Our Data. Our Politics.

About This Project

Data & Elections is a Tactical Technology Collective research project on how personal data is being used globally for formal and informal political processes.

Recent developments in digital technologies, together with the collection of personal data, have given rise to a new political modus operandi. Today, political groups around the globe are using tools from modern statistics and psychology to advance their ideologies, to promote their candidates, and to influence voters. Because political entities are amassing some of the most exhaustive databases of personal information on the electorate, they are evolving into intelligence-gathering operations of their own. The data-centric business model that has transformed countless other domains has become an inextricable part of modern-day politicking. We aim to explore what political entities are using personal data, in what capacity, and ultimately what impact these changes have on the dignity of democratic process.

Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion

This recent study co-authored by four business school professors demonstrates that psychologically targeting individuals based on a single Facebook like significantly altered the subjects’ clicks and purchasing patterns. As the four co-authors of this study state, “Our findings suggest that the application of psychological targeting makes it possible to influence the behavior of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological needs of the target audiences.” This research underscores the urgency of understanding how psychologically-informed, corporate advertising is used in political spheres and how it can influence political decision-making.

Hey, Mark Zuckerberg: My Democracy Isn’t Your Laboratory

Hey, Mark Zuckerberg: My Democracy Isn’t Your Laboratory

In this New York Times Op-Ed, the Editor-in-Chief of an independent, Serbian investigative journalism organization reproaches Facebook’s recent decision to exclude posts from certain pages from users’ newsfeeds and criticizes digital media’s reliance on Facebook. Facebook’s ongoing test is currently running in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, Cambodia, and Serbia, where democratic institutions are weak and mainstream media do not cover the issues Dojcinovic’s organization reportedly does. As a result, Dojcinovic argues, Facebook’s decision is undermining efforts to preserve democracy precisely in regions of the world where they are needed the most.

Appeal to Federal Election Commission

Sixteen U.S. representatives write to Steven Walther, the Chairman of the Federal Election Commission for transparency in digital advertising in elections. They write, “Social media platforms offer the ability to target millions of users based upon a wealth of highly-detailed information.”

US government demands details on all visitors to anti-Trump protest website

US government demands details on all visitors to anti-Trump protest website

The Department of Justice in the United States has issued a warrant for 1.3 million IP addresses, which can be mapped to physical addresses, of individuals who visited a Trump inauguration protest website. Julia Carrie Wong and Olivia Solon of The Guardian report that DreamHost, the website’s hosting company, has pushed back against this warrant with help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Trump’s Big-Data Gurus Scout Presidential Candidate in Mexico

Trump’s Big-Data Gurus Scout Presidential Candidate in Mexico

Bloomberg’s Nacha Cattan reports that Cambridge Analytica is looking to the upcoming July 2018 presidential election in Mexico in search of a new candidate to get support. Cattan reports that CA “is hoping to use data mined from Pig.gi (a phone app in Mexico and Colombia that gives 200,000 active users free service in exchange for watching ads, reading stories and taking surveys) to help a candidate in Mexico’s July 2018 presidential election, and several political parties have already expressed interest, according to both companies.”

Voter profiling in the 2017 Kenyan election

Voter profiling in the 2017 Kenyan election

Privacy International’s Clair Lauterbach and Frederike Kaltheuner report on the quiet re-hiring of Cambridge Analytica by incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Jubilee Alliance for the 2017 Kenyan Presidential and Parliamentary Elections. The article goes on to highlight ethical questions and potentially dangerous implications of an internationally renown data analytics company working in a context where mere perceptions of manipulations of elections can have severe consequences.

ABOUT THIS PROJECT

Data & Activism is a Tactical Technology Collective applied research project examining the impact of data collection and profiling on human rights defenders, activists and networks.

Whether a non-governmental organisation or a human rights defender, in today’s society, our data is collected, stored and analysed every step of the way. From visa applications to social media profiles, from attending a conference to meal choices on a flight, sharing a photo from a protest or simply walking past a CCTV camera – we are rendered into data which is quantified, cross referenced and compiled to form profiles about us as individuals and social graphs about us as groups.

Within the blurred lines between corporations and governments; and the elevated threats against the work of human rights defenders in many countries; these profiles take a different dimension beyond corporate interests, and can become at times, the center of the threat model. Under this project we aim to trace how this process happens, raise awareness on its different implications; and – where possible – explore protection strategies and creative responses.

Has Silicon Valley Found A Campaign Niche?

Has Silicon Valley Found A Campaign Niche?

From Campaigns & Elections, this article explores how Venture Capitalists in Silicon Valley regard funding of partisan and non-partisan political campaigning firms. Though some investments have been made into non-partisan firms, partisan campaign tech companies still dominate the political start-up scene.

Trump political arm to GOP: Get in line

Trump political arm to GOP: Get in line

Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reports on a $1M campaign of targeted ads launched by a group closely aligned with the White House. The group, America First, is condemning a Republican Senator who has not expressed support for the GOP’s proposed healthcare reform. The article begs the question of how personal information is used not only for acquiring power but also for maintaining it.

Trump’s Data Firm Snags RNC Tech Guru Darren Bolding

Trump’s Data Firm Snags RNC Tech Guru Darren Bolding

Issie Lapowsky, Wired

This Wired article documents Cambridge Analytica’s hiring of the US Republican National Committee’s former chief technology officer, as well as former Silicon Valley engineer, Darren Bolding following the 2016 US election.

Der aufgemotzte Tür-zu-Tür-Wahlkampf der CDU

Der aufgemotzte Tür-zu-Tür-Wahlkampf der CDU

Reiner Burger and Mona Jaeger, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

The article (in German) highlights the new geo-location based app being used by Germany’s Christian Democratic Party to target voters in the run-up to the federal election 2017.

Social Media and the Elections

Social Media and the Elections

Panagiotis T. Metaxas, Eni Mustafaraj, Science, 26 Oct 2012: Vol. 338, Issue 6106

This article focuses on active manipulation of social media, which is particularly relevant during election campaigns.

The Election Polls That Matter

The Election Polls That Matter

In this op-ed published five days before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, digital campaign strategist Jim Messina writes on the relative merits of Trump and Clinton’s data capabilities and expresses his preference for local polls over national ones, which are purportedly too broad to meaningfully inform campaign strategy.

Political Campaigns and Big Data

Political Campaigns and Big Data

David W. Nickerson and Todd Rogers, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Spring 2014)
This paper describes the utility and evolution of data in political campaigns and how political parties leverage ever-growing volumes of data to create votes.
How (Not) To Predict Elections

How (Not) To Predict Elections

Panagiotis T. Metaxas, Eni Mustafaraj, Dani Gayo-Avello (2011) IEEE Third International Conference on Privacy, Security, Risk and Trust and 2011 IEEE Third International Conference on Social Computing

The authors of this paper aim to test the predictive power of social media metrics against several Senate races of the two recent US Congressional elections and propose a set of standards that any theory aiming to predict elections (or other social events) using social media should follow.

Election Expenses Exposed

Election Expenses Exposed

Led by political correspondent Michael Crick, an investigative team at Channel 4 spearheaded an investigation into campaign finance spending that has prompted the Crown Prosecution Service to consider charging over 30 people, including members of Parliament, and resulted in a fine of £70,000 for the Tory Party.

Data Brokers In An Open Society

Data Brokers In An Open Society

Rieke, Yu, Robinson, and von Hoboken (Upturn Report prepared for the Open Society Foundations)
This report identifies concrete harms and risks presented by data brokers and products they sell, such as how political parties are now targeting their digital outreach based on details of individual behavior.
Blue Feed, Red Feed

Blue Feed, Red Feed

Building on research by Facebook, Jon Keegan and others at the Wall Street Journal built a visualization demonstrating how liberal and conservative information diets on Facebook differ for a variety of hot-button American political issues.

Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook

Facebook researchers Eytan Bakshy, Solomon Messing, and Lada Adamic analyzed how 10 million US-based Facebook users engaged with content in their newsfeed over six months. All users in the study had self-identified their political views, enabling researchers to classify links on the political spectrum (from “very liberal” to “very conservative”) based on which users engaged with what content. This, in turn, allowed researchers to study the political heterogeneity of content consumed by Facebook users.

Eytan Bakshy et al. (2015), Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa1160

Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability

Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability

Federal Trade Commission, May 2014

The report finds that data brokers collect and store billions of data elements covering nearly every U.S. consumer. Just one of the data brokers studied holds information on more than 1.4 billion consumer transactions and 700 billion data elements and another adds more than 3 billion new data points to its database each month. The report proposes measures to rectify the lack of transparency in data broker industry practices.

A History Of Data In American Politics

A History Of Data In American Politics

This piece by Jody Avirgan from FiveThirtyEight and the accompanying two-part podcast series trace the collection and application of data in American political campaigning starting from the 1890s. Contrary to popular belief, the 2008 Obama campaign was not the first to adopt a data-focused campaigning strategy.

The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency

The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency

New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer explains the role of Robert Mercer and the story behind Cambridge Analytica in the context of the 2016 American presidential election. As part of this piece, she interviewed Michal Kosinski, an academic psychologist whose research was adapted by Cambridge Analytica, who told her that “there’s a thin line between convincing people and manipulating them.”

Data – driven campaigning in the 2015 UK  General Election

Data – driven campaigning in the 2015 UK General Election

Anstead, Nick (2017), The International Journal of Press/Politics. ISSN 1940-1612

This article draws on in-depth interviews with political practitioners involved in the use of data for major UK parties and electoral regulators. It explores the perceived importance of data in contemporary British campaigns and looks at data-based campaign techniques being used by UK parties. Furthermore, this study raises questions about the comparative, theoretical, and normative dimensions of data-driven politics.
Biometric Voter Registration System

Biometric Voter Registration System

This resource, published by Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, describes the country’s 2009 experiment with electronic voter registration, later deemed a success. In 2012, the Commission rolled out a biometric voter registration nationwide.