In the days of old, it was that ‘personal touch’ that would make or break a political campaign. Politicians would spend their time posing for photos, making speeches on construction sites, and cuddling the babies of strangers.
But with the abundance of personal data, ripe for exploitation, no longer do politicians need to rely on getting their faces out there to influence votes.
A bit of healthy persuasion never hurt anyone, but when it occurs at a large scale behind a closed digital curtain, the game can feel unfair. Should laws be introduced to ensure our data is used fairly and transparently in the democratic process?
The ‘new’ politics
Today, the public is confronted with targeted political campaigning on social media, utilising voters’ personal data. Votes can be won online, as much as they can on the campaign trail.
This introduces debates around data privacy, and whether companies and social media platforms can sell or distribute that information to political parties to encourage us to vote for them.
Controversial data use in the past
To highlight the influence of technology on politics, two high profile cases come to mind.
Still unfolding through the Mueller testimony, is the alleged use of social media by Russia to influence the US election in 2016. As detailed in US congressional hearings, Russia allegedly purchased ads to play on racial, political and religious divisions in the US.
In the UK, the referendum in 2016 on leaving the European Union saw Cambridge Analytica, an English political consulting firm, purchase data from Facebook to later use for targeted adverts to promote the leave vote.
How is data collected and used?
Political parties use the electoral register to collect the names and addresses of people who voted in previous elections. This might be why you’ve been receiving text messages from Clive Palmer. From there, additional data (of a more personal nature) can then be collected from third parties, who source from online retailers, research, mailing lists, competitions, loyalty cards, social media platforms and other sources.
Data is analysed to understand how a person will vote, and if it’s worth targeting them to vote for a particular party. The information we share on social media helps advertisers and political parties choose target audiences for specific advertising campaigns. This information includes age, marital status, education, occupation, location, interests and shopping habits.
Facebook, for example, has a custom audience service where advertisers can upload email addresses, phone numbers and user IDs they already hold, into Facebook, which then targets people on the list if the records match. That’s how political ads are served into feeds.
Could fake news influence the 2019 election?
In the 2019 Federal Election campaign, claims have been made of fake news spreading on social media platforms.
In April, Labor asked Facebook to remove posts about a possible policy to introduce a “death tax” on inheritances. To counter this, a task force was set up with teams from Home Affairs, the Department of Finance, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
Facebook announced it would ban foreign adverts during the election campaign and set up a fact-checking team to check the accuracy of information posted on its platform. Twitter introduced new rules for all political ads to be labelled showing who sponsored them.
Another threat is the rise of “information asymmetry” with groups of voters, where messages can be received within “echo chambers” and voters don’t get to hear other sides of the argument.
As technology becomes increasingly capable of mining the public’s personal data, the need for greater protection will only grow stronger. It’s up to us to stay on top of the matter, and fight to maintain our free and untainted democratic process – it’s what makes Australia the lucky country after all.