Data enhancement is changing the world. Now, before you assume this is just hyperbole and my opinion is biased then consider this: both the surprise decision that the UK is leaving the European Union and the unexpected election of Donald Trump reportedly owe a great deal to data enhancement. More specifically, sophisticated audience segmentation and profiling techniques that enable the sending of highly targeted communications.
In February 2017, a number of media outlets claimed that Nigel Farage’s Leave.eu campaign and Trump’s presidential campaign team used the services of the same data analytics firm, to influence swing voters with precisely targeted campaigns across social media.
The revelation raised a number of issues, not least that that the Brexit campaign was secretly ‘donated’ the same analytics services that cost Trump’s team $7million, but also that the messages sent were considered “psychological propaganda”, run using unethical methods.
Of course, any inappropriate use of personal data cannot be condoned (in fact, Blue Sheep offer GDPR audits to ensure compliance with forthcoming data protection laws). Nevertheless, it’s still interesting.
The strategy involved harvesting public data from social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, along with survey data and marketing data. Then, using machine learning (artificial intelligence that searches for patterns in data to adjust its future actions), it could establish an enhanced, personality trait-driven profile of citizens. The campaign could then send thousands of different variations of advertisements to these people, tailored depending on what the analytics had learned of their personalities.
However, questionable ethics aside, can these big data methodologies really be credited with having an exceptional influence over the UK referendum and US election? Some reckon there is very little evidence that these techniques could have made as significant an impact as they claim.
Yet this practice should come as little surprise to anyone. Back in 2015, I wrote an article about how Tory strategists were using similar targeting techniques to message voters in key marginal constituencies (rather than blasting out the same message to everyone). And well before last year’s election it’s been known that voter, consumer, geographic data and more has been used to judge the turnout propensity and support level data of ‘high level’ voters to target in influential US swing states.
In the case of Brexit, key Ukip donor and Leave.eu campaign founder Arron Banks has not been shy celebrating the impact this enhanced data has had. In January, Banks, tweeted that since using the analytic firm’s technology, the campaign received “unprecedented levels of engagement,” claiming proudly that “AI won it for Leave”.
Are we overstating the power of big data strategies in politics? Is the propagation of ‘fake news’ and other forms of propaganda just par for the course, no matter what the method? If you agree that big data can be so powerful, is this more a lesson about educating people to apply more critical thinking to the messages they see? I’d be interested to know your thoughts.
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