Revelations about the mass use of personal data for political marketing has dominated news cycles this week, centring on the firm Cambridge Analytica, who allegedly supplied huge quantities of private information from Facebook to the Trump campaign in America. A backlash has raged as a result, with the media shining a spotlight into a murky world that has thus far existed under the radar.
The result of this spotlight could be far more significant than just a slap on the wrist for Facebook and additional controversy for the already controversial US President. A clampdown on how data is used could fundamentally impact politics in the UK as well. The way political campaigning works, and has always worked, is by gathering information about voters and then trying to pitch the right messages to the right people. Door knocking, polling, focus groups – these are all methods of doing this. But the amount you can learn with online data outstrips anything you can get from weeks, months, even years of trudging through streets knocking on doors. Political campaigns in the UK have undoubtedly been taking advantage of this, and while the extent to which they have been legal and ethical in doing so is not known, this outcry will certainly force campaigns to be far more cautious with their methods.
And what would this mean in reality? Well, less unfettered access to online data could make it harder to target messaging as precisely. In recent campaigns, the amount of personal information at politicians disposal has meant that people supporting the same cause can be lobbied in completely different ways. Take the EU Referendum. The Leave Campaign was all about immigration, and it was also all about democracy, and it was also all about patriotic identity. Elections have stopped being won through a campaign, but through lots of mini campaigns, bringing together different groups to the same cause.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of all of this, one thing that is for sure is that if politicians are forced to move away from reliance on online data, we would see a significant change in how elections are fought and won.