The London School of Economics (LSE) has released a study on the impact of data analysis in UK elections, arguing that laws surrounding election spending aren’t fit to deal with modern technology.
According to Dr Nick Anstead from LSE’s department of media and communications, technology has totally changed the way campaigns are run, particularly as political parties are able to analyse data and target voters, in swing seats for example.
He argues that the Conservatives’ 2015 victory could be attributed largely to their use of tech and targeted campaigns.
However, the author states that this raises questions about how that data is used and how it relates to legislation on election spending.
There are two pieces of legislation governing election spending – one at a local level and one at a national level, in which national campaigns are allowed significantly larger budgets. Anstead argues that a grey area has evolved here because of the way that political parties use data.
He notes that national-level money was often directed to a local level. ‘If you have a Facebook advert that addresses issues that resonate locally, where should the spending be attributed? Similarly, what happens when door knocking is organised by a national dataset, but used to target individuals who might be willing to switch their votes in swing seats?’ he asks.
He also argues the need for updating election legislation, saying that technology has moved faster than regulators were able to keep up with. He cites a fine against the Conservative party and an investigation into an MP, two years after they won the election. There are also questions and investigations into the use of data in the Brexit campaign.
The author further opines that smaller parties are unable to match the massive budgets of the two main parties, noting that though the original idea of the internet was as a great leveller where all people had access to the same tools and information, this type of data-driven research and targeted campaigning is very expensive and is therefore only available to the largest political groups.
He advises political parties that data analysis can only go so far, arguing that in the 2017 election, young voters were ignored: ‘If you don’t reach out to voters or ignore them, then the data models become unreliable.’
It is not only the Conservative party successfully using data for their campaigns. He notes that Labour’s relatively strong performance in 2017 could be partially put down to them spending significant amounts of money on Facebook adverts, and ‘data-driven, localised campaigns’ towards young, student voters.
Finally, he says it is impossible to ignore the impact of an old fashioned, message-led, grassroots campaign.