In mid-2012, I got an email from the Obama campaign telling me about a friend of mine, also called Matthew, who lived in Florida. The Obama campaign told me that he was likely to vote for the President’s re-election - if he voted. But they had a problem - my friend wasn’t currently registered to vote. The campaign email helpfully provided me - at the click of a button - with an opportunity to tell my friend about how to easily register to vote.
The Obama campaign knew about my friend Matthew because I had logged into a campaign app that shared my Facebook data, and, importantly, the data of my friends, with them. The fact that I’d share my data was right there on the page where I logged in. The Obama campaign, where I was working on digital rapid response, used that data to find tens of thousands of people like me, who had friends not registered to vote, and then used that data to run a huge voter registration effort.
In 2016, the Trump campaign used data differently. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” one Trump campaign official told Bloomberg News just before the election. They - refreshingly honestly, I suppose - told the reporters that they were using data to target African American voters through Facebook advertising with negative messages about Clinton with the goal of reducing voter turnout. We don’t know if the Trump campaign used the specific data Cambridge Analytica surreptitiously acquired to run this kind of voter suppression campaign but their tactics spark questions about how data is used, full stop.
The idea that the Obama and Trump campaigns were doing the same thing is obviously ludicrous, but the sophisticated use of data has gone in a dark direction that should have been anticipated sooner. Some people, like Zeynep Tufekci, saw the way things were going before most other people. But the question now is clear to everyone, what should be done?
First, Facebook, who were asleep at the wheel while this was happening, now say they’re wide awake and ready to act. The fact that organisations (including the Obama campaign) were allowed under the rules to access the data of friends - who never consented to share it - wasn’t right and that was ended a while back. In addition to the actions Facebook say they will now take - an audit of all apps sharing data, better privacy setting, and clear communication about the changes, among other things - they should be transparent about what went wrong. Everyone who was included in Cambridge Analytica model should be informed, and the content promoted through those campaigns posted for all to see.
It is ludicrous that parties are tightly regulated about what they can do with party political broadcasts, but that online space is a free-for-all
Second, parties need to show that they recognise they have a role in all of this. The understandable desire to get an edge on opponents doesn’t drive most of us to unethical behaviour, but good faith isn’t enough of a guarantee. Sam Jeffers, from WhoTargets.Me has had some great proposals for the parties, including agreeing to engage in digital arms talks about untested tactics like AI-driven chat bots, before they are used, and to submit to random drug-testing-style audits of data to proactively show that the data they hold is data they are allowed to have, and that it is being used correctly.
And finally, government needs to act. Campaigns are an essential, empowering part of a healthy democracy, so campaigners shouldn’t be stifled with red tape. But good, clear rules - equally and robustly enforced - can make elections better contests. Regulators are vastly outmatched and unable to act quickly enough to have an impact during campaigns. Legislation cannot keep up with the fast pace of change online. It is ludicrous that parties are tightly regulated about what they can do with party political broadcasts, but that online space is a free-for-all. That benefits those with the most money and the fewest scruples. Regulators should be empowered to require transparency. For example, the Election Commission could ensure that all parties publish the online ads they are posted in real time, along with general information about where those ads are targeted. Transparency will encourage responsibility.
While change is needed, it’s important to not get too carried away with the extent to which data can decide elections. Elections are overwhelmingly decided by deep, fundamental issues, not by who made the smart video or posted the best ad (as much as those of who work on campaigns would like to think otherwise.) Data is important, but it’s not the be all and end all. For a start, it is messy. My friend, Matthew in Florida, who the Obama campaign wanted me to register to vote, is British and not entitled to vote in US elections.
Matthew McGregor is a digital strategist and worked for the Obama campaign in 2012. He advised Labour under Ed Miliband, as well as social democratic parties in Scandinavia and Australia. He currently works for HOPE not hate