It is the undecided voter that politicians wish to influence.


LONDON: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted”, said the 19th century Philadelphia entrepreneur John Wanamaker, “the trouble is I don’t know which half”. Fast forward 96 years and John would have his answer. In this digital age he would be able to accurately and precisely measure the “return on investment” of every dollar spent. Gone are the days when advertisers would try to segment target audiences and place an advertisement hoping someone would purchase a product or be politically influenced. Today’s marketing enables advertisers to identify their targets right down to individual level. Advertising can be personalised and customised, with a message to each specific person, no matter how many people there are. Website pages can be personalised, depending on who’s viewing them.

Political parties have always relied on advertising to spread their message and have not been slow to catch on to modern digital facilities. Let me give you an example. In the 2016 UK referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union (Brexit), the “Vote Leave” camp decided to adopt a clever technique to identify the so-called swing voters who might be influenced to vote “leave”. This technique had been developed by the legendary US investor, Warren Buffet, two years earlier. The Vote Leave version offered £50million (45,717 lakh) to anyone who could predict the outcome of every match in the Euro 2016 football championships. Football is almost a religion to many and Euro 2016 was therefore perfect for Vote Leave’s purposes. Why were they so generous when it was free to enter? The answer is delightfully simple. Each entrant was required to provide their postcode, email address and telephone number and, most importantly, how they intended to vote. This provided Vote Leave with a huge amount of information they could use to target those who might be influenced to vote to leave the EU. The risk of paying out was extremely small as the odds of picking all 51 games randomly were five thousand quintillion (billion billion), which is approximately the odds of guessing the mobile phone numbers of the next two strangers you meet in the street!

In most cases an electorate can be broken down into two simple categories: those who have made up their mind to vote for a particular political party, and those who are undecided. It is this latter, or “soft centre” that politicians wish to influence, as only a few voters often determine the outcome of elections. For example, the result of Brexit showed that if only 600,000 (1.6% of voters) of those who voted to leave had instead voted to stay, the result would have been that the UK remained in the EU. In the US, Trump won the presidency by a mere 40,000 votes in three states. If you have any doubts about the power of data, listen to the words of Cambridge Analytica’s (CA) head of data, Alex Taylor: “When you think about the fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3m votes but won the electoral college vote, that’s down to the data and the research”. CA was believed to be heavily involved in Trump’s election campaign.

Rather than resorting to the Buffet and Vote Leave technique, how much simpler would it be if there was an existing source of accurate information available for politicians to access about the habits of the population in any country, district or even street? Well, there is. We all give it freely to Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media providers whenever we join and use the internet. It’s called Big Data, as the information is held on huge data banks around the world and can be “mined” by companies with access to it, legally or illegally.

Take CA for example. This company, whose headquarters is in London, claims to offer services to businesses and political parties who want to “change audience behaviour”. Translate this for political parties and it reads “get them to vote for us”. Perfect. Shortly after being set up in 2013, CA had a deal with another company, Global Scientific Research owned by a UK-based academic Aleksandre Kogan, to provide them with data he obtained from an app he developed. This data consists of 50 million Facebook profiles, allegedly obtained by harvesting details of Americans who were paid to take personality tests.

Nothing wrong so far, as these freely gave their information for the payment received. But then an allegation was made by a whistle blower, Christopher Wylie, who once worked with CA, that most of the personal information was taken without authorisation as it was information on the friends of the Facebook participants. Wylie then alleged that CA used the information to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box. Kogan has said that he is confident that everything done was legal, adding that he does not believe his research team misused the Facebook permissions and that collaboration ended in 2014. Nevertheless, a furore has erupted at the highest level as illegally acquired data is currently a hot topic in many countries.

The message, however, is absolutely clear. If data is obtained legally, and huge amounts are harvested every day from willing users of the internet, it is of immense value to analytical firms such as CA and can have a profound effect on a country’s electoral process. Money can be spent efficiently in precise targeting to influence voter decisions. This is the way future elections will be won; but is it democracy?

John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.

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