Module I > Section I

Defining Political Influence

Donald Trump’s targeted political advertisements on Facebook, data brokers selling political profiles in Brazil, misinformation spreading in India through WhatsApp, polarising identity campaigns in the UK, phone numbers swapped between governments, phone companies, and security agencies in Nigeria.... All of these news stories show the variety and depth of how political influence takes place. This section provides an overview of the different methods, actors and features that define influence campaigns.

Influence is the capacity to have an effect on the opinions, behaviours, and actions of others. The strategies, tactics and tools of influence can be utilised by many different groups. Political influence, in particular, is carried out by political parties, government organisations, election candidates and social justice causes.

The term influence can overlap with other actions these actors carry out including campaigning, informing, mobilising, persuading and responding to the public. Some examples can show the variety of forms of political influence: a political party in competitive democratic structures sways swing voters to commit their support to vote for their candidate; an environmental campaign encourages people who are interested in climate action to fly less; a misinformation campaign aims to disrupt the trust in a local media outlet.

Questions to Reflect

Before you begin going through this module, take a minute to reflect about what brought you to this Learning Hub. Where or how did you become familiar with the topic and why are you interested to learn more? Is there a particular fact, experience or moment that stands out to you? What is your statement of purpose for starting the modules?

In Practice

In Kenya, bulk SMS packages from private firms for direct engagement with voters is a well-known practice during election seasons. SMS texts target many voters at once to request their vote or for them to otherwise engage with the political party such as by donating or volunteering.

An image showing texts from political parties asking for the vote of the receiverExamples of targeted text messages sent by candidates to voters, Source: The Influence Industry Data and Digital Election Campaigning in Kenya

Political influence relies on a variety of tools including traditional media such as newspapers, in-person mobilisation such as door-to-door canvassing, and cultural engagement such as books and theatre. Digital technologies have enhanced some of these and replaced others with new formats for influence altogether: from social media engagement to targeted advertisements on mobile phones, or even holograms of politicians. You can find out more about these methods in Module 2.

A lot of the information available about digital politics is based on news stories, which do a good job at highlighting some of the big names, campaigns and scandals, but little to capture the complex landscape of digital campaigning tools, techniques and actors.

What we are doing is no different from what the advertising industry at large is doing across the commercial space.Former CEO of Cambridge Analytica

For example, Cambridge Analytica has undergone several investigations of their data practices. But what is barely discussed or known is that there are more than 500 companies working in this industry who may be deploying similar techniques at an even larger scale. There is a vast system of tools, methods and companies that are routine and embedded into influence campaigns across the world.

The use of targeted advertising on Facebook has undergone substantial scrutiny, but there are many other methods that are used at scale that shape how political influence is taking place, such as a/b testing, search engine optimisation and geo-targeting. Donald Trump’s use of Twitter was controversial and captured the attention of many, but the use of social media platforms to influence elections takes place in different ways across the world: political parties in Zimbabwe and Kenya use SMS campaigns to reach potential voters, and candidates in India and Brazil use WhatsApp to share their information in less public forums.

image shows a distribution of dots and lines and some dots demonstrating Facebook and Cambridge AnalyticaTactical Tech explores the influence industry beyond the companies and countries that make the headlines, Source: Tactical Tech

Reading List

The Cambridge Analytica Files, Carole Cadwalladr et al., The Guardian, 2017 - 2018,

Computational Politics, Zeynep Tufecki, First Monday, 2014

#digitaldeceit - The Technologies Behind Precision Propaganda on the Internet, Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott, New America, 2018,

First published: March 14, 2022

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