As we approach the UK election on December 12th, we thought to shed some light on the increasing role that tech is having on global elections. The Cambridge Analytica situation and subsequent press and TV coverage such as Netflix’s ‘The Great Hack’ undoubtedly drew attention to the role of social media and tech platforms in influencing elections, and it is quickly worth recapping how this worked.

The 2016 US election is a prime example. Given that US elections operate on a first past the post system by state, substantial swing states can determine who will occupy one of the most powerful global offices. Although 120m votes were cast in the US, it was effectively 107,000 votes (0.1%) cast in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania that decided the outcome in 2016. On top of that, 6 states, including those above and the influential Florida, were won by margins of less than 2%. In this context, it makes sense for the US political parties to focus campaigning on those voters who are likely to be undecided or susceptible to changing their views in swing states. Identifying these people, and then targeting them withpersonalised advertising to influence them and change their view is likely sounding familiar. It is exactly what commercial advertising through tech platforms such as Facebook enables, and is especially potent when you combine targeted messages with extensive psychological profiling, as was the case with Cambridge Analytica.

There are numerous other global examples where the targeting of swing voters with information which might or might not be factual is likely to have influenced the outcome of elections, and the involvement of Cambridge Analytica in the outcome of the UK EU referendum result remains disputed. What is clear is that the use of tech media platforms to target voters is continuing and gaining traction. This is currently drawing a substantial amount of attention as Facebook is taking the view that it will not stop political advertising, although it does seem to be doing more as criticism by the Trump campaign recently highlighted. Nevertheless, we are still operating in an environment in which increasingly aggressive videos and/or stories can influence swing voters, and where most of us can be unaware of the targeting taking place because we are less likely to be influenced.

If this isn’t how we’d like election campaigns to be run, and ultimately how our next leaders will be decided, we will likely need to see greater oversight and/or regulation of this area. However, for that to happen, the parties who win elections, potentially because of their greater ability to influence them, would be required to rein in their own ability to influence them. Assuming we can move past that apparent conflict of interest, then any changes will still take time to implement – and as we approach elections that could define the outlook for future generations, it may be too late to prevent irreversible outcomes.

We can consequently find ourselves re-asking the question on whether democracy is still the worst form of government, except for all of the others. However, we should possibly not be too downbeat on the future role of tech platforms in elections. If we recognise the internet and social media’s ability to drive group polarisation (the phenomenon where people with two opposing initial viewpoints can interpret the same ambiguous evidence as strengthening their existing viewpoint), we can start to move towards creating greater unity. Taiwan devised a system to enable this in 2014 through focusing users on views where there is common ground, and while it is still relatively early, it has been used to set the agenda for 11 pieces of law and regulation. Perhaps tech developments like this can enable people to positively re-engage with the running of their countries.

To help improve the state of the advertising industry, legislation is evolving to protect consumer data rights (such as GDPR) and deliver content which is most relevant to us. At our recent Tech Demo Day, Tremor demonstrated its leading-edge AI and trained neural networking expertise which enables it to gather substantial volumes of data to build a detailed profile of individuals for their programmatic video marketing campaigns. Similarly, dotdigital’s Engagement Cloud platform uses gathered insight (such as previous order history), to send personalised marketing content, to the right person, across the right channel (e.g. email, SMS, WhatsApp…), at the right time. So whilst it is important to maintain a healthy scepticism of how our data can be used (such as in upcoming global elections), using data in the right way can deliver messages that are increasingly relevant and valuable to us.

Happy Friday