Third parties have been involved in political communication and our election processes for over a century. However, the increasing availability of data-driven processes has been accompanied by a reliance on private firms. Some firms provide expertise in managing and controlling data hosting and analysis technologies while other consultants or agencies advise campaigns on what technologies to use when, and how to use them effectively within their campaigns.
When Tactical Tech started our research on this topic, media coverage only named a handful of companies. We began by combing the existing reporting and the primary sources or self-published information from companies’ websites, social media, and company information platforms such as Crunchbase. We began to document the variety of types of work the organisations did, from companies such as Aristotle, a data broker firm boasting a unique list of detailed data on 175 million American voters, to app builders such as uCampaign and campaign technologists such as Liegey Muller Pons, who were described as "Tinder for elections". Alongside them, we found advisers and strategists such as 270 Strategies, run by a consultant who had successfully worked on the Obama 2012 campaign, and companies like Modak Analytics, an Indian company that combines identities from people’s different accounts for advertisers.
We also discovered that many of these third-party entities worked in multiple countries, such as the data broker Experian or the consultancy BuzzMaker. A few organisations were built on the back of a single exemplary political consultant, such as Jim Messina’s The Messina Group, or Vincent Harris’s Harris Media. Some, such as NationBuilder, were actively non-partisan, but others, such as Blue State Digital, only work for progressive causes.
This was the first evidence we had that the industry using personal data to influence political outcomes was far larger and the practices more widespread than we thought. Some companies actively publicised their work with political groups giving details about which parties their worked with on their websites or the impact they have for voters; for others, public information about their work was very limited with either single page websites with only a contact form, or at times not website at all.
In March 2018, our research took a turn as the industry became both at once more public and yet more opaque. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that personal data from millions of Facebook users was being leveraged to influence electoral outcomes. The media coverage and subsequent legal investigations into both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s role in politics reinforced the importance of investigating data-led companies working with political groups. As the founder of Cambridge Analytica himself asserted, “What we are doing is no different from what the advertising industry at large is doing across the commercial space.” .We wanted to go beyond the story of this one specific scandal and find the wider – and more routine – involvement of these companies in political campaigns.
With news of the scandal so wide-reaching, we managed to secure interviews with some CEOs who were initially keen to show how their companies’ practices were different to the underhanded work of Cambridge Analytica. However, most companies became increasingly more guarded, removing information that exposed their links to political groups from their websites. In order to continue to add to our map of the Influence Industry, we relied on The Wayback Machine to find old versions of websites and saved screenshots from any current websites we did reference, in case the information was taken down.
Through word of mouth, news stories, and links within the websites of the companies, our map of the industry expanded. Keeping track of every company we came across became our priority over profiling every company’s work and background. At this point, our research question shifted: can we create a comprehensive list of companies in the industry?
To begin compiling this list, we added companies from industry sources that had arisen during the first stages of our research, such as the Campaigns and Elections Awards and their political directory. We found others through our partners’ investigative research and case studies about the role of data in elections in countries across the world. These reports exposed not only the operations of large US-based companies in countries such as Brazil and India, but also how companies within those countries can wield different kinds of data-driven influence depending on the level of legal oversight.
The list was not only exponentially growing, but we were also encountering problems relating to how the businesses changed. Some companies shut down, such as Federavox, who responded to our questions by saying that they only operated during an election period. In other cases, we found companies that were subsidiaries or parent companies to others, such as Alchemy Social, who are owned by Experian. Some of these take-overs of smaller companies happened during the course of our research and the changes were so constant that the sense of a vast industry was becoming apparent.
The industry is a living, changing system of businesses that is so diverse and complex, with so many different business models within it, that it may be able to escape accountability. If we limited our focus to one or two companies, others would appear in their place or be acquired by another organisation. Reaching 500 companies, we decided it was time to publish this comprehensive ‘snapshot’ of the industry. While continuing to keep an eye on the new companies constantly appearing on the scene, we have paused updating our long list and are returning to our original questions about this industry – what work do they carry out, who is behind them, what methods do they use and what impact do they have on our politic landscape?
With the forthcoming Influence Industry Explorer we hope to provide a baseline of information on the private companies working in political influence. The research found in the Explorer serves as a baseline for election monitoring or investigations into political processes and industry involvement. The Explorer provides elements of our methodologies, case studies of companies and regions, and original data that aims to encourage connections and investigations to dig deeper into the unknowns of the industry in order to bring more transparency to the influence industry.
Author: Amber Macintyre, 29th August 2022
With support from: Christy Lange