How Political Campaigns Use Personal Data

Really interesting report from Tactical Tech.

Data-driven technologies are an inevitable feature of modern political campaigning. Some argue that they are a welcome addition to politics as normal and a necessary and modern approach to democratic processes; others say that they are corrosive and diminish trust in already flawed political systems. The use of these technologies in political campaigning is not going away; in fact, we can only expect their sophistication and prevalence to grow. For this reason, the techniques and methods need to be reviewed outside the dichotomy of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and beyond the headlines of ‘disinformation campaigns’.

All the data-driven methods presented in this guide would not exist without the commercial digital marketing and advertising industry. From analysing behavioural data to A/B testing and from geotargeting to psychometric profiling, political parties are using the same techniques to sell political candidates to voters that companies use to sell shoes to consumers. The question is, is that appropriate? And what impact does it have not only on individual voters, who may or may not be persuad-ed, but on the political environment as a whole?

The practice of political strategists selling candidates as brands is not new. Vance Packard wrote about the ‘depth probing’ techniques of ‘political persuaders’ as early as 1957. In his book, ‘The Hidden Persuaders’, Packard described political strategies designed to sell candidates to voters ‘like toothpaste’, and how public relations directors at the time boasted that ‘scientific methods take the guesswork out of politics’.5 In this sense, what we have now is a logical progression of the digitisation of marketing techniques and political persuasion techniques.

Posted on April 3, 2019 at 6:26 AM20 Comments


Matt April 3, 2019 9:57 AM

It isn’t just that political campaigns shouldn’t be allowed to do this; it’s that NO ONE should be allowed to do this, including corporations.

Alex Neff April 3, 2019 10:09 AM

As AI and data science progress, I’m a bit terrified about how this turns from the selling of a product, or in this case a candidate, to a custom tailored selling of reality. It’s already happening to some extent, but more on a group level and less on an individual level. The more data points collected on each individual will only empower those who want to sell their vision to be more effective at connecting to people on an individual level.

It’s a dark side of technology that will only get worse before it gets better.

L April 3, 2019 11:07 AM

The term “personal data” is, on the surface, very arbitrary. Data about one’s person, such as geolocation data, is no doubt very personal, but the real question is whether or not that data should be considered private. Every time an individual leaves the interior of their own private property and enters into the domain of the “public”, is it reasonable for that individual to expect that their movements throughout this public landscape should be treated as private information, kept out of the hands of third-party entities?

If one individual follows another throughout town, after the individual being followed has stated to the pursuer that they do not consent to such actions, the pursuer can then be charged with the crime of stalking, an offense supporting the notion that the rights of the pursuee were violated; in this case, the right to privacy.

But what does the right to privacy mean for the individual? Does the individual have the right to keep their information private from all other individuals, all persons of any type, or only a select number of entities who fall under a certain category? Is it reasonable to value the rights of the individual over the rights of all individuals? If an argument is made that the rights of one individual must be violated in order to protect the rights of all other individuals, can such a violation ever be justified in truth?

Conclusions cannot be drawn by simply turning to our societies for answers. Nevertheless, it is no doubt interesting to note that the culture of most tribes on this earth seem to gravitate towards a Utilitarian-based progression, one that tends to redefine the definition of Utilitarianism as necessary.

Regardless, we cannot expect individuals or entities to abstain from such violations when history has shown that one is prone to profit from such actions, despite the occasional restitution to the victim. More often than not, violators of this type go unpunished, and thus the barrier of deterrence is quite small in comparison to the height of the modern-day artificial pursuer, namely, the corporation.

I wish I could give facts, but all I have are thoughts. I suppose then that while the rest of us wait for philosophers to provide us with truths and politicians provide us with protection, the best we can do as individuals is arm ourselves with knowledge and discipline.

SilentSeven April 3, 2019 11:39 AM


“I suppose then that while the rest of us wait for philosophers to provide us with truths and politicians provide us with protection, the best we can do as individuals is arm ourselves with knowledge and discipline.” -L

This right here

Relying on others for truths and protection will inevitably result in the lose of individual agency. Believe it was Nietzsche who alluded to the idea of the “The will to power”; To conceive a personal goal and strive towards it. The progressive evolution of human societies seems to go hand-in-hand with an increase in societal rules/institutions and structures. These “restrictions” eventually reach a point that it begins to conflict with individual freedoms and the “Will to power”. Today, it can be said that those on both sides of the far political spectrum are expressing frustrations over what they see as oppressive policies.

But I digress…

I’m reminded of the quote: “Those who would trade liberty for security, deserve neither” -Founder

This desire for security and safety is itself an exploit vector.

1&1~=Umm April 3, 2019 11:45 AM

I guess the real question is,

‘Does it make any difference?’

And the answer is very probably no, despite what those selling the services say…

As was pointed out on the current Squid page, there is an interesting article about people, their beliefs and how they make them irrational in the face of factual evidence*,

In short quite a few people make their mind up on a subject based on very little and once made up they will not change their mind on it, in fact they become more irrational and argumentative and even more polarised in their choice if presented with facts that contradict their choice. Politicians are unsuprisingly very much leading examples in this group.

So it appears that “He who gets in first, sets the belief” if it’s not already in place, which with politics it is most likely to be (our parents tend to set our political outlook unless there is a major change in our lives, like religions, political parties know the younger they get you the more they will squeeze out of you).

Oh and with respect to what is just marketing, have a look at the statistics on products in the market place. The figures are actually quite dismal, more than nine in ten new products from well known brand holders fail, despite the level of marketing / advertising push. The figures are even worse for new products from unknown brand name holders who don’t have previois custom loyalty.

The classic one with respect to marketing failing is the fast food industry and non main stream brands. Say you open up a ‘Hot-n-Spicy’ fried chicken joint. You leaflet the five to ten thousand or so homes in your immediate ‘short walk’ area. Well the stats say only one of those leaflets will get someone to walk out their front door and go out of their way to try it…

What happens is leaflets people walking past the shop stop to pick up will be more likely to get converted into sales (between one in and three in ten) within a month.

With leaflets it’s more important what day they get delivered. Thus if you get home cold wet miserable and grumpy and a leaflet advertising food you like is face up on the floor behind the door, offering thirty minute delivery from phone order and a microwave meal is not handy and pay day was this week or last week, then the convertion –success– rate jumps a magnitude or two…

Like humour being out there, even with style is not enough, ‘it’s timing that counts’.

Oh and there is one constant ‘barnacles’ / ‘couponears’ they will look in a leaflet for discount vouchers, and they will drive ten miles just to save a buck on a bucket of fried chicken, even though they are probably breaking even at best. There are ‘political’ equivalents that go along to meetings not for the political side but what’s on offer in terms of drinks and social status…

All of which kind of makes ‘marketing’ a bit pointless for prosucts, let alone politics unless it can ‘hit the timing sweet spot’.

Oh and then there are old cynics who do think a little ahead like me, I’m known to keep a few discount vouchers of a very well known burger chain in my pocket that has ‘universal pricing’. Because occasionaly I get stuck at railway stations that have that chain in them. Thus I might if delays drag on and I get low blood sugar, get a burger and chips for as little as I can. Importantly their universal pricing and discount voucher means that the burger and chips will cost me less than half what a dried out sandwich of very questionable content will at any other outlet on the station, oh and about the same as a packet of buscuits from those mini-stores at twice the price of their high street stores. But honestly appart from other emergancies I don’t cross their threashold, as I’m just not that keen on burgers or much else that comes ‘wrapped in bread’.

The thing is there are few people that think ahead, which is why some ‘hot-n-spicy’ joints have the leaflets at the end of the counter, those that have got half a brain will realise they will get 10% or more off just by picking one up before ordering. It often amazes me how few people do…

But I’m also sufficiently cynical to enjoy asking political canvassers questions they have not prepared for, just to watch them think on their feet. To me it’s part ‘free entertainment’ but more ‘guerilla tactics’ because you know the question will get back to where the canversers get their directions. If three or four people ask a similar question then it gets passed up the chain for the ‘policy view’, which can be a lot higher up than you might think.

Remember manipulation can work both ways.

  • Shout out to JG4 for that link.

The Pull April 3, 2019 12:49 PM

It is inevitable. I do not see a problem with it. In sales, I was trained to sell myself, and get people to buy me.

It simply is the most effective way.

My sister, for instance, just freaked out, because I got the hotel desk to make me a new key to her room, where I am staying. She said they should never do that. I just sold myself to them, charming them. I was sincere — I like people to feel good and accepted, and pay attention to them.

You really aren’t supposed to give someone a key to someone else’s room. They knew me by sight, but did not know I was even in this room. Because I charmed them, by selling myself to them.

Inevitable, is like trying to change the past. You just can not stop it.

If the data gathering is accurate, it might actually speed up the power of the individual voter to have their say. Ultimately, we should want everyone to vote as they please via secure, personal systems. I think.

Petre Peter April 3, 2019 3:53 PM

The problem is not that half of the adds do not reach their targets, the problem is that they do not know which half. Personal data can provide that knowledge to political candidates.

AB April 3, 2019 5:28 PM

The last election, I couldn’t use my phone for weeks. As in leave it off the hook. There were constant calls urging me to vote. Guess who I didn’t vote for. And guess which candidate didn’t win.

It didn’t help that they were selling their candidate as the pro-life choice who was going to outlaw abortion. I’m pro-choice.

Me thinks their computers need more work…

vas pup April 3, 2019 8:46 PM

“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”

― Mark Twain

Terence S Dowling April 3, 2019 11:26 PM

Allowing selectively targeted campaign messages is wrong for the same reason that targeted ads for housing are a problem. It allows the campaign to keep its focused message away from those who would object to the content. While it might seem good to “energize your base”, the very same message might “energize the opposition”. Selective advertising is the opposite of transparency and is often quite divisive.

1&1~=Umm April 4, 2019 2:52 AM

@vas pup:

I see you and raise you,

“‘The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.'” — Winston Churchill.

mark April 4, 2019 11:08 AM

And they don’t really make use of their data. For example, one thing that really pisses me off: if I’ve made a donation yesterday, why would anyone reasaonable ask me for another donation the next week… or the same week, or the next day? Within reason would suggest no more than once a month.

Allison April 4, 2019 11:48 AM

People Believe What They Want To Believe
or more precisely
Connected People Believe What They are Fed

As Ummm states, facts don’t matter:
“In short quite a few people make their mind up on a subject based on very little and once made up they will not change their mind on it, in fact they become more irrational and argumentative and even more polarized in their choice if presented with facts that contradict their choice. Politicians are unsurprisingly very much leading examples in this group.”

Facebook knows its users better than 90% of spouses. In fact their constant stream of persuasion turns their addicts/experiment/zombies against spouses. Marriages don’t occur and those that do fail. No children to continue civilization. Social media has stunted a deeper meaning spiritual life, Churches are empty. Porn rules…
The end result is living with a basket case (one who makes little sense). Hence the polarization and outrage which lead to depression, drugs and suicide.
As smart phone addicts become incompetent (unable to critically reason) ships sink and planes crash. Not once but several times.

Arse Backwards
Recently common sense drove every country in the world to ground American planes. Now even the FAA safely inspectors blew the whistle that they themselves are incompetent (please don’t sent me to jail).
Vox Media and Matt Taibbi Agree: Our ‘Emotional Devastation’ Over rump Winning The Election Drove Us So Insane, We Believed The Russia Collusion Story

Solution Are Easy
Accept that Silicon Valley is largely evil. (This specifically includes Google’s recent secret White House data-mining/reelection agreement).

With no GDPR regulations, restrict smart phones similar to cigarettes. Start with no children under 18 should be tracked under any circumstances.

Of course this will not happen at least in Survival of the Fittest Surveillance America. There is too much money and power in exploiting the privacy used to control those of diminished capacity[1]. The Chinese Communist Party’s social credit score system is a Silicon Valley model for world-wide societal control[2].

[1] this explains the radical political changes gaining widespread support

[2] though Food Score tracking (i.e. Food IS Medicine) is an American hedge fund strategy

vas pup April 4, 2019 1:53 PM

“In democracy opinion of 1000 idiots is more important than of 10 experts”.
Sorry, can’t specify name due to very bad personality of source, but that
does not change merits of the statement itself.

1&1~=Umm April 4, 2019 5:47 PM

@vas pup:

“… but that does not change merits of the statement itself.”

Ah yes 😉

So perhaps a more meritorious observation of the same issue,

“‘There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” –Issac Asimov

This is almost exactly four years old, but feels timless,

I think @Bruce was still writing for the Guardian back then (it was be for their managment ‘hacked their hacks’ in favour of ubpaid interns and vastly inflated salaries for board members of the controlling group).

Speaking of @Bruce, I would not want him to feel left out so one for him,

@Bruce Schneier:

“‘In democracy it’s your vote that counts; In feudalism it’s your count that votes.'” — Mogens Jallberg

Alyer Babtu April 4, 2019 7:01 PM

@vas pup @1&1~=Umm

Re: experts, idiots, intellectuals, etc. etc.

The progressive in politics has as one of its strands the “rule by experts”, which amounts to totalitarian coercion by big Nietzschean money, something no one needs. An essential part of the idea is to make an idiot of the person in the street. The specious record of this long program quite rightly makes the person in the street suspicious of intellectualism, because what is called intellectual is really anti-intellectual. The propagators of the program are by definition anti-intellectual, since they concern themsleves with an ideology of will to absolute power rather than truth. As someone with experience of DC observed, he had worked a long time there and never really met anyone who was an idiot. Rather, mostly they were bought.

Amazingly in spite of all this, true intellectuals continue to appear, and defenders of political freedom.

George April 5, 2019 3:44 AM

“Re: experts, idiots, intellectuals, etc. etc.”

voting in its present form is better categorized as Manufacturing Consent. There is very little direct involvement of voters in US of A because we the democracy is delegated to representatives. There has been a big push to delegate this power further down to “experts and intellectuals” as an example of Obama’s various “Czars” of specializations.

The bottom line is. Don’t assume “experts” aren’t out there to screw you. Being intelligent does not guaranetee benevolence.

vas pup April 5, 2019 4:38 PM

@George • April 5, 2019 3:44 AM
“Being intelligent does not guarantee benevolence.”
Sure. Who could argue?
Moral and intelligence are orthogonal parameters.
The worst combo is stupid-immoral.
The best is smart and moral.

Be moral and stupid is the best combo to be manipulated in the interest of smart and immoral.

Regarding delegation: agree, almost all instruments of direct democracy (e.g. referendum, recall of elected official, have option to vote against all seeking the office) are cleared out altogether or many hoops being set up to negate their usage.

Question: Why do we have term limit for President, but no term limits for Senators and Representatives? Some of them come into office on a bicycle (very young) and leaving kind in wheel chair.
Fresh blood with BRAINS (not only arrogance and ambitions) is needed.
Good morality is definite plus as well.

Truth is not decided by the number of supporters, but rather by facts, research you name it. Truth/science can not be subject of political correctness kind of Inquisition of Middle Ages.
That is the path to Idiocracy. Very good movie with the same name made in USA. If I were rich, I’ll pay all national TV channels run that movie close to any election at a prime time as warning.

CGW April 18, 2019 12:02 AM

      In 1964, Eugene Burdick (the co-author of The Ugly American and Fail Safe) published a prescient book: The 480, a political novel dealing with slicing and dicing the American electorate into 480 categories. As noted in The New York Times book review, “The title itself is taken from a concept formulated by a reallife enterprise, the Simulmatics Corporation. On the eve of the 1860 [should be 1960] election, it divided the American electorate into 480 groups for purposes of identification and classification according to a voter’s social attitudes, background, education and environment. The data, so acquired and analyzed, was then stored in a computer. Presumably, a candidate for the Presidency could consult the computer and be told what words to use and gestures to make in order to obtain the sort of favorable reaction responses from each group that would result in his election victory.”
      I recall reading the novel as a teenager when the paperback edition came out and thinking, “Yikes! Not good.” The Times‘s reviewer didn’t seem alarmed: “If Mr. Burdick or the readers of ‘The 480’ really believe that the new underworld armed with computers is about to take command of American politics, let them sedate their nerves by investing 50 cents in [Kennedy presidential campaign manager] Mr. [Lawrence] O’Brien’s primer [‘The Democratic Campaign Manual, 1964’] on big‐time politics in the United States.”
      Wikipedia has some background to The 480 that looks reasonably accurate.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.