Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics project is excited to release an updated version of The Influence Industry Long List: 500 companies working with personal data to support political campaigns*.
Technology companies play various roles in political campaigns. Digital campaign consultants can support online communications such as Brad Parscale who developed Donald Trump's social media campaigns in 2016 and 2020. Data brokers can provide political parties with voter data, such as Experian, a company that sold data to political parties in the UK and Brazil. The companies can be involved in more nefarious methods such as uRepresentation who created inauthentic Facebook pages to support political campaigns in various African countries.
The mediating role of data brokers and digital communications consultants in campaigns has made assessing the fairness of political campaigns far more complex. In a fair and just society, political campaigns should distribute information transparently, create space for public debate and be accessible for anyone to partake in. Companies provide tools, tactics and strategies for political candidates which change how they communicate with voters and consequently, the companies have influence over the outcomes that shape the governance of our societies. Despite playing an important role in our political and public processes, the operations of the companies within the influence industry are still opaque.
Three years ago, we began documenting the companies that make up the influence industry. One of the problems with monitoring and managing the effects of the influence industry is that both defining and uncovering whether the companies work with political campaigns is not simple. We used the following criteria to decide if a company would be included in the list:
Despite the difficulty in investigating these companies, their work can have important consequences for political participation. The infamous firm Cambridge Analytica shut down in response to the investigations into how they obtained personal data collected from Facebook to support political parties. The firm was only investigated because of a whistleblower and its association with a controversial EU referendum which was already under scrutiny. However, their work continues with other businesses or partner organisations that have worked for contentious campaigns from Brazil to Kenya. While many of the companies on this long list may not have conducted illegal practices like those of Cambridge Analytica, they are still involved in the open trade, sale, and analysis of personal data on a routine and daily basis.
Without transparent operations, the companies’ claims and their impact on our political processes cannot be easily held to account. Wherever on the spectrum between banal and scandalous, it is important to understand various aspects of how these companies work. For example, there may be effects on global politics and how companies transfer data and tactics across different regions, such as the campaigning firm Harris Media who, according to our research, have worked in the Americas, Europe and Africa. The companies may contribute to polarising politics by taking a partisan stance, such as the consultants Blue State Digital or uCampaign, who work only with progressive or conservative parties respectively. On the other hand, there may be inappropriate exchanges of data and tactics in non-partisan organisations, such as Nationbuilder, who work for Republican and Democratic causes in the US. It is also important to examine how the values of for-profit and private companies affect how companies work with political parties, such as the data broker Experian, who work across many other sectors.
This list is the starting point for a new tool we hope to create that would allow any researcher to easily begin their investigations into data brokers and digital campaign consultants working with political causes. From this sample of 500 companies, not only will we begin to extract important details about these actors work and begin to draw patterns that show important features of the industry, we hope others will too. We chose 500 companies because, while we initially hoped to document almost every company in the industry, we quickly discovered the industry was much larger than we expected and the research process could be an endless activity, in which new companies are constantly appearing or going bust, being bought by other companies, changing their name, and starting up under new leadership. We decided 500 was a good saturation point for the data on the variety and extent of the industry and will provide a snapshot for our initial development of the research tool. These investigations can help demonstrate the values of the industry, and their consequences for political participation.
Author: Amber Macintyre, 8th April 2021, with thanks to the data and politics team for their feedback and continued research
*The various methods of verification used to include a company on the list are not flawless. Please get in touch if you have comments, feedback, or would like to know more at firstname.lastname@example.org
This research is based on our initial research of 300 companies