a summary of a few key findings from Coding Rights' report. For more information about how digital campaigning is affecting Brazilian elections, see the full report here.
According to experts in the digital campaigning industry, social media platforms will inevitably play a major role in the 2018 Brazilian elections
In interviews conducted with experts and insiders, Coding Rights discovered a widespread industry of data brokers and advertising agencies whose business models are largely based on a lack of individual privacy
At least two major data firms involved in digital campaigns in Brazil also developed popular mobile apps
|A Ponte Estratégia: Cambridge Analytica's Brazilian partner|
Extract of André Torreta’s presentation at the House of Representatives in Brazil on the use of personal data for political campaigns and opinion persuasion. Source: Camara Legislativa do Brasil
• As part of their report, Coding Rights also interviewed André Torreta, CEO of A Ponte Estratégia, which recently came under scrutiny for being the Brazilian representative of Cambridge Analytica.
• Ponte CA, the partnership between the two companies, was established in February 2018 with the goal of replicating the strategies Cambridge Analytica applied in Donald Trump's presidential campaign. In Torreta's opinion, Ponte CA differentiated itself from other political marketing companies because of the types of solutions they offered: "Cambridge Analytica poses itself as selling argument, we get the appropriate argument by data analysis, but what we sell is data," he told Coding Rights.
• Torreta stated that A Ponte Estratégia has partnerships with data brokers, including Serasa Experian. According to him, the company uses traditional marketing research and opinion polls, along with methodologies like the Big Five and OCEAN models, mixed with traditional sources of information like interviews and personal databases bought from data brokers.
• The result is a micro-targeted campaign strategy across different platforms, including WhatsApp, which includes the acquisition of phone numbers to assemble a database for communication from companies like Vivo (one of the biggest telecom companies in the country).
An introduction to the Influence Industry project can be found at The Influence Industry: The Global Business of Using Your Data in Elections and an introduction to the tools and techniques of the political data industry can be found at Tools of the Influence Industry. Similar, country-specific studies on the uses of personal data in elections can be found here.
This summary was made based on the investigation carried out by Joana Varon and Bruna Martin Santos from Coding Rights.
Raquel Rennó is a researcher from Latin America and Our Data Our Selves project lead at Tactical Technology Collective with a background in opinion polling and marketing research.
Thank you to Christy Lange and Stephanie Hankey for their discerning comments and to Safa Ghnaim for assistance with posting this piece online.
Published October 22, 2018.