Data-Driven politics. How Ads, Media & shrewd Microtargeting change elections

30 May, 2020

Facebook needs politics, and politics needs Facebook. Quid pro quo. But this is not a story about Facebook, nor Cambridge Analytica. This is about how politics is leveraging the power of data, and how Kenyan politics could adapt this international playbook. Key lessons, some of which I learned from Stefan Turkheimer an Attorney & Political Strategist, who was Former Deputy Political Director for Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential Campaign, during a recent webinar I was part of.

The role of finance in Politics

With a haul of $796.8 million in political Ads spent during the 2019/2020 election cycle to date in the US alone. At 59.4% share among political advertisers, Facebook is the dominant digital platform for political ads. This dwarfs Google’s $243.7 million, who come at a distant No. 2, (18.2% share) at a ratio of 3 is to 1.

Despite the Election Financing laws, which spell out spending limits for political campaigns. The Digital game makes this a lot harder to monitor or track. Even in the US where there are very tough election donation laws. Candidate and/or Ideal affiliated groupings are now fundraising & outspending candidates’ teams in Digital ad spent. In Kenya, this may not be relevant because of the blatant disregard or abuse of the laws.

Of note, though, is the leveling power these digital platforms bring to what was expensive campaign politics. As an incumbent, you had a splitting advantage to your opponents. In terms of; branding, the establishment, access to finances and the media. With Digital if you have an innovative & efficient opponent they can negate your advantage in a snap.

Leveraging Data for an advantage

Imagine a system which most of the people in the world are in. Sharing their about their lives & key events happening such as birthdays, deaths, weddings or anniversaries. Where they live, who are their family, when they were born, their ages. Their relationship status; are they married, single or widowed. What languages they speak, their educational qualifications, their ethnic affinity, if they are parents and in the US, their political affiliation.

The things that Interest them such as; business, are they farmers or are they small business owners? Their Health & fitness, are they a community of youthful people who like to go jogging in early in the morning or a community of old people who prefer to take walks in the evening? Their Food & drink, are they people who prefer to eat out in restaurants with friends or people who only meet up in the evening for their favourite alcoholic beverage. Their hobbies & activities are they people who like to support their local football team or meeting at the town hall to discuss local politics & events? Their entertainment preferences; are they into watching movies at the theatre or into listening to their favourite local band which has released a hit song topping national music charts? 

Their Behaviours, people’s behaviours tell you what they’re into. Such as their Purchasing habits, their job roles, their travelling habits, the events they have or are attending, the technology gadgets they are using among others.

That is the power of Facebook’s Ad Targeting system. At the click of a button from the comfort of your desk, Facebook enables you to Profile particular individuals at particular locations, whose support you need. You can tailor diverse messages for them and using the data on this platform, Facebook will deliver at just the right moment when your target audience is online. This means you can be virtually present at the precise moment & location, when and where they are, influencing the decision they’re about to make.

This is what a Digital Expert will call Behavioural or Interest-based Targeting. This makes Facebook the darling of political players versus Google, who’s targeting options are more limiting because you have to cookie-match.

Why Facebook Needs Politics

Social Media is the modern word-of-mouth, we don’t tell people things any more; we see them online. And none else understands the power of this dynamic, as our politicians. In my mother tongue, the term ‘politician’ loosely translates to “one who complains” or “makes an argument”. It’s all about the power of your mind & your mouth.

The trick when making campaign pit stops & speeches is to have an intricate understanding of who your audience at a particular location are & what message will resonate them. That’s how you become popular & win votes.

Why does Facebook allow Political Ads?
Facebook needs to support the political ecosystem because over and above the huge tranches of money it brings and access to influential lobbyists.

Also, political conversation drives engagement on Facebook, via posts in groups, pages & personal profiles. This is important for Facebook as it keeps users on the platform which converges with the political interests of political players.

The Power of Micro-targeting

Using Digital, conspiracists can counter political opponents narratives in real-time. Take an example where the Washington Times, perceived as a liberal-leaning publisher by conservatives, publishes an article that conspiracists feel attacks their candidate, in this case, DJT. They create alternative conspiracy theorist content and use the power of micro-targeting. By creating custom audiences that target undecideds and non-voters whom they deem to share in conservative ideals. Locking out the decided who are competitor leaning to promote that conspiracy content to.

To put this into context using a local example. Take a case-in-sample last week where Kenya’s Deputy President’s philanthropic team donated foodstuff in Kiambu. Within the week an alleged alternative donator branding in DP team’s packaging donated poisonous food substances in the same location. It meant to change the conversation from the good deed that endears one political player to the people. To an alternative narrative that quickly trended on twitter & on local news websites, both credible & conspiracy blogs.

Digital Ad platforms once hooked into machine learning applications make it possible to identify persons who resonate with your candidate’s messaging and your competitors, but also those who don’t resonate with your competitors and those in the middle. You can then create unique sets and classify each of these, then you can create fake content about your opponent and feed it to those who support your candidate and the undecideds whom you can sway to your side.

Of note, however, is that you can ensure Facebook does not display this promoted content to your opponent or his/her supporters. Therefore, they may never know of the false information being peddled about them, which makes it impossible to respond to it or deny it. Unlike the old times when the only channels were TV, Radio or Print and launching a sneak attack on your opponent meant that the media would broadcast it to everyone.

The Puppet Role of (Kenya’s) Media

News Business is an event-driven business, investigative journalism is expensive & with media houses smarting from a spate of losses to Digital media platforms who have disrupted their advertising-based business models. The easier approach is to play the game leveraging the power of Clickbait, which political players have learnt to manipulate. 

Politicians have learnt the art of using Social Media to direct media coverage of events. For any media company to be in the business they need advertisers. The model is simple, Advertising follows audiences & Audiences follow Content. 

Most media publishers & broadcasters will monitor trending topics on Twitter, do some minimal research, push out related news stories on their websites, then post them on Twitter tagging the hashtag to gain more readers on their websites & viewers on TV. Or create sensational political headlines that they know will trend online driving traffic to their website & broadcast channels.

Unlike their Chinese peers whom the rest of the world has branded as “China’s keyboard warriors”, these share a belief in China’s cause. Kenya’s twitter “keyboard mercenaries” do not align to a political grouping based on ideals but based on a financial incentive. Politicians hire them to drive twitter trends, however, if trending on twitter won elections in Kenya, then Peter Kenneth would have won.

Cambridge Analytica & Use of Ads

It all started with Obama’s Campaign when the political world became alive to the power of Social Media in political campaigning. Then there was Cambridge Analytica. These were purveyors of misinformation. Unlike all the process described above, which is purely within the rules & legal. Cambridge Analytica stole data & cheated the game to win.

But with Political Campaign Ads as Stefan notes.
The trick is not to find just the Undecideds, these are normally those guys in the middle. They do not align to a particular party that alleges to represent a particular set of ideals. What they have are very strong divergent views from either or both the Liberals & the Conservatives. These are easy to find & cheap to target with messaging that could sway their choice for your candidate.

However, using Artificial Intelligence & Machine learning, Cambridge Analytica figured out another set of people whom most campaign teams did not target. These are the Nonvoters, people strong on ideals but not likely to turn out to vote. Most campaign teams ignore them as they are lower in your funnel. Cambridge Analytica realised this & targeted them, though it is more expensive versus going for guys who you are sure will vote & are cheaper to target.

Here’s the difference, Free Education is an Ideal, however Affordable Education is Policy. Nonvoters do not show up because they view politicians as wishy-washy. Politicians are always playing safe and use policy messaging. Guys like Trump, Bernie & Warren, who’s Ideal based message presents a definitive result, appeal to them. For them, this is everything.

This Ideal based messaging makes it even more challenging for the media to act as a neutral fact-checker. Jonathan Swift once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” The general populous will trust a politician who aligns his/her message to their ideals. Trump & Brexit campaigns targeted nonvoters & engaged with them on their ideals, hence their higher turnout.

I believe a presidential candidate in Kenya who adapts this Ideal based approach in their messaging would overcome the tribe-driven campaign political barriers.

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