Door wide open to Cambridge Analytica-style political messaging in Ireland

Analysis: Very little regulation against data-driven campaigning techniques here

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who helped set up data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, says that he believes the company developed techniques capable of having an impact on elections. Video: Reuters

 

Cambridge Analytica, the controversial data firm which claims to have helped Donald Trump win the US presidency and Brexit campaigners in the UK upturn the odds at the 2016 referendum, once claimed that it possessed 4,000-5,000 data points on every US adult.

Its magic dust was to use that data to tailor political messages which helped its clients’ campaigns. To simplify (grossly), if someone liked a tweet or Facebook post expressing concern about immigration, they might receive immigration-based messages from the Trump campaign. More sinisterly, they might receive fake news stories (“Mexican crime wave”) about immigration themes, generated or forwarded by unknown sources, heightening their concern – and thus making them more susceptible to a campaign promising to build a wall on the Mexican border, or deport illegal immigrants.

If someone has that amount of information on you – where you buy your coffee... what you buy when shopping – they can construct a virtual reality, a separate political universe

The firm is now under investigation; it may regret some of its earlier boasts. But for politicians, campaign managers and those who seek to monitor and regulate them, a whole new world of data driven campaigning has opened up.

“If someone has that amount of information on you – where you buy your coffee, what books you buy, what you buy when shopping – they can construct a virtual reality, a separate political universe,” says Jennifer Cassidy, a lecturer in international relations at Oxford University, who has researched and written extensively on the impact of social media on elections.

Data collected

In this “separate political universe” advertisements, stories referred from friends and news can be hugely influenced to the benefit of a candidate or cause. It requires, of course, that people get their news from Facebook, where bought ads can create that universe. But that is increasingly the case.

The amount of data collected by Facebook and other new media companies is immense, says Ms Cassidy. “Facebook can monitor how fast you finger scrolls, and what it stops on. We are not the consumers of Facebook. We are the product.”

However, are the techniques applicable to Ireland, and specifically to the forthcoming referendum campaign?

The Save the Eighth Campaign has hired Kanto, a London-based consultancy that offers data-driven campaigning strategy advice, and was founded by Thomas Borwick. Have they been hired to employ similar techniques to those employed by Cambridge for the Trump and Brexit campaigns?

People won’t be bombarded with magical techniques to get inside their heads. I just don’t buy that

“No, we haven’t hired them to do that sort of stuff,” explains John McGuirk of the Save the Eighth Campaign.

“We hired them to build a website and to analyse the data that’s coming into it. You know, if 600 people from Tipperary are logging on to our website, we want to know that. Is it a response to an ad? Or a canvass? We want to see what people are responding to, we’re not trying to reach out and find people.”

Mr McGuirk says that the campaign to keep the eighth amendment will make a lot of use of online advertising. He assumes their opponents will do likewise.

“People won’t be bombarded with magical techniques to get inside their heads. I just don’t buy that.”

Tightly controlled

Others don’t share his insouciance. “It’s not that important here,” said one senior figure in one of the main parties familiar with the campaigning techniques. “But it will be.”

At present, the use of these techniques is more or less completely unregulated in Ireland, where other forms of campaigning are quite tightly controlled.

The regulation of Irish elections and referendums rests on the control of spending, and the traceability of campaigning materials – every poster and advertisement must state who bought it. Both those controls are completely circumvented by online campaigning. Anyone can buy online ads; they can target them wherever they want. The door is wide open. Sooner or later, someone will walk through it.