Zac Goldsmith’s campaign is just the tip of the iceberg: All that free private data of yours will come home to roost in 2020

If you’ve ever been canvassed by a political activist in the run-up to an election, you’ll know that the on-the-ground operation is a pretty blunt tool. A pile of leaflets turn up on your doorstep, before making the short journey across the room to the recycling bin. Few, if any of the candidates, represent your views in any meaningful way. How could they? The leaflets are aimed at thousands of people per constituency, and parties have limited resources.

This is slowly changing, partly because party memberships have collapsed over the past 50 years (less members = less people to leaflet and knock on doors), but also because there’s a “better way”. I use quotation marks, because one man’s “better” is another man’s “slightly troubling”. Yet another man might call it “downright creepy”.

In short, data can tell you not only who your supporters are, but information about their priorities, their hopes and – more pertinently in the horrible world of political campaigning –  their fears.zac_goldsmith_facebook_campaigning

In a way, we’ve always had access to this, but it can be done either crudely or artfully. On the day of the London mayoral contest, we have a great example of the crude version from Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, who has been tailoring his campaign literature to different ethnic minorities, with tailored messages attacking Labour’s Sadiq Khan depending on their heritage. This seems to have been based purely on surnames from the electoral roll, which is far from reliable, and the plan has somewhat blown up in his face.

The worrying thing about this is that it needn’t be that crude, and almost certainly won’t be in the future. Facebook – assuming you use it – knows an awful lot about you already, even if you don’t tell it directly. It knows your gender, your job, your age, your interests, who your friends are, and a whole lot more besides. There’s an awful lot you can extrapolate from that data at a macro level. Sure, it may not know who you vote for as an individual – you are, after all, a unique snowflake, if I may say so – but for people of your demographic, it can hazard a damned good guess at what the majority of people like you think.

“Facebook knows a frightening amount about you, even if you don’t tell it directly. There’s an awful lot you can extrapolate from that data at a macro level.”

That means that while people have been rightly outraged at being lovebombed by Zac Goldsmith because they have a minority-sounding name, the same depressing tactics could easily be used at the next general election, only nobody would know about it… because a sponsored advert on Facebook or Twitter seems less personal, even though the opposite is actually true.

This may sound like science fiction, but it’s actually already here. A not-too-sophisticated version was trialled ruthlessly at the 2015 election, when the Conservatives managed to overturn the polls and the bookies to get a slim but just about workable Commons majority of 12. There were plenty of things that swung the election in the end, of course – not least the fear of an SNP/Labour pact – but the Conservatives were incredibly efficient at targeting their voters with digital accuracy, as this Guardian long read highlights.the_future_of_digital_political_campaigns

Spending £100,000 per month on Facebook advertising alone, the Tories were able to tailor their message to different kinds of voters in different constituencies. To quote the piece directly:

“You can’t really blame the political parties, or the social networks themselves. They’re just using the data that we’ve all freely provided for short-term convenience.”

“Another sponsored tweet, aimed squarely at Lib Dem waverers in the south-west, declared: ‘This general election is not like last time. By voting Lib Dem you could end up with a chaotic coalition of Ed Miliband and who-knows-what other parties that could put the economy, jobs and public services at risk.’ The accompanying image showed a swingometer with Cameron looking decidedly prime ministerial on one side, and a confused-looking Miliband, flanked by Salmond and new SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on the other. An arrow pointed to a small amount of white space dividing them, beneath the headline: ‘Yours is one of 23 seats that will decide this election.’”

Political parties aren’t the only people who can abuse this, of course. Facebook isn’t neutral, and it isn’t a charity. While advertisers (or politicians – sadly for the purpose of this article, the two are interchangeable) at least have to pay for access to the data, the owners of social networks could potentially do as they please. Indeed, it was reported that a Facebook question posed to CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a recent internal Q&A session was “What responsibility does Facebook have to prevent President Trump in 2017?”facebooks_power_to_break_politics

It’s important to note that Facebook has denied that it will ever be partisan in the way it deals with politics, but the opportunity to do so would be massive. In the UK, we know a handful of swing seats decide the election. You know those cute little ‘I voted, you should do’ badges that show up around election time? Imagine you didn’t see your friends’ badge if you happen to wear a rosette that Facebook isn’t keen on, if you live in one of the few constituencies that actually make a difference.facebook_voting_badge

If this makes you feel uneasy, you can’t really blame the political parties, or the social networks themselves. They’re just using the data that we’ve all freely provided for short-term convenience.

As consumers, and as critics, we should always remember the mantra that there’s no such thing as a free lunch – and Facebook, Twitter and the rest have been offering an all-you-can-eat banquet for years. It’s only fair that we paid our dues, although when Joseph de Maistre said “we get the government we deserve”, he probably didn’t have this in mind.

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Images: Policy Exchange, DIUS Corporation, Mark Zuckerberg and Descrier used under Creative Commons

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