Big Data in Modern Politics

Over the past few months, media focus on Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm hired by President Trump's 2016 election campaign team, has exposed the use of big data in politics.  But the truth is that election campaign teams in both parties and at all levels of government have been using advanced data and analytics for years.  In fact, it's had a transformational effect on nearly every facet of the political landscape.

What Is Big Data?

Big data is the term used to describe the large volume of data – both structured and unstructured – that exists in today's world.  There are literally trillions of data points floating around in cyberspace, but it's not the amount of data that matters.  What's really significant is how businesses, organizations, and – in the context of this article, politicians – use these data to make smarter and more strategic decisions.

The concept of big data started to gain popularity in the early 2000s, when Doug Laney, chief data officer for Gartner, explained the term using three Vs:

  • Volume.  Companies and organizations gather data from a variety of sources – including customer transactions, social media, and website analytics – and systematically store and organize the data.
  • Velocity.  Data come into companies at warp speed, and businesses must be prepared to handle the flow of data in real time.
  • Variety.  Data exist not just in one format or file type.  They come in a variety of formats, including structured (numerical data in organized databases) and unstructured (text documents, video, random financial transactions, etc.).

"Big Data works on the principle that the more you know about anything or any situation, the more reliably you can gain new insights and make predictions about what will happen in the future," business intelligence expert Bernard Marr explains.  "By comparing more data points, relationships begin to emerge that were previously hidden, and these relationships enable us to learn and make smarter decisions."

The application points for big data are endless.  Some of the most effective uses include improving health care, predicting and responding to natural disasters, and preventing crime.  But over the past decade, politicians and their campaign teams have, arguably, extracted just as much value from big data as any other industry.

How Big Data Is Reshaping the Political Landscape

Nearly $1.5 billion was spent in online advertising by presidential candidates during the 2016 election cycle.  Billions more were spent on TV commercials, radio spots, billboards, campaign signage, rallies, and events.  In total, just under $10 billion was spent on advertising.

Apart from the record-setting ad spend, one of the biggest difference-makers (when compared to past elections) was just how targeted the ads and media exposure were.  If you were a 47-year-old, gun-owning father of four from Du Quoin, Illinois, you were seeing totally different content from what a 19-year-old college student studying liberal arts in Berkeley, California saw.

Every adult American with an internet connection, TV, or a social life was a participant in the 2016 election.  However, your experience was unique when compared to your neighbor, cousin, coworker, etc.  Whether you realized it or not, politicians were using your personal data – collected from thousands of online and offline touchpoints over the years – to deliver curated news, sound bites, and content that would shape the way you thought (and perhaps voted).

"The RNC and DNC have databases that have over 900 points of data on every member of the electorate," says Daniel Kreiss, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina.  "The core of that is that public data built around commercial marketing data about things like credit card purchases and grocery card purchases and magazine subscription lists."  When combined with data about voter turnout and party affiliation, campaign teams have much more influence than most realize.

While there's certainly a valid reason for individuals to be concerned about data collection efforts, is there really anything unethical about using available data to reach and influence voters?  After all, campaigning is essentially a form of marketing.

"Marketing is all about Data, and I mean that with a capital D," ZoomData's Niki Ilich writes.  "Big data is utilized everywhere in marketing, at least it should be.  The ability to receive real time analysis and visualization into how a campaign is performing is key to making it a success."

Over the last two or three election cycles, real-time data have allowed candidates to focus their efforts, mobilize voters, and deliver messaging that resonates with those on the fringes.

As Eitan Hersh, author of Hacking the Electorateexplains, "Campaigns can now do a lot more targeting based on individual-level characteristics or even neighborhood-level characteristics, as opposed to thinking generally about what the typical American or the typical constituent wants to hear.  So a candidate now knows what her typical voter looks like, how old they are, what gender they are, where they live, where they shop, etc."

Using Big Data for Good

While some voters are shocked to learn that campaigns use personal information to make strategic decisions, they need to realize that marketers use the exact same information on a daily basis.  Our lives are influenced by big data, for better or worse, and we don't particularly care.  Yet when we learn that a politician is using our data, we recoil.  Why is this, and what can be done to fix this perception?

Ultimately, more transparency needs to be the goal.  From the organizations collecting the data – like social media platforms, credit card companies, and search engines – to the groups using the data – like Cambridge Analytica and political campaign teams – more honesty about the presence of big data in decision-making would be welcome.

It's also important that big data be used ethically.  In order for this to happen, there will most likely need to be some changes to data privacy laws.  Navigating these laws in light of constitutional rights and civil liberties will be challenging, but that's the next step.

Love it or hate it, big data is here to stay.  And if politicians want to get elected, they must learn to embrace it.