Just over 12 months ago, Cambridge Analytica appeared to turn the world of digital campaigning on its head. A firm that had been on the radar of data and digital campaigning researchers and professionals since 2016 was thrust into public view with the revelation that the company, which had supported Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in psychometrically analysing voters based on their digital footprints, had improperly accessed the personal data of millions of Facebook users. Furthermore, an undercover investigation exposed the highly dubious strategies being touted by its top brass, including CEO Alexander Nix.
But has data-driven electioneering fundamentally changed since the scandal broke? Or is it still business as usual?
Digital campaigning and data operations have shown little sign of falling out of favour with political parties. If anything, the digital arms race between campaigns for who can accumulate the most data on voters, analyse it successfully and turn it around to target voters online has ramped up. In the United States, continual attempts by the Democratic and Republican parties to out-do each other in the data arena have led to efforts to increase the accessibility of the respective party’s data between campaigns and outside support groups, such as super PACs.
Wired has reported on how the Democratic National Committee, for example, recently raised $5 million (€4.5 million) to replace their struggling Vertica data repository with the new Data Warehouse, a Google BigQuery-based data exchange, to rival the Republican’s Data Trust system. On the Republican side, Brad Parscale, who made a name for himself by leading Trump’s campaign, is heading Trump’s 2020 re-election effort. Forbes.com recently reported that Parscale intends to use similar digital tactics in 2020 and has already spent $3.5 million (€3.1 million) on Facebook ads for the campaign, even with the election more than a year away.
While it’s easy to attribute developments across the Atlantic to a form of American exceptionalism, European political parties are, in their own ways, making efforts to give data an increasingly prominent role in their campaigns. In the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections, the ALDE Group of liberal centrists has been working with the internationally active campaigning and canvassing technology vendor, Ecanvasser to better track and respond to voter sentiments and interlink party data with other database systems, such as NationBuilder.
While European parties will need to comply with the EU’s GDPR regulations when handling voter data, it is clear that data-driven campaigning is becoming a feature of European political parties and that “digital campaigning” goes far beyond the targeted social media advertising that tends to dominate the headlines.
Over the past 12 months, it has been hard to avoid the mea culpas echoing from the big tech and social media platforms when it comes to their influence on elections and digital campaigning. Platform bosses have been on (what a cynic might characterise as a begrudging) global apology tour - spearheaded by Mark “apologist-in-chief” Zuckerberg - to address how their systems have failed to adequately address spiralling mis- and disinformation and propaganda being uploaded by national, state-sponsored and automated actors during elections. They have also been pressured to explain their failures to secure user data and the extent to which that data has been leveraged by developers and marketers.
In line with their public attempts to get back onto the straight and narrow, Facebook and Twitter have, after considerable public pressure, implemented versions of ad transparency reports and databases. These are meant to shine a light on which organisations are running election and issue-based ads, how much they spend and what the reach of said ads are among platform users. Google has also launched transparency reports for political ads on their services, but at the time of writing, they only cover the United States and India despite their announcement in late 2018 that they would include an EU-specific election ads transparency report for the 2019 EU Parliament election.
However well-intentioned these moves by big platforms are, significant issues still remain. For example, while political advertisers on Facebook must verify their identity with the platform, ads can still appear to voters as coming from an organisation and its pages. So, while Facebook knows which verified users are running which pages, voters viewing the ads only see the organisation name and thus meaningful transparency is lost in the process. We’ve already seen this tactic at play during the never-ending Brexit saga. On Facebook, a number of what appear to be independent and grassroots “no deal” Brexit campaign organisations have been pushing pro-Leave advertisements. The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office is now investigating the alleged connections between these groups and Sir Lynton Crosby (a veteran political strategist for the Conservative Party and former adviser to Boris Johnson) and his lobbying company CTF Partners.
Not only are political operatives still managing to game the system, the platforms are also failing to recognise that the lines between campaign seasons and off-seasons are rapidly fading. Rather than launching these transparency tools in the run-up and during campaigns, it would be wiser to maintain them indefinitely in order to be in-step with the perpetual digital campaigning that we are seeing in politics today. In certain instances, big platforms have seemingly given up on transparency or reforming their systems altogether, such as when Google decided it could not comply with Canada’s new regulations on digital political advertising and thus banned all political ads on its platform in advance of elections in Canada.
What has happened to Cambridge Analytica?
But what ever happened to the political data firm whose dubious practices made headlines one year ago? While Cambridge Analytica itself went into administration in the fallout of the scandal, many of its key players are still active in the field of personal data and political persuasion. The firm Emerdata remains a shadowy successor to Cambridge Analytica, having been set up by senior figures such as former CEO Alexander Nix and Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer.
Meanwhile, as The Daily Beast reported, there have been complaints by the legal team of David Carroll, a New York-based professor who is in litigation against the remnants of Cambridge Analytica, that administrators Crowe UK LLP are attempting to liquidate Cambridge Analytica before a full investigation has taken place – and that their fees are being paid by Emerdata. Meanwhile, Nix is doing the opposite of an apology tour and is instead heading to Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity as a featured speaker, where he has been invited to take part on a panel moderated by the Financial Times’ US managing editor to explore issues of personal data and political agendas. While this news has not been without controversy even within the advertising industry, it shows that Cambridge Analytica remains topical – even from beyond the grave.
Beyond Facebook and Cambridge Analytica
Ultimately, we can see that one year after what was arguably the biggest citizen data scandal since the Snowden revelations, there is still plenty to do on the issue of how personal data is influencing political campaigns. It is important to go beyond the narrative of a social media platform and a rogue data company and see that both are just the tip of the iceberg of a complex, global political data industry consisting of data brokers, platforms, digital strategists, party operatives and a full host of digital marketing tools and techniques.
Tactical Tech has spent the past two years investigating this industry, its main actors, where they are active and how they use voters’ data to analyse, segment and target voters in order to influence how we vote. For more information, see: https://ourdataourselves.tacticaltech.org/posts/inside-the-influence-industry/.
Gary Wright is a researcher for Tactical Tech's Data and Politics project, looking at the strategic uses of personal data for election campaigns and wider political influence.