The lack of connection between political parties and political campaigns makes electoral accountability and transparency difficult. |
Digital technologies and political campaigns: a risk for the 2022 elections?
We investigated micro-segmentation of potential voters on social media in Colombia and questionable company actions. Here are five findings.
The documentary The Great Hack drew attention on how the alliance with Cambridge Analytica and the combination of microtargeting in social media and fake news would end up giving Donald Trump the victory in the 2016 elections.
In Colombia, allegations of similar conducts in national and regional elections also made the headlines. In 2018, the former mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, was accused of having contracted with Cambridge Analytica during its 2015 electoral run.
Meanwhile, the former director of the company acknowledged having interacted with three presidential campaigns for the 2018 elections. The Colombian Superintendency of Industry and Commerce ordered the blocking of the application Pig.gi , due to its business relationship with Cambridge Analytica. Cookies from the company Nation Builder (also hired by Donald Trump) appeared on the websites of two campaigns for the Presidency in 2018.
The relevance of the issue is undoubted in the Colombian political context. New technologies are being deployed by candidates and political campaigns to advance their agendas and win. While they help the candidate reach his/her goal, they also create a significant potential risk for democracy and human rights.
As a result, with the support of Privacy International, an NGO based in the UK, Dejusticia did research on the use of digital technologies for political-electoral purposes. We focused on the practices of microtargeting in the campaigns for the Colombian presidency in 2018 and for the Mayor of Bogotá in 2015 and 2019. DOWNLOAD THE REPORT HERE.
Researchers Juan Carlos Upegui and Daniel Ospina tracked the web to identify the “public domain” relationships between political campaigns and digital marketing companies in Colombia, as well as the types of services offered publicly by companies hired for political campaigns in the country.
They also requested public information to the seven main Colombian political parties, to the National Data Protection Authority and to the National Electoral Council. Finally, they conducted semi-structured interviews with key figures, including academics, businesspeople, political communication advisers, journalists and experts in the use of data in the digital age.
We present the five most relevant findings of the research:
1. Colombian politicians use Facebook, but not as Trump
The results, which will contribute significantly to future electoral debates, are already disturbing. Although the use of sophisticated digital technologies for electoral purposes is incipient in Colombia, it has the potential to expand.
Our research found no evidence that Facebook offers or has offered -in the period and for the political campaigns studied- the possibility of individually identifying a user or a ‘non-voting voter’. Nor did it find that the platform has deployed digital technologies to build detailed digital profiles to increase the efficiency of political communication.
However, Facebook’s offer of advertising services, which allow audience segmentation, has recently been used by electoral campaigns in Colombia and is seen as having a very good cost-benefit ratio in the context of Colombian electoral practices.
2. The importance of social media is overestimated
According to the research, Colombian digital divide negatively affects the use of digital technologies by electoral campaigns, especially in regions where the use of digital media to obtain votes can be more expensive and less efficient than the old electoral practices.
Some interviewees agree that, despite the widespread use of social media as part of political communication strategies, this use alone does not guarantee good electoral results. In the three campaigns studied, the use of digital technologies and political advertising on social media did not play a definitive role.
They also agree that debates and trends on Twitter have a marginal effect on the poles. For them, Twitter mostly determines the mood of the different campaigns teams and the emotional exhaustion of their leaders. It has a limited impact on the voting intention of the electorate.
Some interviewees agree that certain people and companies in the digital marketing and political communication market overestimate the power of social media as a marketing strategy.
3. There is opacity in digital campaigns
Cuentas Claras, a monitoring tool created by the National Electoral Council, is a good initiative to make political campaign spends more transparent. However, precisely because of its general nature, it does not guarantee transparency in the costs of contracting digital marketing and political communication services.
As there is no relationship between political parties and political campaigns, electoral accountability and transparency are difficult. The campaigns disappear once the elections are over.
Social media companies are not transparent with the services related to digital advertising and political messages hired by the campaigns. Due to their status as companies not domiciled in Colombia, it is difficult to hold them accountable in this regard.
Political parties are reluctant to hand over public information under their power. We only got timely responses from two of the seven parties involved in this investigation. Regarding the other five, we had to resort to judicial actions and even so, after obtaining a favorable decision, the answers were incomplete.
This alone gives us an idea of the difficulties in obtaining public information, and in general of the opacity that surrounds the activity of political parties in relation to the use of digital technologies and hiring digital marketing services.
4. There are no rules for these activities
In Colombia, there is no specific regulation on the use of digital technologies for electoral purposes. These matters fall within the general regulatory framework of the Colombian electoral law and the data protection law.
Some interviewees agree that there is a lack of knowledge among people who work in digital marketing about the legislation on data protection, and especially about the mechanisms for reporting irregularities.
5. We anticipate new risks to democracy
Digital technologies that allow microtargeting for electoral purposes have the potential to alter user-voter behavior. These technologies become a clear threat to the freedom of user-voters when used to spread false news or manipulative messages to people previously profiled and prone to believe them.
These technologies, coupled with other tactics, allow the creation of “information bubbles” with the ability to alter and determine the way of seeing and interpreting the world of social media users. This is a threat to people’s freedom, to the construction of public political space and to the general functioning of a well-ordered society.