|When Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics research team began to investigate how personal and individual data was 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.
With fifteen different political parties represented in the House of Representatives and thirteen in the Senate, the Netherlands – a country of 17.5 million people – is home to a pluralistic political party system. The constitutional monarchy is well-known for espousing liberal social policies. The death penalty has been outlawed since 1870 (with a short exception in the aftermath of World War II), and Dutch women were granted the right to vote in 1919. In 2000, the country legalised prostitution, and the following year, the Netherlands captured international headlines for becoming the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage.
Interestingly, the Netherlands has no specific restrictions on the types of political content that is circulated around election-time. Most analyses suggest that the use of data-intensive campaigning methods is rather limited, though not altogether absent. Through a new act currently being drafted, named "de Wet op de politieke partijen" (The Political Parties Act), the government hopes to shed more light on digital campaigning in the context of Dutch politics.
For this report, Tactical Tech worked with Marjolein van Trigt, a Netherlands-based journalist whose work explores the impacts of technology on society. This overview of the use of data-driven campaign methods in the Netherlands is based on original research and interviews conducted by Van Trigt and details the logics of some of the digital campaigning firms and parties involved in Dutch political campaigning. The full report outlines the Dutch political system, recent scandals in digital campaigning, legal shortcomings of existing Dutch law in the context of online political campaigning, and how political parties in the Netherlands use voters’ data. Perhaps most interestingly, the report describes how digital campaigning is changing – and not changing – during a period of shifting cultural attitudes on the use of personal data in the Netherlands. Below are some key findings in the report, and complete details are available in the full report.
The benefits of data-intensive campaigning are mitigated in the Netherlands by the government's adoption of a relatively hands-off approach to regulating the practice of politics. Still, there are still some legal holes related to campaign finance.
- Unlike countries such as Brazil, India, and the United States, which employ a first-past-the-post electoral system, the Netherlands uses proportional representation. Since each vote under a proportional representational system helps determine the allocation of seats (for example, in Dutch Parliament), key districts do not play an outsized role in determining the fate of an election. This limits the incentive to win over critical, swing voters via data-intensive tactics.
- The regulatory landscape of Dutch elections is limited. As Van Trigt writes, “There is a relative lack of regulation on political advertisements and even on political parties in general, due to the belief that the Government should not interfere with political parties and the general political debate, if it can be avoided.”
- One of the reasons data-rich approaches to politics have not been widely adopted is because Dutch political parties have relatively small budgets. As the prices of these digital services continue to decrease, however, money may not be a barrier in the future.
- The existing laws fall short with respect to campaign finance transparency. Foreign governments could easily transfer money to a Dutch party, and if that party were to spend that money on micro-targeting, it would largely go unnoticed. This is allegedly the case with Thierry Baudet, leader of the right-wing Forum voor Democratie (FvD) party. He is suspected to have close links to the Kremlin. The FvD became the largest party in the 2019 Provincial Council elections after reportedly spending 1.1 million EUR on online advertising, though there is no evidence that Badet was paid directly by Russia even though he mentioned “working his ass off” for a Kremlin associate in a private WhatsApp group.
Screenshot from 'Baudet en het Kremlin', a television documentary by Zembla (BNNVARA). The screenshot shows a conversation in a WhatsApp group in which FvD-leader Baudet writes 'Maybe Kornilov wants to pay some extra (wink)’. Source
The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has been notable not for its legal effects but rather for the way it has shaped awareness and attitudes towards the collection and use of personal data in the Netherlands
- The GDPR has increased politicians’ awareness of online privacy
- As Van Trigt distinguishes, however, GDPR-related awareness of privacy has not necessarily led to fewer data-intensive campaigning methods in the Netherlands; instead, it has simply increased the incentive for politicians to not publicly acknowledge employing such methods. As she writes, “Political parties are more careful about not being associated with messing with personal data (which, it should be noted, is not the same as not making use of microtargeting at all, but rather with making sure that they are not being found out).”
- An investigation by the magazine De Groene Amsterdammer and the radio show Argos found that, in the 2018 municipal elections, a local division of the centrist party D66 worked with a digital advertising firm to target groups including ‘young Morrocan mothers’ and ‘members of the LGBTQ community.’
While the Netherlands does not have a voter file, voter data and services are available commercially
- After elections, district-level voting results are made public, reflecting aggregate voting patterns that marketers can combine with demographic information from the voting district to help future campaigns allocate their resources more effectively.
- Although large data brokers are active in the Netherlands, they have not publicly acknowledged any work with political parties, nor have Dutch parties disclosed any work with local data brokers.
- Some campaigns may have leveraged less formal market solutions. The left-wing GroenLinks party, for instance, apparently paid ‘2 crates of beer and 40 pizzas’ to app programmers to create a canvassing app for volunteers. According to a report by a political scientist from the University of Amsterdam, one GroenLinks campaigner said, “We use the election results per voting location and use that information to establish the GroenLinks mindedness of a neighborhood. Then we can prioritize which addresses to visit and which to ignore.”
- No more than 90,000 Dutch voter’s data were part of the 87-million user Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, but it is likely that “political microtargeting techniques similar to those employed by Cambridge Analytica have been used by almost all political parties in the Netherlands during the municipal elections.”
- Made2Matter, an Austrian marketing organisation, has worked with both the right-wing party Forum voor Democratie and the center-right party Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie. The “brand transformation companion” claims to have “created a proprietary scientifically robust online research tool that measures for the first time quantitatively how people feel and think. EmoLogic™ makes it possible to measure emotions that are mostly in the subconscious and therefore can not be verbalized.”
Made2Matter, an Austrian-based firm, has worked with both VVD, a center-right Dutch political party, and FvD, a right-wing political party. The company claims to measure people’s feelings and thoughts. The home page states, “Our expertise is UNLOCKING HUMAN TRUTH and shape your brands in a bold, different and relevant way. People trust. People buy. People vote.” Source & Source
Politieke Academie, an Amsterdam-based NGO that helps political campaigns leverage data, is featured in the show 'What The Hague' on Dutch public television. (The video is in Dutch, but YouTube allows viewers to auto-translate the dialogue using a combination of closed captioning and settings dialogues.)
- Via Facebook tracking pixels, the right-wing party Forum voor Democratie pays Facebook when users become party members. In violation of Dutch privacy law, “Facebook not only knows if someone visits the FvD website, but also if they become a member of the party,” thus failing to adequately protect information on individuals’ political convictions.
- Frank van Dalen, director of the NGO Politieke Academie, which uses voter data for political applications, has admitted that some of their political clients have expressed interest in purchasing the data of their competitors. This underscores the idea that personal data has become a political asset in the Netherlands.
Manipulative ads in the Netherlands have not been run to suppress the opposition or to sway swing voters, but rather to target and mobilise a party’s own base
- Whilst many micro-targeted political ad campaigns in other countries are aimed at stifling opposition, in the Netherlands, manipulative political tactics are aimed at actors’ own bases, in hopes of galvanising them to vote.One such example is a misleading ad created by Denk, a left-wing party whose base is comprised primarily of immigrants and their children. The ad was designed in the visual style of Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) – a right-wring party – and appears to be created by PVV. The ad’s provocative text, “After March 15 we are going to cleanse the Netherlands” was evidently intended to encourage Denk’s base to vote.
- The NGO Politieke Academie worked on a campaign spearheaded by GeenStijl, a right-wing blog. As part of the effort to spur voter turnout, Politieke Academie created 18 voter profiles from “combining three kind of campaigns (for, against or neutral) with six kinds of political personalities.” The campaign’s volunteers were also each classified into one of these 18 categories. When voter outreach launched, volunteers would selectively canvass those areas whose political profile matched their own. In the words of Frank van Dalen, director of Politieke Academie, “Based on their profiles and our knowledge of voting history in Dutch neighborhoods, we made sure they would end up meeting folks who were more or less like them. It made all the difference in the world.” In other words, data-intensive methods are not just being used to tailor the message being delivered, but they are also being used to inform the choice of messenger.
Full details are available in Marjolein van Trigt's report available here. 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.
Varoon Bashyakarla is a data scientist and researcher at the Tactical Technology Collective. His past statistical undertakings led him to a variety of domains: public health, public safety, sports, finance, and cybersecurity. After working as a data scientist in Silicon Valley, he is now living in Berlin and exploring how personal information is used for political influence.
Thank you to Christy Lange for feedback on this summary and to Theresa Henne for posting this piece online.
Published July 1, 2020.