Free and fair elections are the backbone of a democratic system of governance, and they are often celebrated as the “festival of democracy”. Election campaigns of political parties and candidates employ a wide variety of strategies and tactics to influence voters. The digital era has added a whole new flavour, be it the eye-catching colossal digital campaigns or instances of foreign governments interfering in the electoral process. Last year, the Presidential elections in both the US and France were controversial due to hacking incidents and data leaks. In general, cyber means of intervention appear to be becoming an inevitable part of the electoral process.
While there is a long history of external interference in elections both through covert and overt means, digital platforms add a new dimension. News and online content over digital platforms can spread at lightning speed, without paying heed to the credibility or authenticity of the source. Moreover, social media platforms generate vast amounts of data related to the socio-economic conditions, purchasing behaviour, interests, hobbies, and political inclinations or orientations of the users. These details are captured and treasured for commercial purposes.
Business analytics feed on this data to generate business intelligence and derive monetary benefits for informed decision making. Present day electoral campaigns are also data driven and they are well-funded to let the campaigners harness data for their own political advantage. Data analytics tools can harvest data from user profiles and sift through the trove to support research, augment targeted campaigns and help political parties in assessing and evaluating their performance. These have been quite effective in targeting swing voters and behaviour forecasting.
As the popularity of social media platforms hits new heights, Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have been under the scanner of both intelligence agencies and election watchdogs. With close to 2.2 billion active users (by the end of 2017), Facebook alone sits on a stockpile of data which could be used to drive election campaigns towards any preferred outcome.
Data in itself is worthless, but data science and the corresponding analytical tools turn it into a goldmine for both businesses and political strategists in the digital age.
Ovleno Business Intelligence, which is an Indian affiliate of Cambridge Analytica’s parent firm Strategic Communications Laboratories. The firm had hit media headlines for its association with Donald Trump’s election campaign, which it has referred to as “A Full-Scale Data-Driven Digital Campaign”. Bringing together the expertise of data scientists, researchers, strategists and content writers in three integrated teams (research, data science, and digital marketing), Cambridge Analytica’s campaign helped Trump win the elections.
Facebook has played a central role in this entire episode. In a statement, Facebook has accepted that in 2015 a research app for psychologists with the name “thisisyourdigitallife”, developed by a psychology professor at Cambridge University, was used for commercial purposes by Cambridge Analytica and other firms in violation of its platform policies. The app, meant for personality prediction, had around 270,000 downloads. Users revealed content related to their likes, preferences, and their own social circles according to their privacy settings. The access to Facebook content, in technical terms, was legitimate and through proper channels but the information was passed on to third parties likes Cambridge Analytica and Eunoia Technologies, which exploited it for commercial gains.
The Election Commission of India had also partnered with Facebook in 2017, launching a nationwide voter registration campaign. Indian users, paying little regard to the privacy terms and condition of social media platforms, uninhibitedly share images, pictures and other content, and are extremely vulnerable to the tools, techniques and campaigns devised for influencing both commercial and political behaviour. Not just in India, Cambridge Analytica is also at loggerheads with the Electoral Commission in the UK over its alleged role in the BREXIT vote and in Europe for violating EU privacy laws in collusion with Facebook.
Although Facebook has tendered an assurance of data security on its platform for the upcoming elections in India (2019) and Brazil (October 2018), the incident has caused severe damage to its reputation even as a development partner for governments in digital inclusion or other societal benefits plans. As the stakes in elections go up, political parties are unlikely to shy away from leveraging the technical expertise of data analytical firms like Cambridge Analytica fed with expansive data sets harvested from prominent social media platforms.
Data is being extensively harvested and harnessed for commercial purposes, targeted marketing campaigns and to influence consumer choices. It is ethically and legally controversial when information derived without the consent of the users or through dubious means is leveraged to influence political choices. There is a need to expedite the process of developing a data protection framework and probably amend the IT Act in accordance with the changing realities of cyberspace. The earlier this is realised, the better it would be for the healthy functioning of our democratic systems and processes.