With the rise of digitalization, an unprecedented amount of data is now available to political marketers and politicians. The desire to utilize this information in electioneering has resulted in far greater interest in technology-driven campaigning—using data and data analytics to shape and spread political messages.
It provides a more sophisticated way to segment the audience (in this case, potential voters) and to address their specific needs and desires. Concretely, the technology-driven campaign tends to develop in three steps:
- Collect and compile online and offline data about voters
- Apply computational methods to analyze it
- Design messages that target clusters of individuals
Most of the developments in this area take place in the U.S. context with Europe lagging behind. There are multiple reasons why, but two legal differences play the most important role: legislation on campaign finance and on data privacy.
The European approach has been to limit the role that money and influence exerted by private persons, companies, and lobbies play in politics. Thus, European campaign financing laws allow for smaller budgets compared to the U.S., where these limitations are far more timid.
One result of the campaign finance landscape is that American political marketing companies, individual campaigns, and political parties have a far greater incentive to invest in the tech required to run sophisticated campaigns.
As anyone who works on campaigns in both Europe and the U.S. understands, data privacy regulations are far stricter in Europe. That’s led by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which became law in May 2018. GDPR forbids individual user profiling and requires explicit consent for gathering personal data. It makes much more difficult the collection of data and the clustering of individuals into specific groups.
Even with these restrictions, there are still some smart U.S. practices that can be (and are currently being) used in Europe. Here are three that I recommend to campaigns in Europe:
Hire a data analyst
This should be the first step for any campaign interested in the customization of their messages through better data use. Especially if one wants to keep the operations in-house, getting a data person(s) as a regular member of the campaign team is a must. The data analyst will go beyond the standard gathering of “vanity statistics” and run some probabilistic models to predict likelihood of future behavior. Do negative messages correlate with more intense commenting? Or even further detailing, Do negative messages *sent over the weekend* correlate with higher number of comments? These models will inform the decisions of the strategy team, who will base their choices not only on experience or intuition but also on statistical predictions.
Partner with social media platforms
Campaigns may seek to collaborate with social media platforms, especially in the context of larger (national or European-level) elections. Regulations may not allow the level of embedding that Facebook representatives had with the Trump campaign, for example, but a tight partnership may still produce good results.
One example of a successful collaboration is the campaign to get out the vote that the European Parliament ran on Twitter before the EP2014 elections. According to Twitter, the banners run by the EP under their “This time it’s different. Act React Impact” campaign have been seen by more than 1 million users in Europe.
For the upcoming EP elections of May 2019, it would be a great idea for the European Parliament to collaborate with Facebook and introduce an “I voted in the EP elections” button. Moreover, like in the case of the U.S. elections, Facebook could dedicate its Government and Politics page to the European elections by posting information about voting procedures and candidates, geo-located to the individual user, ahead of the May 24-27 elections.
Combine offline and online operations
One cost-effective and GDPR-compliant way to mobilize people is to meet the potential voters in a physical location and obtain from them an expression of interest in the respective candidate or party. This would be especially useful with elections at the local level.
After citizens give their informed consent and share their contact information with the campaign, the conversation can be moved to the digital sphere. In the U.S., political marketing companies can build mobile applications for specific candidates or campaigns. In Europe, this may not be necessary.
What’s App, a messaging mobile and desktop app widely used across the EU, allows for the creation of group chats with a maximum of 256 members. What’s App campaign groups can spread information and inform volunteers on how they can act as further transmitters of the party’s message or as offline campaigners.
What’s App has recently introduced restrictions to the number of people a message can be forwarded to at the same time (bringing it down to five), but even so, What’s App messages are highly effective, as they rarely are left unopened (especially in comparison to mass emails). Local campaigns in Europe have found this effective. Thus, in combination with canvassing in the ground, informing and mobilizing via What’s App is an effective way to activate a party’s pool of sympathizers.
These three American technology-oriented campaign practices are transferable to the European context and they respect the particularities of European regulations.
Anamaria Dutceac Segesten is Senior Lecturer in European Studies at Lund University (Sweden). She has worked on collective identities, nationalism and Euroscepticism. Her current research deals with artificial Intelligence and politics, and social media and elections. You can find her on Twitter @anamariadutceac.