Module I > Section III

Data: From Personal to Political

Political groups collect personal data as part of their standard operations. For example, contact data is used so that individuals and groups can communicate with each other, financial data may be collected so that the organisation can receive donations, and behavioural data is collected to understand what topics people want to hear about and when. Since the 1960s, the available quantity and value of data has substantially increased across all sectors, resulting in data-driven campaigns. When associated with a political cause, group or candidate, this personal data becomes political data - revealing information about the political interests, behaviours or opinions of an individual or group.

Personal data is information about people - such as their demographics, opinions or behaviours - represented in “units of any size, whether pixels, photons, characters, strokes, letters, words” and saved in databases or spreadsheets. The term personal data has often been reserved, particularly legally, for data connected to an identifiable individual; however, the personal data driving political influence campaigns includes anonymised statistics about groups of people such as group profiles, website traffic or event attendance numbers.

The variety of types of data available is apparent in the diverse uses by political groups, who turn this personal data into political data - data representing the political opinions, behaviour or activities in a group. Organised groups volunteering for social causes as far back as the early 20th-century host members’ contact details, identifying membership numbers and the history of the members’ relationships with the organisation. Fundraising organisations have used personal financial data from individuals for processing donations. Humanitarian organisations, such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, founded in 1919, have collected and analysed personal data relating to people’s movements and behaviours to determine where their work will be most effective.

Image displays a description of contact data, demographic data, behavioural data, personality data, and public opinion dataSome examples of types of data used collected, analysed and leveraged by political influence campaigns, Source: Tactical Tech

The development of data-driven technologies in the last decades has increased the quantity and variety of data and subsequently the number of contexts for political influence within which personal data can now be used. Political parties can use data-driven technologies to optimise the content and format of their messages. For example, they can track which of their emails generates the most click-throughs to their website. Political candidates can target individuals directly through their email address and personalise the content based on any personal data they have gathered on them, such as demographic details or their previous interactions with them on social media or email. They can also use tools to track and analyse what people are saying on social media to try to understand public opinion, which can then be used to shape an organisation’s strategy or a party's policies.

In Practice

Political parties in Canada can keep voter files without needing to adhere to the same laws that regulate businesses' collection of data. By expanding these data sources and developing better analytics, the parties refine their categories of voters according to "supporters," "non-supporters" or "undecided." For example, the Conservative Party of Canada use this data to create a scale from -15 to +15 to rate how much an individual supports them, while the Liberal Party have a tier system rating from 1 (supporters) to 10 (those who may be hostile). In this deregulated environment, there is little transparency about exactly what data the databases contain or what modelling is performed to assess the final ratings of support levels.

A screenshot of the Canadian Conservative Party’s scale of different voter support-levels, ranging from non-supporter (-15) to supporter (+15).A screenshot of the Canadian Conservative Party’s scale of different voter support-levels, ranging from non-supporter (-15) to supporter (+15), Source: The Influence Industry Data Analytics in Canadian Elections

This data can be supplemented with less obviously political data, such as what our hobbies are, where we shop, or what level of education we have. This can get more and more granular and can be analysed and combined with political data, or assumptions, and used to create profiles for segmented audiences identifying them in various ways that are useful for the campaign, such as showing someone's support, or lack of, for a political group or their susceptibility to influence.

Questions to Reflect

What does your hobby say about what you would want to hear from your local councillor? What do your spending habits say about your interest in environmental topics? Or how might your level of education be used to interpret your level of interest in politics?

The profile of you held by political parties can be understood as your data double or data shadow, or politically, as perceived voters. Understanding the political public or audiences that are relevant to political causes is often conducted based on these perceived voters.

Reading List

Hersh, Eitan D. Hacking the Electorate: How Campaigns Perceive Voters. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Kreiss, Daniel. Prototype Politics: Technology-Intensive Campaigning and the Data of Democracy. Oxford Studies in Digital Politics. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

First published: March 14, 2022

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