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Data use in politics raises problems

News, 03 May 2017
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TORONTO: Data is becoming increasingly "political" as digital profiling and targeting grow ever more sophisticated – and as electoral candidates leverage similar analytic tools to product marketing campaigns.

David Carroll, Associate Professor/Media Design at the New School's Parsons School of Design in New York, discussed this subject at the 2017 Global Marketer Week held by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA).

And he suggested the granular profiling enabled by digital behemoths like Facebook and Google, when paired with complex analytics and precise targeting, are extremely powerful tools for politicians and brands alike.

"Data has become political," Carroll said. (For more details, including further indications about the dangers of this trend, read Warc's exclusive report:Wrestling with the dangers of data politicization.)

Expanding on this theme, he argued that the digital analytics systems employed to help promote products raise troubling issues when utilized in the political context.

"One of the things that's become really clear is that the same targeting tools that are used to sell Unilever products are used to target voters and affect the foundations of democracy," Carroll said.

"It relates, also, to the question of fake news, propaganda and bots in the sense that … we realize that the same technologies that are used to market products are used to activate hyper-partisanship."

An illustrative example of data politicization in action, he asserted, comes from Cambridge Analytica – an analytics firm that claims to possess up to 5,000 data points on approximately 220m American adults.

Using over 100 data variables, the company reports, it can model target audiences and predict the behaviors of like-minded individuals.

Carroll requested his own data from Cambridge Analytica, and discovered it had, with a high degree of accuracy, mapped out his likely voting record – as well as identifying the political issues he considered to be the most important.

The company's analytics system was tapped by the "Leave" campaign during the UK's vote on exiting the European Union, and by Donald Trump during the 2016 race for The White House.

While political campaigns – and their marketing equivalents – have both relied on data in the past, the evolving capabilities now available in this space may require greater scrutiny, and giving consumers more control over this information.

"Everything is different after the election in the United States and Brexit," Carroll said. "People are talking about it in ways that people have never talked about voter data before."

Data sourced from WARC

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