How Much of a Role Does Big Data Play in Politics in America and Europe?

“Microtargeting”-anyone working in digital marketing over the last five years is eminently familiar with the term. It’s been the pillar supporting a wide range of successful businesses, both online and off. Firms like Applecart, Civis Analytics, 0ptimus Consulting, i-360 offer political and commercial data analytics services  that generate actionable insights. 

Those insights can help business-to-business marketing – think software companies identifying potential leads based on their demographic data, web search history, and browsing activity – as well as online retailers -targeting ads on Google and social media platforms based on past shopping behavior, and interests and interactions gleaned from demographic and consumer data.

Who Has My Data?

The question of what happens to your data after it’s been collected has been a sticking point for privacy advocates. In the business world and the world of microtargeting for ecommerce, companies warehouse and analyze both the data they are able to generate and collect on their website or in their app, and also seek out  third-party data wherever available. 

Political campaigns are little different here. In a 2016 article published on Forbes, data analyst Meta S. Brown details a workflow among political campaigns that would ring true to any digital marketer, differing only in the starting point.

Campaigns begin their data mining with a traditional voter database. As Brown explains, a voter database begins with the basic details of a voter’s registration and voting records — not how they voted, only whether and when they voted. Campaigns can receive such databases from either the Republican or Democratic parties; those national party portals typically include a host of additional information, as well, which can include:

  • Demographics
  • Employment data and other economic indicators
  • Political and charitable giving history

This is hardly an exhaustive list. A robust voter database also includes information that helps the campaign know more about their potential supporters — anything and everything ranging from magazine subscriptions, volunteerism, membership status in various organizations; in short, anything that helps them better understand what arguments and messages might more strongly resonate with a certain voter or group of voters. From there, it’s only a matter of leveraging very sophisticated marketing platforms built into social media networks such as Facebook to show that message to those users, as frequently and in as many venues as possible.  The process is similar to marketing other goods using social media. As Matt Kalmans, co-CEO at Applecart, put in in an interview with UPenn’s Omnia Magazine:

“If a person takes a vacation on a cruise ship, you can bet that they come home and talk to their friends about it—and those friends are now the ideal target for the cruise ship company to sell to”.

How Effective is Big Data At Influencing Political Opinions?

Big data is a convenient bug-a-boo but even the most skilled practitioner would stress that no amount of data can create an audience for a particular message where previously none existed. 

Where big data can be most impactful is in describing political constituencies. As campaigns build out ever more robust voter databases, they are able to mine that information for actionable insights and to create messaging that elicits a reaction. 

The U.S. has seen Big Data leveraged, to differing degrees and extents, in every election since at least former President Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination; and, certainly, Obama and his team were convinced of Big Data’s centrality in their victory, as they increased the size of their digital operations team five-fold ahead of their 2012 victory over Mitt Romney.

The U.S., of course, is not the only country to see Big Data applied in its political and electoral systems. The efforts of Liegey Muller Pons (LMP) in support of Emmanuel Macron and his nascent political party, La Republique en marche! (REM), were motivated by a respect for the campaign that Obama had built.

Are There Restrictions on the Use of Big Data?

Since 2016, the landscape has continued to evolve, in Europe more than anywhere else. Where the U.S. has either struggled to address or refused to identify as an issue the effect of Big Data to shape public sentiment, the European Union took somewhat more definite and proactive steps to protect individual’s private data across the digital ecosystem.

In April 2016, the European Parliament passed into EU law the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), with the legislation having come into effect as of May 2018. Heralded at the time as the world’s strongest data protection rules, GDPR was meant to modernize laws that protect our personal information while standardizing the ‘rules of the road’ across much of Europe. 

In comparison to the U.S.,the GDPR represents an ambitious first step toward greater privacy for the people. The U.S., by contrast, has no single, comprehensive law to regulate data privacy concerns. Twitter briefly won plaudits for its stated goal of banning political ads on the micro-blogging platform, but CEO Jack Dorsey’s position already has encountered significant push-back and difficulties with implementation as the ideal meets reality and bold positions have to be codified and explained, justified and defended. Facebook, on the other hand, despite being confronted with multiple examples in which political entities have used the platform’s marketing tools to spread misinformation, has openly stated they have no intention to ban political ads.