Democracy Disrupted? The Use of Data Analytics in Modern Political Campaigns

Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner, United Kingdom

Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of any democracy. But rapid developments in technology, opaque online political advertising, and our increasing reliance on social media challenge these principles. The public is increasingly concerned about echo chambers, misinformation and big data politics.

My recent investigation into the use of data analytics in political campaigns aimed to ‘draw back the curtain’ on the use of personal data in modern political campaigns. The use of online platforms over the last decade has inevitably led to data-driven political campaigns as political parties seek to take advantage of sophisticated marketing techniques to engage with voters.

This brings a number of advantages. Social media provides unprecedented opportunities to engage hard-toreach groups in the democratic process through issues of particular importance to them. But if left unchecked these new techniques leave voters on the back foot and in the dark about how their personal data is being used to micro-target them with political messages. Voters can’t challenge a view if they don’t know its provenance.

The catalyst for the Information Commissioner’s Office investigation were the links between Cambridge Analytica, Aggregate IQ and allegations that data obtained from tens of millions of million Facebook users may have been misused in the UK EU membership referendum and used to target voters during the 2016 US Presidential Election. Facebook is used by millions of people each day to keep in touch with family and friends. The fact that information shared on the platform could then be used to micro-target them for political purposes without their knowledge or consent has caused deep public concern. My office has signalled its intention to fine Facebook for two breaches of data protection law. We have also progressed civil and criminal enforcement action against a number of parties, including Cambridge Analytica, and data brokers.

But as a data protection authority my long-term goal is to maintain public trust and confidence in how data is used, including in the democratic process. To that end, we have issued a policy report (4) containing recommendations for political parties, online platforms, data companies.

These recommendations are aimed at the UK Government and Parliament but the issues are equally relevant to other jurisdictions. We are at a crossroads; citizens need greater control about how their data is used, genuine transparency about the use of data analytics, and robust enforcement of their rights. Without an informed debate our deeply-held democratic principles will be permanently undermined.