“The 2016 election cycle will be remembered for many things, but for those who work in politics, it may be best remembered as the year that political data reached maturity.”
Andrew Therriault

In 2004, 22-year old Andrew Therriault wanted to get a Democrat president elected. “I got in my car and drove to Ohio,” he told me. “I walked around college campuses, signing students up to vote and all that.” But John Kerry did not get elected, and Therriault “wound up after the election, back at my parents’ house, broke, depressed and unemployed”. Talking to strangers about politics, he concluded, was not his forte.

Ten years later, Therriault found a job that did feel right: Director of Data Science for the DNC, the organising body of the US Democratic Party. By 2016, he was editing the O’Reilly publication Data And Democracy, from which the above quote is taken, describing in detail exactly how data can be used for political campaigning.

With hindsight, the 2016 election cycle was probably not best remembered as “the year that political data reached maturity”. It was, however, the year that many journalists and researchers discovered for the first time how data-driven, personalised political campaigning works, when they sought explanations for the political shocks of Britain voting Leave and the US voting Trump.

But Barack Obama had already won two Presidential elections using those techniques with increasing sophistication. A Guardian article in 2012 spared a single paragraph to privacy concerns between gushing about “a vast digital data operation that for the first time combines a unified database on millions of Americans with the power of Facebook to target individual voters to a degree never achieved before”, and the way, probably unconsciously, “the individual volunteer will be injecting all the information they store publicly on their Facebook page — home location, date of birth, interests and, crucially, network of friends — directly into the central Obama database”.

Despite the furore over Cambridge Analytica, and the supposed (but implausible) psychological manipulation of 2016 voters via social media, digital political campaigning remains the norm. Hardly surprising, in a world where we increasingly turn to personalised channels, and especially social media, for our news and commentary. How else could campaigners reach potential voters?

In the recent UK local and mayoral elections, the Labour Party spent over half a million pounds (£570,160) on advertising via Meta alone — that’s Facebook and Instagram. The Conservatives lagged behind with a mere £336,668, perhaps because their adverts tended to target pensioners who spend less time on social media: one with the headline “Tax the Codgers” was shown only to over 55s. Thanks to WhoTargetsMe you can now dig into the broad strategies of digital political campaigners, though not the details of how specific ads are targeted.

I asked Andrew Therriault how many data points he would have on a typical voter — dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? “Thousands,” he says, as if that’s obvious. But to think of that as a list of thousands of things he’d know about an individual voter would be misleading. Yes, it would include voter registration details — name, address, age — and perhaps answers previously given to surveys. But to that basic voter database Therriault’s team would add census data for the neighbourhood. Political campaigns also regularly use commercial data from data brokers such as Experian and Acxiom, collected from our interactions with businesses. Even though it’s hard to match data from those sources to individual voters, they can be used to build models, so what they do know about you can be used to predict things that they don’t know.

Being able to profile individual voters helps a campaigner decide who to target, and tailor the message to them. There are two kinds of people worth targeting: those who might be persuaded to support your side, and those who need a push to get out and vote. “Persuade or mobilise,” as Andrew Therriault puts it.

Like other kinds of personalised advertising, political campaigns aim to show the most effective message to the right person, at the right time. And, also like other adverts, digital media allow the advertiser to monitor which ads are the most effective for this kind of person, by running trials of different variants to see which gets the best response. It is, in short, a huge feat of digital technology. It would be a mistake, however, to see the technology itself as driving this political change. Rather, the change from mass movements to “The Personal Is Political” predates the capacity to deliver a tailored message to an individual on a device that accompanies them everywhere.

“It would be a mistake, however, to see the technology itself as driving this political change.”

The era of mass politics is not very old. In 1848, “the springtime of the peoples”, a huge Chartist demonstration in London tried to deliver a petition calling for universal male suffrage, secret ballots, and other reforms to parliament. According to the Illustrated London News, it took a cart drawn by four farm horses to carry the signatures in “five huge bales or bundles”. The government fortified all the bridges in London to prevent the assembled masses reaching Westminster, and went on to arrest the leaders and suppress the movement.

The road to every citizen getting a vote would be long and hard. In the US, race was the bar to democratic equality: in the UK, it was property, which excluded some men until 1918, and a third of women until 1928. In France, where all men did get the vote in 1848, women would wait until 1944.

But the ability to vote a government in — or out — was not the only form of mass politics. By 1874 around 10%  of the adult population of Britain were members of TUC-affiliated unions (mostly men). Organisations pressing for equal rights for women, or for non-whites in America, also demanded equality beyond the vote. However, by the time Martin Luther King made his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, the character of those mass movements was changing. Even as King called on the US Government to make good the “promissory note” to all Americans, black and white, guaranteeing “the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, that universalist vision was fragmenting and turning inwards.

Tom Hayden, later Senator Hayden, was in the immense crowd that heard King that day. After being inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On The Road to hitchhike across America, Hayden became a Civil Rights activist and spent some time in jail. There he drafted what would become the 1962 Port Huron Statement, a manifesto for Students for a Democratic Society:

“We oppose the depersonalisation that reduces human beings to the status of things,” it declares. “The goal of man and society should be human independence; a concern not with image or popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic.” Politics, he said, should be a “means of finding meaning in personal life”, imbuing it with a therapeutic sensibility. The Port Huron Statement captures a moment at the beginning of a new political age. It talks of “loneliness, estrangement, isolation”, and “the felt powerlessness of ordinary people.” It matters not only that people lack power, but that they feel powerless.

The distinction between politics and personal feelings was fraying, and as the Sixties drew to a close, a slogan emerged to capture this new kind of politics. “The Personal is Political” is the title of a short 1969 article written by Carol Hanisch, an activist in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, and a founder of New York Radical Women, the group that protested at the Miss America contest in 1968. They were all women who were active in other movements — Civil Rights, Anti-War or the New Left — who wanted to discuss politics without men present. After the meeting ended, they kept arguing into the small hours at a nearby restaurant over apple pie a la mode.

I asked Hanisch what she thought of the shift towards seeing the world in terms of identity. “It cannot be a positive change,” she told me. “We lose all sense of a need for unity to take on the source(s) of our oppression. Instead it invites us to escape the real world by “living in our heads”. It allows us to believe that if we can change ourselves and/or just a few people, everything will be fine, which is, of course, nonsense. We’re talking society-wide oppression here, not just individual attitudes. You can’t ‘identify’ yourself out of oppression, though over the centuries people sure have tried!”

Today, we take disagreement very personally. Not only issues that are entangled with our everyday lives, our feelings or how we see ourselves: even geopolitical issues or which political party we vote for are taken much more personally. People are less open to social connection with those who disagree with them politically. Survey after survey has shown that, increasingly, we are more likely to see those who disagree with us politically as closed-minded, selfish, hypocritical, immoral or lazy, and less likely to call them intelligent or honest. Negative feeling towards the other side, politically, has been steadily increasing since the Eighties.

I asked Andrew Therriault if he thought politics in general had become more personal.  “Yeah, from both the voters and the candidate side it’s become more individualised, in terms of even the basic facts we’re working with,” he says. “This idea that your political reality can be whatever you want it to be, and whatever someone else wants to tell you it should be. And there does not seem to be that sort of common grounding we once had when things were less personalised.”

Politics, in other words, is turning into a form of self-expression. It is no longer an arena to which we all bring our conflicting visions of how the world should be, and try to persuade others to join us in working towards ours — or even, in which we might listen to other people’s ideas and change our minds.


This article includes material drawn from Technology Is Not The Problem, published by HarperCollins.

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