More than 50 national or federal elections were held in 2019 around the world. Digital privacy experts warn that citizens’ personal data is getting more and more important in shifting votes in favor of one politician or another.
Many people still hold on to the idea that they are not important enough to be watched and tracked online. But this should not blind us to the fact that politicians and electioneers are betting big on big data, which includes citizen data. Technology drives our world, and elections are no exception. Yet the new question is: Do we really understand how this paradigm shift influences elections and how we choose our representatives?
Marketing professionals have been collecting data for a long time now and analyzing it to sell services and products. In some sense, politicians are salespeople too, so there’s no surprise that they are taking lessons from the best marketers and the world of tech. In recent years, elections have become data-driven, and this has revolutionized how elections are won. Big and personal data about the electorate makes it easier for candidates to outplay their opponents.
Like any other marketer in the world, politicians have much more knowledge about their constituents than ever before. They know their favorite TV shows, movies, books, where they shop and what they buy, favorite sports, physical activity, and preferred vacation options.
This situation makes a lot of people uncomfortable. No wonder why more and more of us are getting concerned about digital privacy and security. The virtual private network industry can be a perfect example. A few years ago, a VPN was mostly a service for tech-savvy people, but now regular households are equally active buyers. The potential of someone using our data in ways we do not intend is clear — be it marketers, politicians, or cybercriminals.
If you have enough personal data, you can predict almost everything — how a person will behave and even vote. The growing availability of data is accelerating the process. This data usually comes from various social media channels, our browsing habits, shopping history, data leaks, and hacks. All this harvested data can almost certainly predict one's political affiliation.
For politicians and campaigners, this allows targeting the most likely voters instead of a broad range of society. With specific content, messages, and favorable ads, candidates are talking only to the voters who agree with them. Persuading the most likely supporters is less expensive and much faster, but it eliminates healthy political discussion and the need for consensus.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this is that the only job left for politicians is to tell voters what they want to hear — not what’s necessary or what’s true. Seeing voters like consumers works, but it doesn’t bring wise policy outcomes. Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit campaign, proved that data from social media could be easily used to sway elections. However, both instances brought confusion and disorder.
Even though data-driven elections are rather new, they will become even more accurate and sophisticated over time. The biggest threat, though, is that politicians and campaigners are not the only ones who can employ these techniques. They can be used by any third parties, including hostile groups, big corporations, or even foreign governments.
If you see an ad on social media during the next election, it's likely there because your data that you might be easily influenced through this topic or that your vote is of particular value. So be vigilant. And stop sharing that much information about yourself online.