How data shapes political narratives amid the 2024 super-elections

‘Data trap,’ XKCD comics by Randall Munroe, (CC BY-NC 2.5).

Just as ancient rulers gathered information for strategic gains, modern campaigns use vast datasets to target voters and secure victories, emphasizing data’s crucial role. 

The age of data might seem like a modern concept, but the notion of using information for political advantage has a long history. In ancient India, between the 2nd century BCE and the 3rd century CE, the treatise “The Arthashastra” was composed, and is often regarded as a foundational work on statecraft. This text delves deep into the art of governance, political science, and military strategy. It mentions the importance of gathering as much information as possible, primarily through espionage at the time. However, the emphasis on data collection and analysis undoubtedly highlights its enduring power and foreshadows the central role information plays in contemporary political campaigns.

Rediscovered c. 16th-century ‘Arthashastra’ manuscript in Grantha script from the Oriental Research Institute (ORI), found in 1905. Photo by Wikipedia user MaplesyrupSushi, public domain.

The tradition and key principles of the Arthashastra share roots with the much later concept of realpolitik, a European term from the 19th century, as both philosophies prioritize pragmatism and understanding the realities of the political landscape over idealistic notions. In today’s digital age, the essence of the Arthashastra and realpolitik continues to resonate as data has become the lifeblood of many modern political campaigns. 

Beyond micro-targeting for macro-impact

Data-driven campaigning has continued to be widespread. It is often associated with the infamous 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, which involved data manipulation to influence Trump’s presidency and foreign elections in over 200 countries around the world, showcasing how effectively data manipulation can impact people across various countries, age groups, and backgrounds. In recent years, political strategists worldwide have increasingly harnessed data and emerging technologies for their campaigns.

The growing recognition of these new campaign strategies can help us better understand the immense value of data, especially in the context of new communication channels. In public relations (PR), the importance of various social media platforms is particularly significant, as they have the power to drive social change. At the same time, these new channels also bring challenges, such as the rise of “spin tactics” or disinformation. Moreover, the World Economic Forum has identified disinformation as the world’s top risk in the next two years.

The success of campaigns largely depends on the level of trust citizens have in the messages they receive, as persuasive messages hold the power to shape public opinion and electoral outcomes. In that sense, to earn engagement and ultimately trust, particularly in the online sphere, effective government communications in PR are crucial. These strategic communications often mobilize citizens to support specific individuals or measures. In the long term, even the best PR strategy falls short without established trust, making it essential to consider the behavioral psychology of people, along with the various factors that contribute to the complexity of building trust. Simple political “advertising” is no longer sufficient. This is where data becomes an invaluable tool, often regarded as the world’s most valuable resource, and, unlike natural resources, data is  everywhere.

In the European Research Council interview, Rachel Gibson, a leading expert in party politics, says:

It’s a fascinating concept because a data-driven approach essentially involves maintaining an extensive database that offers profound insights into your voters. It goes beyond merely considering their demographic traits; it delves into their preferences, personalities, and even psychological profiles. This methodology creates a highly detailed and nuanced portrayal of your target audience. This data isn’t collected just for informational purposes; it serves as the foundation for making strategic decisions regarding your political campaign. It informs everything from the content of your messages and the intended recipients to the choice of communication channels.

While ethical concerns about privacy and potential voter manipulation frequently accompany data-driven campaigns, they have become increasingly prevalent around the world. Political parties worldwide demonstrate digital proficiency by employing strategies such as micro-targeted advertising, predictive modeling, or integrating AI into their campaigns. Utilizing social media platforms like X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok, these parties show a strong willingness to adopt and exploit new technologies for strategic advantages.

In that sense, Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign in the United States is frequently highlighted as a prime example of data-driven politics, showcasing a significant shift towards data-centric campaign strategies. The campaign used a sophisticated digital strategy to micro-target voters, predict their behavior, and optimize fundraising, ultimately becoming the most successful campaign of all time with over one billion dollars in donations. According to Statsig, social media and online messaging played a central role in the success of Obama’s 2012 campaign.

The approach has gained appeal across different countries in the following years, such as India and Brazil. Narendra Modi’s 2014 and 2019 campaigns in India used data analytics and social media strategies, as noted by The Economic Times: “In the 2014 elections, he rode to power on Big Data and now seeks to transform the country through it.” In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 presidential campaign utilized WhatsApp to spread targeted messages. AccessNow reported that, during a highly charged political debate, there were allegations of misuse of personal data for disinformation campaigns on the platform.

In the current global electoral year, the German far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), provides a controversial example of data-driven campaigning. Despite its frequently criticized extreme views, it managed to become the second most popular party in Germany. This underscores the evolving nature of data-driven campaign tactics in the political landscape as they move away from strict micro-targeting practices and adopt a strategy where they propagate a “universal message.”

As published in a recent PartyParty article: “As newcomers to the political arena, they adopt a strategy that appears to eschew targeting a specific niche of voters. Instead, they propagate a universal message, albeit one tailored to address the segmented concerns of the electorate.” This approach aligns with the core ideas of realpolitik, which emphasizes practical considerations and achieving political power through effective strategies. The article further elaborates that data provides insights into the electorate’s interests and behaviors. 

Consequently, political parties tailor their ad content to offer a persuasive alternative to the established political narratives. Rather than targeting everyone, it is more effective to address a wide range of electoral segments. This strategy can either strengthen the loyalty of current supporters or attract new voters. Alternative for Germany (AfD) used targeted ads to appeal to diverse groups, including both gay and anti-LGBTQ+ voters, as well as some immigrants and those opposed to immigration; this tactic has even begun to draw support from immigrant, LGBTQ+ communities and younger voters who were typically considered as more progressive. 

A report in The Guardian analyzed how this anti-immigrant party managed to attract immigrant voters. The article explains how certain immigrants, seeking integration into German society, detached themselves from their ethnic enclaves, while the party propagated a narrative distinguishing between “good” and “bad” immigrants.

Although these cases mainly illustrate the perils of data-driven campaigning, Kate Dommett, a professor of digital politics and co-author of a new book entitled “Data-Driven Campaigning and Political Parties” argues that data-driven campaigning in political elections is not automatically problematic:

Data-Driven Campaigning is often viewed as a sinister threat to democracy, but data can be used in a range of different ways, which can be more or less problematic. Whilst there have been fears about fine-grained micro-targeting, in practice we’ve mainly seen UK parties target messages at broad groups. What is clear is that data is now a normal part of campaigning, and we should expect parties to use data, analytics, and technology to optimize their campaigns in 2024.

‘Flawed data,’ XKCD comics by Randall Munroe, (CC BY-NC 2.5).

Taking action

While the influence of information, from ancient governance principles to modern digital strategies, is undeniable, it also carries ethical responsibilities, as evidenced by past controversies and ongoing discussions surrounding data manipulation. Social media platforms should be held responsible, and new legislation is needed to compel major tech companies to ensure transparency in algorithms and political ad targeting. Moreover, fostering awareness of these issues, addressing echo chambers, developing critical thinking skills, and promoting media and digital literacy education are equally essential.

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