Data manipulation and the murky world of political advertising

Recent investigative journalism has shone a bright light on the murky world of digital data mining and political advertising. A US-UK company, Cambridge Analytica, with an off-shoot the Canadian firm Aggregate IQ, have been found to have mined huge quantities of personal profiles on Facebook and turned the data into a means for highly personal and psychologically targeted political advertising that some consider could have helped swing elections in marginal constituencies such as the Trump Presidential in 2016. Such is the concern over data manipulation that questions are being asked about the adequacy of the law in the digital age and whether further strengthening of regulators and a catch-up in electoral law are needed on both sides of the Atlantic. Why should political observers be concerned?

The recent rapid growth of social media

The context is the rapid shift towards the use of the internet for political activity. News is rapidly transmitted by social media icons like Twitter and Facebook, and in turn the traditional physical media, the press, has been in decline. However, while this has created a rich diversity in outlets and sources of information, communication and networking, it also seems that digital media has much greater opportunities for the unscrupulous to manipulate opinion. In particular, social media emphasises the extremes at the expense of the moderate, and heightens emotion and reactivity. In an age where belief and emotion trumps reason, this is important, and the rise of populist movements no coincidence.

The rapid growth of “Big Tech” has taken people by surprise. Companies like Facebook, Apple, Google (Alphabet), and Amazon have together gained a high degree of monopoly in the digital field, and thus a massive influence over people’s lives and work, and regulatory law is struggling to catch up. Some say there is a case for regulation of the kind used by anti-trust laws at the turn of the last century in the US to ensure a more competitive environment and protect consumers. Already the EU is introducing the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to regulate the use of data.

Data manipulation and the activities of Cambridge Analytica

What concerns people over Cambridge Analytica is partly the extent of its activities in that it could get hold of so much personal information for political purposes, such as the at-least 50m US Facebook profiles used in the Trump election.

What in particular could the political observer note? Here are a few items:

  • Financing: CA counts among its shareholders significant figures and donors in the UK Conservative Party, including Brexiters
  • It is part-owned by Robert Mercer, who is a big backer and funder for Donald Trump
  • CA claim, according to reports, to have had a decisive influence in marginal situations in both the Trump and Brexit campaigns in 2016
  • The use of CA and linked companies appear to have evaded strict regulations in the UK on campaign spending in the Brexit referendums, there being more links between two of the Brexit campaigns, Vote Leave and Leave.eu, than have been admitted
  • There is some allegation that CA made use of data on Trump’s opponent, Hilary Clinton, in order to discredit her in the eyes of swing voters in the US 2016 campaign, the “crooked Hilary” perception, and that a lot of this data came from Russia and Wikileaks. There is also a view that Russian propaganda was channelled in the campaign. The whole Russian connection is under investigation by the US special prosecutor, Robert Mueller.
  • It operates highly covertly and thus voters will be unaware of how they are targeted and manipulated. Thus laws to protect the right to vote freely are being circumvented, and thus much-cherished and long-fought-for democratic rights are at risk, and also there are privacy and ethical issues too

This is still a controversial area from the political science standpoint, since people debate the extent that political advertising, like other aspects of the media, actually influence voting behaviour, or instead play to and confirm existing positions adopted by people for multiple reasons. (For more on UK voting behaviour, click here.)

What next?

This is clearly a rapidly evolving issue, and closely wrapped up with very controversial political issues and personalities. However, it points up the need for greater transparency and fairness in political campaigning and advertising, and can otherwise further weaken trust in the democratic process. Authoritarians are already undermining this process across the globe, and there are strong forces to resist reform, which makes action all the more important.

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