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The Role of Data in Elections

  • Rishab Krishanmurthy
  • Sep 28, 2020
The Role of Data in Elections title banner

Elections. If you are in a democracy, then then this word is quite a familiar term. It is a recurring event, occurring once every 4-5 years. Politicians are in a frenzy at this time. The campaign trail leading up to the election can get heated, and we see more elections that come down to the wire.


Politicians and Political Strategists are quite aware of this. Since this is an election and a loss could mean removal from office, they have now started to use any means necessary to ensure that the swing is in their favor. 


This is where Data enters. Personal data is any information that relates to an identified or identifiable living individual. Different pieces of information, which, when collected, can lead to the identification of a particular person.


What role does data play in elections?


Elections are about more than voting and the entire election cycle is increasingly data-dependent. Voter registration, voter authentication, actual voting and result transmission all involve the collection of at least some personal data. 


Modern campaigns develop databases of detailed information about citizens to inform electoral strategy and to guide tactical efforts. Campaign data analysts develop models using this information to produce individual-level predictions about the likelihood of people performing certain political behaviors, of supporting candidates and issues, and of changing their support conditional on being targeted with specific campaign interventions. 


Campaigns then take this information to drive them, from deciding where to hold rallies, which campaign messages to focus on in which area, and how to target supporters, undecided voters, and non-supporters, including with ads on social media. 


This information is of little consequence if we do not understand how exactly this works.



How is data collected, and how do Strategists use this data?


To start, we must first understand the world where this data resides. Where do strategists get this data?


Well, it is not some deep-state conspiracy or something nefarious. It is something all of us use every day. Social Media.


Data from 2015 Shows that the amount of data posted on Facebook was about 250 Million Posts per hour, while Instagram reported numbers amounting to 100 million likes per hour.


Note that this is in 2015,  before the Great Millennial Migration to Instagram(which occurred in late-2017). 


In 2020, the amount of posts per hour is significantly higher. YouTube has reported that the number of hours of video uploaded by YouTube users per minute is 500 hours adding up to 82 Years of Video per day and 30,000 Years of video per year.


Instagram and Facebook report similar magnitudes of this data. What this means is that there is an abundance of data ranging from your food tastes to your political opinions. And with the right tools or sufficient enough access, this data is readily available to the Strategists to use.



The Cambridge Analytica Case:


A data scientist at Cambridge University, Aleksandr Kogan, was hired by Cambridge Analytica to develop an app called "This Is Your Digital Life" (sometimes stylized as "thisisyourdigitallife") in 2014. He provided the app to Cambridge Analytica, who arranged an informed consent process for research in which several hundred thousand Facebook users would agree to complete a survey for payment that was only for academic purposes. If the term informed consent is unfamiliar, you have come across it somewhere else.


Ever hear of the Terms and Conditions or Privacy Policy?


You know, the thing that we all blindly agree to when setting up an account for literally anything. Those agreements may have clauses buried underneath all the legal jargon that allow them to sell your data, and that is what happened in the case of Cambridge Analytica.


Facebook allowed this app not only to collect personal information from survey respondents but also to their Facebook friends. In this way, Cambridge Analytica acquired data from millions of Facebook users.


Wired, The New York Times, and The Observer reported that the data-set had included information on 50 million Facebook users. While Cambridge Analytica claimed it had only collected 30 million Facebook user profiles, Facebook later confirmed that it had data on potentially over 87 million users.


Now that we have established that personal data is readily available, we'll now examine how they use it to make targeted "nudges" to make people vote a certain way. It relies on techniques of Psychology and Behavioural economics, which are outside the scope of this article.



How is the data used?

The image showcases the process by which data is used by campaigns

How campaigns use data to swing votes in their favor 


Step 1- Research and establish focus groups


The first step: Know thy enemy.

To influence people, you need to know who they are, what they are like, their preferences, and their mannerisms. The obvious problem with this is that populations are usually huge. It is impossible to test each one of them. So what we do is establish something called a focus group.


A focus group is a small, but demographically diverse group of people and whose reactions are studied prominently in market research or political analysis in guided or open discussions about a new product or something else to determine how a larger population will react.


The focus group will be the first one exposed to advertisements, speeches, and policy positions. As they are demographically diverse, it is reasonable to assume that their response will be reflective of the actual population. Campaigns also run multiple, multiple focus groups depending on the state and the demographic they want to influence. Running these groups is the first step.


Step 2- Testing


Run the adverts, policies, and whatever else you wish to gauge the response to on the focus group. At this point, you need to map the effectiveness of the method to various groups.


For accurate results, multiple focus groups of different demographics get tested. The results get compiled and get used in the next step. 


Step 3- Gauge and Map


Step 3 is the most important. 


After carrying out the test, we need to gauge the response. That is, we need to measure how likely the focus group is to vote for the candidate after seeing the ad or after hearing the speech/policy position.


Once the gauging of these behaviors and preferences is complete, we need to map them. If the mapping is incorrect, the campaign strategy will be ineffective.


Here the massive social media data set is used. Analysis of the focus groups' social media data will reveal what kind of people they are. By figuring out what type of person responds positively to an ad, speech, or policy position, strategists can then extend these preferences to similar types of people.


So at the end of this step, we will have a data set of people and their political preferences, which helps us understand what to do in the next step.


Step 4- Apply  


Using the gathered data, strategists now can develop targeted measures which slowly but surely nudge the population exposed to vote for the candidate.


Step 5- Update


Updating the preference data is the final step. Once the campaign has implemented the strategy, it needs to get feedback from the population, in the form of opinion polls, surveys, and any other mode of mass polling.


From these responses, we can measure the overall effectiveness of the strategy and if there are any changes required. If the responses are negative, then the strategy must adapt and change. It needs to redo steps 1-4, with new focus groups and a new strategy to implement.


The above steps are how campaigns influence people to vote in certain ways. The use of a combination of Big Data Analytics, Behavioural Economics, and Psychology enables campaigns to predict how people vote and how to influence them.



What is the problem?


Our democratic institutions are under threat today. The laying of groundwork to destabilize these institutions is already underway. Private, political, and state actors are creating an environment that is rife for the manipulation of democratic outcomes and the loss of confidence in democratic institutions and processes.


By amassing and processing vast amounts of data, individuals are profiled based on their stated or inferred political views, preferences, and characteristics. These profiles target individuals with news, disinformation, political messages, and many other forms of content aimed at influencing and potentially manipulating their views, which hinders their freedom of choice and right to vote born out of that freedom. 



What is the solution?


This campaign environment presents novel challenges due to the scale and range of data available together with the multiplicity, complexity, and speed of profiling and targeting techniques. 


Existing legal frameworks designed to curtail this exploitation often fall short, either in substance or enforcement. We need laws or regulations enforced, changes in technologies and industry behavior, and expert allies to understand the role data exploitation plays in heightening this threat.


Next, we need robust fact-checking mechanisms to verify the validity of information, to combat the spread of misinformation. Most media sites have some form of this, but it is nowhere near adequate or proportional to the data uploaded on those sites. Some sites also allow for community-based moderation, which allows for online communities to moderate the posted content.


The final solution is to educate the public to identify possible sources of fake news to help them safeguard against misinformation.


With these three solutions, we could minimize the influence of misinformation in our elections.





Data plays a significant role in our elections. The role can either be positive or negative. But that solely depends on how our laws and our society adapt to the new-age campaign cycle. If we do not, the effects could be quite harmful in the long run. 

Artificial Intelligence and Data science will play an important role in society as it progresses. You can check out our articles about the role it plays in Law and Politics.

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