Big data is nothing new. What’s changed are the players, not the game.

Instead of focusing on big data, let’s regulate why campaigns want it and how they use it

Written for “Technology, National Security & The Citizen” coursework at Columbia University for Alexis Wichowski, 2018

“I love data” platitudes have become mainstays at almost any campaigner’s office. Having worked on a dozen campaigns — my title may as well have been data evangelizer — I was complicit in the propagation of these slogans. KPIs, ROIs, CTRs; data ruled everything around me.

Campaigns leveraging data to target voters by race, age, and gender is nothing new. Blurry boundaries around data is as entrenched in politics as cheesy slogans and kissing babies. What is new are the players, and whether we know how and even want to stop campaigns from exploiting the data available to them. The arbiters of this data now, the big four technology companies, arguably the frightful five, need to be apprehended yes, but I’d argue that the focus is misplaced not because the potential of exploitation is not pernicious, but instead because it takes away from the fact that campaigns demand, and will continue to, this data.

My job was to look over voter data — publicly accessible from election agencies — and then use online information to layer over voter files. Whether the information on Facebook, if someone was an environmentalist, a certain race, went to Columbia, is legal is not the point (it is), it’s more whether it’s ethical.

As a citizen, I understand that when I tweet about my support for a carbon tax, it’s public. But, I would prefer if there weren’t someone keeping note, noting my favourite song and then quoting it back to me while asking me to sign a petition about the environment. This is akin to the sort of data “analysis” that is considered the gold standard in campaigns. What I presented my team allowed for a creepy but also myopic understanding of voter behaviour. Digital campaign companies are now making more than traditional media platforms, this soliciting of demographic and preference data is the basis of the sort of retail politics that makes up modern democracy, it’s just the actors who’ve changed.

Campaigns can broker data from tech companies but they can also, and do, obtain it from interest groups. Unions have had a strong role in Democratic Party elections since 1936 when industrial unions helped Roosevelt win his reelection bid. Similar groups have been collecting personal data like members’ siblings’ names and even favourite pet’s name for years, only to forge familiarity when needed. Beyond IOUs, the relationship between parties and their support groups represents a de facto understanding that they rule over the same constituents, and hence may (and do) exchange information. Legislators, depending on their political stripe, are less inclined to regulate unions based on whether they are a beneficiary or not, and due to this data emerges as a threat only when it’s a product of the aforementioned tech companies. What this legislation represents then is the understanding and ability to regulate — something that currently, our regulators do not have when it comes to tech companies.

Without the knowhow around what the problem is, there is no will to regulate. “Big data” is an elusive enemy because we don’t understand it, regulators don’t understand the extent of it, and even those who started the companies themselves don’t know the possibility of their data’s potential. This gap between the data’s potential and our understanding precludes us from chastising campaigns and forgives them in using this data. We don’t ask why campaigns demand race-based, gender-based data, we instead blame the abstract, the data itself or the citizens for posting it.

It’s convenient, especially now, to jump on the anti-data, anti-Facebook bandwagon given that trust is at an all time low. This is dangerous because without consensus, we can’t get angry enough to demand change. Citizens and the environment around us perpetuate a conversation about the big bad data which help us forget about the ethically dubious tactics that campaigns employ intentionally. We are quick to blame Facebook for the ad when it was probably a campaign aide who decided to show ads for a municipal candidate surrounded by voters all who are the same race as I am. Apart from the ridiculous tactic, what’s at stake?

Democrats in Alabama won last year and many noted that it was Black women who helped usher in Jones as senator. Polling shows Black turnout has made the difference, something that has been noted because of how little Democrats work with minority communities. The fear here is that this support will be now be depended on. It’s not hard to fathom a case where an aide is tasked with scouring through Black profiles in a constituency, only to Tinder message them and target disproportionately, fetishizing their support. What’s at stake then is not the availability of that data, and how it’s stored, it’s that campaigns will seek this data out opportunistically, and that it’s easier to do so now more than ever.

Torontonian from Bombay in Brooklyn. Digital rights, immigration, and the Census. Read me on aunties: