The modern political landscape is full of new technologies, new devices and new forms of organization that are re-making the way politics is conducted. Our candidates and their aides are armed with smart devices that keep them perpetually online, able to respond to a news cycle that was once measured in days but now spins in real time. They have an ability to collect massive amounts of data — and apply them in precisely targeted ways. These technological improvements — such as ever-faster Internet speeds and mobile video — have changed and enhanced our lives, but there is one constant: human nature remains fallible. These campaign tools are put to use by real people, and as long as our political behaviour remains imperfect and subject to temptation, they can be used for bad as well as good.
The fallible nature of humanity means that the expanding arsenal of campaign technology has the potential to undermine our institutions and democracy. It therefore becomes important for people and their governments to understand the applications of new technologies in political campaigning in order to preserve the free and fair elections that Canadians expect. Those who are charged with ensuring fair elections need to come to grips with such developments as the explosion of database marketing and the use of tracking cookies on the computers of visitors to campaign Web sites. Much of this remains below the radar of the average voter.
But the aggressive push by political parties to adopt new technologies raises major questions about privacy rights and data security and whether regulation is necessary. Who watches the political parties who are watching voters? How can we ensure that technologies that could be used to enhance democracy, allowing parties to take their policies and messages to all citizens, do not end up weakening it?
In the financially limited, time-constricted politics of Canada, efficient communication is a must. Smart market research becomes vital in the micro-targeted, narrow-casted environment in which victory is gained by presenting multiple small niches with tailored messages. Political campaigns are no different than any other producer with a product to sell: having great data about the customer is very important, and that means employing everything from cookies and pyschographics. As the Barack Obama campaign just showed, the best campaigns are able to amass large databases about their potential customers, knowing their preferences, and are able to pinpoint exactly where they are.
Technology has enabled the modern political campaign to become the personal campaign. Just as in commercial marketing, we have arrived at an era where messages are much more personalized and segmented than they are mass marketed and generalized.
Political campaigns acquire this knowledge about us without our knowing it. They allow us to opt into their Web sites or follow them on Twitter and in the process pull our information and our interests into their data web. Their algorithms become capable of dictating what comes our way before we even realize we’re looking for it.
This is a different experience from watching a campaign unfold through mass media or direct involvement in physical political organizations. The modern campaign is the segmented campaign that contains a number of structured conversations that come to resemble a discussion mosaic rather than a single narrative.
Canadian parties are not yet — as sophisticated in their use of technology as the Obama juggernaut was (neither was the Romney campaign). But given the way political parties learn from each other, it likely won’t be long before they catch up. A lot of Canada’s Conservatives’ branding design and targeting is at least at par with American practices, though using cookies to track voters is not as developed in Canada. The Liberals are also doing a lot of the top-down crowd sourcing that played a big role in the Obama campaign.
To date, the issue that has garnered the most attention in the convergence of technology and politics in Canada has been the infamous Pierre Poutine robo-calls in Guelph, Ontario, during the 2011 federal election. The activities involved in the case strongly resemble those shown in the HBO series The Wire, in which disposable technology and computer security flaws were illicitly exploited. These are easily learned skills.
But many consultants and academic researchers argue that robocalling is one of the least efficient and effective ways to reach potential voters. Far greater threats are brewing. Future Pierre Poutines may be armed with the results of databased behavioural research that provides a far more effective way of tampering with voter behaviour than the crude robo-call.
For political professionals, there is significantly more of an upside to working within the new data-driven campaigns than there is in taking on the downside risk of being caught in ventures such as the electoral shenanigans in Guelph. I have been impressed by the high standard of ethics and dedication to democratic values among Canadian consultants. They might not like their opponents. But they have great respect for their opponents who did things the right way and scorn for those who did not.
The temptation to engage in illicit activities could be further reduced by fostering a climate of professional responsibility, as is done in the United States through the American Association of Political Consultants and its code of conduct. Most people involved in politics are good, reputable Canadians who would be horrified to see themselves exposed as cheaters or censured by their professional body.
But Elections Canada also needs to help voters protect themselves. In cooperation with political and marketing professionals, Elections Canada should create a public education campaign to make voters aware of how parties collect data and what they are and are not allowed to do. A public education campaign conveying the simple message that Elections Canada doesn’t make phone calls to your home, and doesn’t move the location of polling stations, could act like a vaccine against devious robo-calls.
But that, increasingly, appears to be an example of generals preparing to fight the last war. The pace of technology, and the eagerness of political parties to use it to their advantage, means the potential for new forms of abuse remains. One day, Pierre Poutine’s antics may seem a quaint reminder of a simpler age.