In order to help address this digital knowledge divide, Tactical Tech's Data & Politics is launching The Influence Industry Project: an intersection of research, learning and exploration of the Influence Industry of professional digital political campaigners, the data-driven tools in its arsenal and the global contexts where it operates. The project provides long-form resources and structured learning modules addressing fundamental questions about the influence industry and soon will also provide a window to explore the industry using a combination of verified data sources and research.
In 2008, Barack Obama's Presidential campaign revolutionised grassroots campaigning using the power of digital social media tools for supporter engagement. In 2016, Donald Trump's Presidential campaign made use of a host of new data-driven campaign tactics and was highly active on Facebook in particular. That same year, across the Atlantic, the ultimately successful Vote Leave campaign was building a new data-driven voter analytics system to bolster the Leave campaign during the Brexit Referendum. In 2018, Cambridge Analytica was exposed for having collected millions of Facebook users' data for political ad targeting.
The role of social media, data and digital influence campaigns in election processes across the world is under scrutiny by regulators, civil society organisations, election monitors and tech companies themselves. During this time, Tactical Tech's Data & Politics research team and its international partners have been tracking commonly used digital and data-driven tools within digital election campaigning and how these are deployed in different political contexts.
Despite the topic of digital political campaigning being in the public eye, the discussion and questions remain largely surface-level. The conversations revolve around the role of Facebook and focus on digital political ads as a product. The conversation needs to become more nuanced and broader: what does it mean for political cohesion and democratic principles that an industry with countless actors specialising in adapting the tools of digital marketing, commerce, fundraising and brand-building to political communication are mediating political campaigns, largely without transparency?
Understanding the details of digital tools, data analytics and online digital strategies for voter segmentation, targeting and outreach is essential in order to understand how current democratic processes work. Expanding insights into the influence industry and how their practices are applied outside of a few cases covered by the media which are mostly in the US or Europe is essential to get a fuller grasp of how they operate and what the future might hold.