Cambridge Analytica: Big Data vs Grassroots Campaigns
The recent Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data breach scandal is, on the face of it, just another example of how our data is being hoarded by tech companies and then being used and abused by unscrupulous businesses to target and manipulate us. However, for those of us working in the political technology space, it is an affront to the work that we are doing in building new forms of credible engagement with voters.
If you were to go to any political conference in the past 10 years you would find people making claims about their campaigns being data-driven, or that they had incredible micro-targeting. The Cambridge Analytica data files used by the Trump campaign in 2016 apparently contained 500 data points on each voter. The reality is these claims are more often than not overblown in order to reflect well on the person making them. In fact, reasonably similar voter targeting could be achieved by anyone with access to Facebook’s or Google’s advertising platforms. The case highlights that the only difference between persuasion campaigns and manipulation campaigns is the intent of those who hold the data. As it is said, “data is the new oil” and whoever controls data will likely become very rich on the back of it.
Political Campaign Technology Trends
It should be said though that there are competing and concurrent trends in political campaigning and these show that new technologies and ways of operating in digital space are at the root of both of these. On the one hand, we have the data-driven campaigns that seek to influence from a distance. These are employed using expensive databases and deployed across entire states and countries. On the other hand, you have the grassroots-driven campaigns that seek to build relationships with individual voters and gather data through a ‘consent and engage’ model. Voters give consent to campaigns that they are happy to engage with and the campaign builds a scalable model from the local level upwards. It is clear that Cambridge Analytica was part of the first trend and took it to a high level. The fact that they got the data illegally and then employed a high degree of manipulation shows how vulnerable the entire political system can be if data-driven campaigns are allowed to flourish unchecked.
Grassroots Political Campaigns
The grassroots trend has many disciples including #theresistance and #bluewave18 but also a huge variety of local politicians, advocacy groups, and community initiatives. It starts with a basic electoral register and builds this database through face-to-face contact that involves gaining consent from the citizen, capturing information, and encouraging engagement. It is the polar opposite of what Cambridge Analytica stand for in the sense that it is credible, scalable and puts the voter first in the political process. When campaigns use voter feedback as the basis for developing campaign promises this puts the representative back into representative democracy and serves as a roadmap for a new type of politics.
Technology can be either the enemy of the people or a way to champion them and Ecanvasser places itself squarely in the grassroots camp that seeks to champion them. Ecanvasser helps campaigns from the local level all the way up to national and even continental levels. What we have seen is that grassroots engagement can scale quickly on the back of existing party or organizational infrastructures. The huge advantage of grassroots engagement with voters is that you are getting the benefit of all the ‘on the ground’ knowledge that is contained in the heads of local memberships. This understanding, from the outset, of what streets and areas are stronghold areas and which should be avoided, takes the place of expensive data modeling. This understanding of what issues are likely to be the most important in a community or the best way to communicate to these people are also critically important. In this way, an organization that connects all its grassroots into one system can become hugely intelligent at the HQ level but also have a granular, local level of knowledge that is crucial for convincing local people to come out and vote for you.
Cambridge Analytica is the bogeyman of international politics at this time but they will be forgotten in the months and years to come. The question is, will the political industry learn the lessons of this data breach and move closer towards the grassroots trend and away from data modeling to convince voters to vote a certain way?
If you are interested in returning to the safe haven of traditional campaigning with a modern twist, why not sign up for a free Ecanvasser trial now?
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