Political parties using your data in their campaigns not always a threat to democracy

New insights into how political parties use personal data in their election campaigns are provided in a new book published by the University of Sheffield’s Kate Dommett, a professor of digital politics, today (Tuesday 16 January 2024).

An portrait image of Professor Kate Dommett.
  • Research from University of Sheffield Professor Kate Dommett reveals the kind of data, analytics and technologies that political parties are using in their election campaigns
  • Her new book provides new and unrivalled insight into the way personal data is used by political parties today
  • With the recent changes in UK election spending limits, political parties will be able to spend more than ever before on digital campaigning which can have both pros and cons for voters
  • Professor Dommett argues that data-driven campaigning in political elections is not automatically problematic

New insights into how political parties use personal data in their election campaigns are provided in a new book published by the University of Sheffield’s Kate Dommett, a professor of digital politics, today (Tuesday 16 January 2024).

Professor Dommett’s research investigates the way personal data is used by political parties, and whether data-driven election campaigning is really the threat to democracy some claim it to be.

Much attention has been directed to the threat posed by the use of personal data, and the prevalence of increasingly sophisticated, highly targeted, and often invasive uses of people’s personal data deployed to suppress votes, manipulate voter preferences, or boost a candidates' popularity. Yet these claims are often focused on the potential threat that data poses and it's often unclear whether these concerns are realised.

Professor Dommett’s research provides new evidence to show the precise types of data, analytics and technologies that parties in the UK currently deploy. Whilst there has been much attention given to sophisticated practices, much data use is relatively basic. However, there are important differences in party practices, revealing inequalities in parties' ability to benefit from data insights. 

Drawing on interviews with 329 campaigners in Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US), Professor Dommett’s research reveals variation in the kind of data, analytics and technologies used by parties in different countries.  

Professor Dommett argues that data-driven campaigning should not be viewed as automatically problematic: “Data-Driven Campaigning is often viewed as a sinister threat to democracy, but data can be used in a range of different ways, which can be more or less problematic. Whilst there have been fears about fine grained micro-targeting, in practice we’ve mainly seen UK parties target messages at broad groups. What is clear is that data is now a normal part of campaigning, and we should expect parties to use data, analytics and technology to optimise their campaigns in 2024.”

This year, more than two billion people across 50 countries could head to the polls, including the UK with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirming there will be a general election in 2024.

Professor Dommett’s research is highly significant this year, due to the recent move in the UK to increase spending limits during an election, as it suggests large parties will have a decided financial advantage when it comes to the use of data in their campaigning. 

Professor Dommett said: “The new increase to spending limits on election campaigning means larger, more affluent parties have an inbuilt advantage when it comes to being able to generate the insights that data can offer for a targeted campaign strategy.

“They can invest in more sophisticated data analytics operations, where in contrast, smaller parties often lack the ability to collect and analyse data, limiting their ability to capitalise on this resource. This creates important inequalities that will be made worse by the new spending limits.”

Looking at the practices found within the book, Professor Dommett notes the use of data has led parties to focus their campaign efforts on key groups of swing voters who are important for election outcomes. She also shows that parties are neglecting certain parts of the electorate, having negative consequences for the idea of universal democratic engagement.

“There are important questions to ask about how the collection and use of data is regulated. Whilst data use isn’t automatically problematic, the government’s current attempt to amend rules that state how political parties can conduct direct marketing raise questions about the degree to which people should be able to consent to data use” she said.

“But there is also a need to be cautious about a rush to regulation as this could curtail the potential benefits of data use. Data can be used to foster more democratic engagement, with parties identifying and targeting voters much more directly on the issues they care about.

“Parties can use data insights to work out how to get the best type of information to the people they are most interested in, and also reflect on just how they communicate to these groups as well, to ensure their campaigns make it as easy as possible - for as many people as possible - to be well informed and get involved in the democratic process during an election.”

The book uncovers the differences in the precise type of data-driven parties perform, how not only regulation, but also the incentives of the electoral system and media environment encourage parties across different countries to use data in different ways.

Data Driven Campaigning and Political Parties: Five Advanced Democracies Compared has been published by Oxford University Press, and is written by Kate Dommett, Professor of Digital Politics at the University of Sheffield, with Dr Glenn Kefford and Dr Simon Krushinski.

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