How Much of a Role Does Big Data Play in Politics in America and Europe? 

Is the hype around Big Data’s role in politics overblown? Experts argue the extent of it’s utility but one thing is clear – it can’t magically create an audience for a political message that wasn’t there to begin with.

The modern digital marketing world has given rise to a host of specialized acronyms and vocabulary. Perhaps no term is more misunderstood outside of the marketing bubble than “Microtargeting”. 

It’s true that anyone working in digital marketing over the last five years has become eminently familiar with the concept. That’s because it’s been what has under-pinned a number of successful businesses, both in the digital space and non. Firms like Applecart, Civis Analytics, Optimus Consulting, and i-360  offer political and commercial data analytics services that focus on delivering actionable insights. 

Those insights can help business-to-business marketing – as when a SaaS is empowered to identify potential leads based on an individual’s demographic data, web search history, and browsing activity. They also benefit online retailers, who are able to target digital ads based on past shopping behavior, and interests and interactions gleaned from demographic and consumer data.

How Can Companies and Campaigns Use Big Data?

Since 2016, the landscape has rapidly evolved, in Europe more than anywhere else. Unlike the U.S., where politicians either have refused to identify the effect of Big Data to shape public sentiment, or else have struggled to address the ramifications of such a societal shift, the European Union has taken a more proactive approach to protecting the individual’s private data in the digital space.

In April 2016, the European Parliament passed into EU law the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR); the legislation came into effect in May 2018. Heralded at the time as the world’s strongest set of data protection rules, GDPR was meant to modernize laws that protect our personal information while standardizing the ‘rules of the road’ across much of Europe. 

In comparison to the U.S., GDPR is an ambitious first step toward greater privacy for the people. In contrast, the U.S. has on its books no single, comprehensive law designed to regulate data privacy concerns. Twitter briefly won plaudits for its stated goal of banning political ads on the popular micro-blogging platform, but CEO Jack Dorsey’s position already has encountered significant push-back and difficulties with implementation. On the other hand, Facebook – despite facing multiple examples on its platform in which political entities have used their marketing tools to spread misinformation – has openly stated they have no intention to ban political ads.

Who Has My Data?

The question of what happens to your data after it’s been collected is a, if not the, major sticking point for privacy advocates. In the business world in general – and the ecommerce world, in particular – companies typically will warehouse and analyze both the data they are able to generate and collect on their website or in their app, as well as seeking out third-party data wherever available, that they can use to supplement and enhance their digital models of user behavior. 

In this regard, political campaigns operate from a broadly similar playbook. In a 2016 Forbes article, data analyst Meta S. Brown detailed a workflow among political campaigns that would make immediate sense to any digital marketer, differing only in the starting point.

Campaigns begin their data mining with a traditional voter database. As Brown explains, a voter database begins with the basic details of a voter’s registration and voting records — not how they voted, only whether and when they voted. Campaigns can receive such data from either the Republican or Democratic parties; those national party portals typically provide additional information, which can include:

  • Demographic data
  • Employment data and other economic indicators
  • Political and charitable giving history

This is hardly an exhaustive list. A robust voter database also includes information that helps the campaign know more about their potential supporters — anything and everything ranging from magazine subscriptions, volunteerism, membership status in various organizations; in short, anything that helps them better understand what arguments and messages might resonate with a certain voter or group of voters. 

From there, it’s only a matter of leveraging the highly sophisticated marketing platforms built into social media networks such as Facebook to expose users to that message, as frequently and in as many settings as possible. The process is similar to marketing other goods using social media. As Matt Kalmans, co-CEO at Applecart, put it in an interview with UPenn’s Omnia Magazine:

“If a person takes a vacation on a cruise ship, you can bet that they come home and talk to their friends about it—and those friends are now the ideal target for the cruise ship company to sell to”

How Effective is Big Data At Influencing Political Opinions?

Big data has become a convenient boogeyman for many but even the most skilled practitioner would stress that no amount of data can create an audience for a particular message from whole cloth. 

Instead, big data typically is most impactful in describing political constituencies. As campaigns build out their voter database, they are able to mine that information for actionable insights, and in turn to craft messaging that elicits a reaction. 

The U.S. has seen Big Data leveraged, to differing degrees and extents, in every election since at least former President Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination; and, certainly, Obama and his team were convinced of Big Data’s centrality in their victory, as they increased the size of their digital operations team five-fold ahead of their 2012 victory over Mitt Romney.

The U.S., of course, is not the only country to see Big Data applied in its political and electoral systems. The efforts of Liegey Muller Pons (LMP) in support of Emmanuel Macron and his nascent political party, La Republique en marche! (REM), were motivated by a respect for the campaign that Obama had built.