Module II > Section IV

Data as Political Influence

From print to digital, platforms to direct messaging apps, advertising to 'organise reach' - there are many ways in which data-driven technologies have allowed for targeting individuals with content with the goal to influence their knowledge, behaviours or beliefs. While there is debate about whether these tools work, a lot of investment is placed on targeting the right information to the right audience at the right time so as to benefit the political group.

The use of targeted messages is a strategy that uses data to segment individuals into small groups for content targeting. The content can be in any form of messaging that aims to influence wider opinion, raise donations, help get out the vote, or more maliciously to spread confusion or suppress votes within certain targeted populations. Several different techniques are often used in combination and have the ability to make advertisements feel as if they are speaking directly to an individual.

Targeted ads can be delivered to individuals based on information about daily habits, personality traits, assumptions about what type of person you are, where you are physically at a given moment, or what you are searching for online or watching on television.

Through these influence-based technologies, users are shown advertisements and content that will directly appeal to them as the content is based on their collected preferences, as shown in data as political intelligence. While there is debate as to whether the impact of the adverts is successful, political groups invest money and time into data-driven contact with voters. In elections, for example, a lot of messaging is honed to convince the undecided or those who are less inclined but have the potential to vote.


Geotargeting: The practice of using your location information – anything from the city you live in to exact GPS coordinates – to target you with particular ads or messages.

Geofencing: creating a virtual perimeter around a point of interest to promote a message only to individuals inside that area.

IP targeting: gleaning location-based information from IP addresses and targeting messages based on on those inferences.

Mobile and property geotargeting: targeting political messages to less granular geographic segments or aggregations, such as postal codes via the post or mobile phones

In practice

In Guyana, the US-base ad tech company El Toro helped lead the opposition candidate, David Granger, to victory in 2015 with the use of their IP targeting service. El Toro mapped users' IP addresses to their home addresses, enabling Granger's campaign to send personalised ads to single households and devices, even when they left their homes or offices. El Toro claims to have used their IP targeting technology in over 2,000 elections worldwide and to be able to target voters bases on their physical location at any point in the previous six months.

In the US, political campaigners and voter-registration groups have used geotargeting tools to track individuals attending political protests in order to reach out to them with targeted political communications.

Search Result Influence

Search Result Influence: The ability to influence search results by placing ads and sponsored content that are related to the original search terms along with the ability to influence the search results.

Google Search and YouTube are the main sources of information online for many users and are heavily relied upon for way-finding, learning and fact-checking.

When using a search engine, there are two types of search results: ‘organic’ which are controlled by the algorithm of the search engine, and ‘paid’ which are normally placed through paid advertisements. Both the organic and paid search results appear together, with a small ‘ad’ sign to indicate which ones have been paid for.

The apparent neutrality of Google Search in particular - with users seeing it as mainly a reference and discovery tool - makes it extremely attractive to political campaigners who want to spread information.

Organic search results cannot be purchased, though they can be influenced by Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) with varying degrees of success. SEO involves a series of measures to raise a site in search rankings based on assumptions about the logic of the search engine’s algorithm. SEO is common practice amongst most website developers, including political sites, and there are a wide range of services available to help parties maximise results.

Paid search results, such as Google Ads, are personalised results based on the data that the platform collects about you, including your past search history, recent locations you’ve visited, and in the case of Google Search, your activities with other Google products, like the YouTube videos watched.

Political campaigns buy Google Ads through an auction-based system, placing bids that respond to words you use in your search. These are then displayed and ranked based on how much the advertiser is willing to pay and an estimate of how relevant the ad is to the search. Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) researchers concluded that 'Google's search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more - up to 80 percent in some demographic groups - with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated'.

In practice

In the 2017 Kenyan presidential election, Kenyans reportedly saw ads on Google's Search page that cast the opposition candidate Raila Odinga in a negative light. The adverts returned results such as '12 reasons never to trust NASA' when visitors searched the word 'scandal', and screenshots were extensively shared on private messaging apps that showed that when the search term 'Unga' (maize flour) was used, the first result promoted a news-type article claiming that Kenyatta had pushed down the prices, which at the time was a hotly debated issue.

Google Search result image showing targeted political adMobile phone screenshot obtained from research with Kenyan country partner in the run-up tothe 2017 Kenyan general election, Source:Kenya: Data and Digital Election Campaigning

See for yourself

Google's Transparency Report political ad library can be used to check political ads that you may have seen, filtered by a specific date range, the amount spent on the ad's campaign, and media type (image, video, text). This feature is only available in some countries. Search results can also be sorted by 'most recently launched', 'spend---high to low' or 'views---high to low'.

Addressable TV

Addressable TV: A method that allows ads to be delivered directly to specific households instead of across wide demographics like whole cities or regions, as with traditional TV advertising.

Addressable TV delivers content over the internet from a provider to a connected device such as a Smart TV or an Xbox. Personal, demographic, geographic and behavioural data is aggregated and analysed to evaluate whether you are a suitable target for a particular political advertisement. When used in politics, it enables political campaigners to target advertisements to TVs with the same precision as those delivered over the internet.

In practice

In 2014, D2 Media Sales became the "largest household addressable TV advertising platform" in the US as a result of a joint venture between satellite networks DISH and DirecTV. D2 Media's advertising platform delivers addressable ads to nearly 22 million households. The company forged partnerships with data providers for both major American political parties, including i360 and Deep Root Analytics, both of which service Republican campaigns, and TargetSmart, which caters to centre-left candidates. In 2016, D2 Media provided Addressable TV ads to over 100 political campaigns.

Robocalls and mobile texting

Robocalls and mobile texting: When automated and semi-automated political messages, GOTV or donation campaigns are delivered directly to a voter's phone.

To build direct relationships quickly and cost-effectively, political campaigns can feed their in-house voter files or purchased contact data to a data-driven service or platform provider, who helps them to programmatically dial phone numbers or create call sheets and deliver messages. This can include auto-dialling for pre-recorded or live conversations fielded by volunteers.

Like robocalling, mobile texting campaigns can be automated or programmatically enhanced to broadcast or initiate peer-to-peer political messaging or calls-to-action directly to a voter's mobile phone. Both technologies also enable data collection from responses to this outreach. Voters are scored or ranked on their responses and contact data is updated and expanded.

In 2019, our team conducted interviews with industry professionals, one of whom, speaking under anonymity, stated:

I’m working to set up a programme where everybody receives an auto-call or they receive Facebook custom ads or a custom audience on Facebook before they’re canvassed. And then after canvassed, everybody who was reached receives the follow-up text message from a volunteer. Everybody that wasn’t reached receives a different set of follow-up messages. So I don’t see a lot of people integrating everything, but I think that that’s the route it’s going to go and I think people will start to get smarter about SMS and about messaging, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp etc.

Hear for yourself:

“…managed to get inside the system and change the powers of the admin and create a new account. Once he created a new account, he was able to start sending messages to all the databases of the citizens of Paraná, starting almost at midnight…”

Listen as lawyer and digital rights advocate, Rafael Zanatta, highlights an example from 2022 about a hacked mobile texting platform:

Find Rafael's full interview audio and transcript or listen on PeerTube

In practice

During the 2016 UK European Union membership referendum, the Leave.EU campaign's affiliate, Better for the Country Ltd, sent text messages to over 500,000 mobile phone numbers targeting UK voters.

In 2016, the UK's Information Commissioner's Office fined the Leave.EU campaign £ 50.0000,00 for this mass texting campaign for not obtaining clear consent from those voters.

Reading List

Normann Witzleb, Moira Paterson, Janice Richardson, ed. Big Data, Political Campaigning and the Law: Democracy and Privacy in the Age of Micro-Targeting. 1st ed., 2020.

GE2020: A WhatsApp Election? Messaging Apps Abuzz with Political News and Discussions among Young and Old, Nabilah Awang, Justin Ong, TODAYonline, 2020

How Your Phone Betrays Democracy, Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson, The New York Times, 2019, read here

First published: November 5, 2021Updated: November 26, 2021

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