Data electioneering and the ‘poll dance’: How it all unfolds

For the ongoing general elections, political parties are pulling out all the stops to use the power of Big Data to strategise and deliver election campaigns on the ground. Parties have been deploying sophisticated communication technologies to get their message to the people.

As per a report by Kantar IMRB, a market research company, India’s internet penetration currently sits at more than 600 million users. India is not only the fastest growing economies in the world, but it is also adding more internet users than any other country, as of today.

This makes India not only an attractive destination for digital products and services, but it also means that the internet is fast replacing other means as the go-to platform to disseminate messages for the purpose of political communications.

How parties drive data electioneering

Political campaigns around the world have turned into sophisticated data campaigns, including data analytics, modelling, and microtargeting. For example, if of late one has been commenting on PM Modi-related posts, then that person’s profile will be full of nationalistic feeds. Or, for that matter, if your comments are anti-Modi, then that profile might show schemes, like NYAY or other pro-Congress data.

This is how microtargeting works, and 2012 and 2016 US elections coupled with the Brexit vote is a testament to that. They rely on data—your data—to facilitate a number of decisions: where to conduct campaigns, which states or constituencies to put electoral funding on, which issues to focus on in which constituency, etc.

Election campaigns all over the world, especially in India, have turned into operations that are based on data analytics of the voters. Parties use social media and other tools to understand their voters and, subsequently, position their campaigns around the voters’ interests, likes, and dislikes.

The use of data analytics tools in India has been pervasive since the 2012-13 Bihar elections, which came into light after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. These tools are used by the political parties not only for the parliamentary elections but also for the legislative elections.

For example, Congress has admitted in the past to using predictive analytics done via surveys, calls, and meetings to decide their chief ministerial candidates. The party is doing the same for the 2019 elections as well.

Even Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi is using these tools via automated and hosted calls wherein one can listen to the voice of Arvind Kejriwal himself.

Hate speech online

Over the past few years, increasing proliferation of the internet in our daily lives has exposed our true faces. The spread of hate speech on social media networks and messaging platforms has introduced a new problem, and policymakers are finding it challenging to tackle this.

A nuisance, it is usually driven by right-wing trolls on the internet. But is it a problem to do with social media and the increasing use of the internet, or has greater access merely exposed the real faces of the people?

Recent elections of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu throw light upon the corporate sponsoring of elections and the political process becoming polarised.

In India too, just before elections, the ruling government’s electoral bond scheme has come into question. The apex court has acknowledged that political parties should be transparent about the campaign funding or disclosing the donation pool.

The judgment, however, acts as a placebo, as the court has asked the parties to submit information to the Election Commission in closed envelopes, and not to the general public.

The murky cyber world

There needs to be transparency and accountability to the public about the information collected by data processors and passed on to political parties—in term of data collection, data retention, and data use.

There are many startups, such as Silver Push, Vidooly, Neta App, and Next election, which provide their specialisation in profiling people and do a sentiment analysis of voters.

Profiling generates highly sensitive inferences and predictions about people’s personality, behaviour or beliefs. Citizens should be able to access these datasets, and a proper consent framework should be adhered to by the startups. A citizen should be allowed to effectively challenge these startups or to ask for profiles to be deleted.

Why you should care

With the rise of mobile penetration, growth in youth population, and technological advances, the granularity of data available and the potential power to sway or suppress voters through that has also increased. Micro-targeting of people leading to targeted ads is robbing away the able decision-making power of a voter.

Algorithms learn the way a voter is using various apps and shows tailored content to suppress contrarian thoughts. The way in which data is collected, retained, and used in political campaigning is highly privacy-invasive, raises important security questions, and has the potential to undermine faith in the democratic process.

Such is the pervasiveness of technology that during the journey from Bharat to India, election symbols changed from lantern and bullock cart to laptop and computer mouse.

The Election Commission through the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968 recently released free symbols, where a laptop, computer mouse, CCTV camera, pen, and even a robot find place.

What the future looks like

The quality of an election depends on the election process—whether it’s funding for it or the voter’s right to choose. These two factors form the pith and substance of the constitutionally mandated principles around which any government body functions. Thus, the emerging body corporates, like the data brokers, data analytics organisations, digital media firms, and the Facebooks and Twitters of the world also fall within the same mandated principles.

The questions of future campaigns revolve around inequality within sophisticated software and inequities within algorithmically designed targeted ads. These digital tools—means of surveillance and manipulation—have received a lot of flak around the world, especially after GDPR came into the picture.

But civil society organisations, activists as well as independent law enforcement authorities should continue their efforts to nudge social media companies to take the right steps.

Kazim Rizvi is a public policy entrepreneur and founder of an emerging policy think tank, The Dialogue.

Data analyticsData PrivacyLok Sabha Elections 2019