The influence industry in Argentinean Elections: Tracking firms through financial reporting

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In this article, researchers from La Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC) describe their process of using party's financial declarations to investigate private firms that worked with political parties in the 2021 legislative elections in Argentina.

Este estudio de caso también está disponible en español

In 2021, legislative elections were held in Argentina. It is a national election in which each province renewed representatives of the Chamber of Deputies (or lower house) and 8 of the provinces renewed representatives in the Chamber of Senators (or upper house). Much of the electoral campaign took place across both traditional and digital media. The country’s electoral regulations indicate that each political party must submit a campaign report to the national electoral authority, Cámara Nacional Electoral, detailing their expenditures for dissemination and publicity, including the companies that were hired and the types of services they provided. These reports are available on the electoral authority’s official website but only those that correspond to the 2021 election.

Since 2019, the Organization for Civil Rights (ADC) has been developing the PubliElectoral project. This project analyzes campaign spending reports in order to compare the amounts that political parties invested in advertising on social networks with those that were reported in the Facebook Ad Library. In the 2021 edition, we found that the social network accounts created shortly before the election were the ones that spent the most on electoral advertising and these expenses were not declared to the CNE. These accounts were found through investigation and under the category "emerging satellite accounts." The rest of the results of this analysis are available in our report. In our collaboration with the Influence Industry project, we added to these original findings by investigating the companies that participated in the 2021 electoral campaign. We created profiles for 16 companies that provided services to political parties. These companies can now be found in The Explorer. This case study examines these firms as a means of better understanding how candidates use data from citizens to obtain votes through advertising on social networks.

At PubliElectoral, we focus our research on political parties because they are obligated to be transparent about their spending and are inspected by the National Electoral Chamber. All the details of the investigation are available in our reports. However, studying the companies that are behind the electoral campaigns in detail is also necessary in order to achieve increased accountability and transparency. The companies engaged in electoral campaigns also become central actors who use and enable others to use personal data to make decisions and attempt to influence votes.

To carry out this work, we analyzed the campaign reports submitted by the parties of the five Argentinian provinces with the largest number of inhabitants and Internet access: Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, Mendoza, Córdoba and the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires. We searched for the trade names of the companies that appeared on the invoices submitted under the heading "Advertising on social networks" and generated a list of 16 companies.

visual showing the process of gathering information from invoices for the research

The research was a complex process: although the information from the campaign reports is publicly available, the descriptions of expenditures are not standardised. As the PubliElectoral team, we analyzed the details of the item "propaganda in social networks'' because it is the direct objective of our investigation; however, the campaign reports also include the categories “Internet Propaganda," "Advertising on national digital journalistic sites'' and "Advertising on provincial digital journalistic sites.'' This category differentiation does not provide clarity, as the same companies often provide various and different services and only one cost is included in the invoice. In addition, an organized and regular summary of the information is not available: the latest reports available on the website of the electoral authority only answer for the 2021 elections, while the reports of previous years are only partially visible. As we don’t have all the information, it’s not possible to make a comparison to expenditures in other years.

In order to determine what kind of services the companies provided to the candidates in order to categorize them (Intelligence, Influence, Asset or Miscellaneous) it was remarkable to our team that we had to look for the information on the companies’ websites or on LinkedIn, since the campaign reports did not explain in detail what services they had performed or provided. In most cases, the description of the services on the websites is vague and there are no details of data privacy policies. For instance, the companies that promote their service for sending text messages do not detail how they get those phone numbers and how they compose their lists. To determine a specific category, it was necessary to make multiple visits to the websites and search social networks or journalistic notes. This process took a few weeks of work. Of the 16 companies we analyzed, 13 were included in the "Influence" category and 8 in the "Intelligence" category, since the use of advertisements and microtargeting were the most used practices.

Instead of relying only on the official reports, we were able to carry out a complete analysis through our own comparison process, in which we looked at report descriptions, company websites, older versions of those websites using the Wayback Machine tool, their descriptions, and work samples in LinkedIn and social networks. We used these different sources of information to give a more thorough description of the work carried out by these companies, as well as the investment that the candidates made, in terms of spending on social media ads during these campaign periods. Despite the obstacles related to the collection and systematization of the data, our research was not blocked or delayed and we were able to further the work through these mixed sources and our research team's methodical approach to processing the information.

As we found in our report, through this case study we were able to corroborate that microtargeting is the strategy most used by political parties to influence the outcome of elections. Despite this, when listing the 16 companies and the services they provide, we found other new forms of influence that, at the time of the 2021 election, were in the minority, but will probably be used more frequently in the elections of the coming years. The collaboration with Tactical Tech was very fruitful to find new objects of study and meet again with our 2021 research that still has a lot to give.

Download a CSV copy of the company information identified by ADC. Download CSV

Suggested Readings

Explorer Explainer: a case study by the Influence Industry Project

Argentina: Digital Campaigns in the 2015 and 2017 Elections: a report written by Marianela Milanes (ADC) in collaboration with Tactical Tech

Watch the Personal Data: Political Persuasion Visual Gallery: a video by the Data and Politics team at Tactical Tech

About the Authors:

ADC is a civil society organization based in Argentina that, since its foundation in 1995, works to defend and promote civil and human rights in Argentina and Latin America. Find out more about ADC on their website, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

Milena Alvarez has a degree in political science from the University of Buenos Aires, since 2020 she has been working as an analyst of electoral processes in the Latin American region. Her specialty topics are the interrelation between politics and technology, especially in electoral and human rights aspects. Find Milena on LinkedIn at @Milena.Álvarez

Manuela Giménez Bautista works as a Project Assistant at the Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC). Nowadays, her work is focused on the study of online gender based violence. Specifically, she dedicates herself to the analysis of the violence against women in politics that takes place in the digital sphere. Academically she contributes as a scholarship assistant for an investigation and development group about political cultures from the XX century from the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (UNL). Find Manuela on LinkedIn at @Manuela.GiménezBautista

If you want to find out more about the firms that support political parties engage with Google advertising, head over to The Influence Industry Explorer.

The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.

First published: July 14, 2023

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