The Crisis of Representative Democracy
The Cambridge Analytica Affair
Underscores the Need for Democratic Renewal
Revelations about data analysis company Cambridge Analytica have been constantly in the news over the past few weeks over its use of social media data without users’ informed consent.
The prevailing narrative is to present the revelations as a scandal and as an issue of personal privacy and security. The gist is that the company contracted the creation of a Facebook personality test, “This is your Digital Life”. This app, downloaded by about 270,000 users, gave access, as is typical, to their own data as well as that of their friends, which multiplied up to data on some 50 million people. The Facebook users, while consenting to use of their data, were not made aware that the data would be used for political purposes. This data was then used for micro-targeting voters, particularly in the US presidential election and the British EU referendum.
This narrative depoliticises the matter by presenting it as a scandal involving bad companies and malpractice, making it an issue of increasing police powers over the internet and in the electoral process. Further, this narrative implies that, with good practice – if everything had been above board – it would not have been a problem to intervene in elections using micro-marketing techniques. By implication, by tightening regulations so that personal data is “protected” and shared with “consent”, and by strengthening the powers of the police and security services, micro-targeting would be acceptable as the new norm in the political process.
Underlying this presentation is a mentality that politics is an individual matter and political parties are machines that market themselves to individuals. This is a way of thinking that reflects the nature of the political process and the role of political parties at this time.
The big parties have long since strayed from the role they are supposed to play of being the mechanism through which people participate in politics. They no longer represent different social and economic groups with definite interests, and the party system no longer reasonably accommodates these various interests. Parties no longer link the state with civil society. Rather, these parties have become parts of the state itself, and all that is left of civil society are the arbitrary powers of state. The big parties form a cartel maintaining their position, while fierce competition exists between them for the top spot. These arrangements stem from and serve the politicisation of private interests, to the extent that the parties have become private interests themselves, operating on a business-like model with the electorate as their market. The scandal narrative is told in such a way as to reinforce the conception of politics as an individual matter and block people from looking at this reality.
In fact, already the 2015 election was being called the social media election. As Workers’ Weekly reported at the time, the Conservatives were spending over £100,000 a month on their Facebook campaign. All of the big parties had invested in big data software: Labour was using Nation Builder and Contact Creator, the Conservatives were renovating an in-house system, and the Liberal Democrats were users of the Voter Activation Network, which was used in the Obama campaign.
In fact, the $6 billion 2012 Obama campaign provided the model of the digital election. In 2015, it was reported that the Conservative and Labour parties had hired Jim Messina and David Axelrod respectively, who were both central to that campaign.
British parties in total spent £31 million in 2010, excluding individual candidate spending. Five years later, and the Conservatives alone were reported to have a £79 million campaign fund for the 2015 election. The massively-inflating amount being spent by the big parties and the increasing focus on marketing and now micro-targeting reflect further developments where the cartel-party system is itself in crisis.
This crisis is apparent in the lack of predictability surrounding elections and other votes. In one aspect, the crisis is one of legitimacy, with increased cynicism and disaffection with representative democracy. The old divisions of left and right no longer apply in any straightforward way, and the electorate is being divided differently than according to traditional party lines. Opposing factions within the governing cartel are finding it harder to mount successful electoral coups and voting is failing to resolve any problems.
As a result, parties are more interested than ever in targeting marginal seats. Electoral tactics have moved towards targeted advertising of a political party to the particular individuals in the particular constituencies thought likely to make a difference. Parties can tailor message to types of people or even individuals, if this will give them an edge over their rivals. We see then a development of the party-political system increasingly as a kind of business model, a marketing, product-selling model. Politics itself is becoming depoliticised as it is reduced to a matter of personal values, a matter of taste. The parties are appealing to emotional and other aspects, whatever might work, simply to get a vote. Politics as such isn’t even part of that picture; it is all kinds of motivating factors, representing a step further in the role of electorate purely as voting stock. Elections are becoming through these means much more socially-engineered with outright manipulation of the electorate.
How to appeal to this electoral market has become a large and sophisticated global industry in itself, and this is where companies such as Cambridge Analytica enter the picture, alongside the giants like Facebook. Twitter involved itself in the 2015 election with its announcement that advertisers, including political parties, could target adverts to its then 15 million British users based on their postcode via geo-location.
The general method is to collect large quantities of data, typically through social media alongside searching habits, tracking cookies and the like and the passing-on of data between companies and organisations – the same methods employed for online commercial advertising – and using this data to attempt to create statistical pictures of voting intentions correlated to address, lifestyle, and other characteristics. The aim is to guide electoral strategy, and in particular, to target the right messages to receptive individuals. The aim is also to automate this personal targeting.
People need to look beyond the presentation of the Cambridge Analytica affair and draw the warranted conclusions about the need for democratic renewal. Politics, which is about how the interests of individuals, collectives and society as a whole relate to each other, is by definition a public matter. Rather than being a case of legitimising micro-targeting of individuals through regulations, the revelations expose how deep the crisis of the political process is becoming. The political process should not be a matter of marketing to individuals for the purpose of extracting votes. This profoundly marginalises people from politics. The process should instead enable the whole polity to fully participate, including setting the agenda for discussion and selecting candidates for election, free of the disinformation that disorients people and wrecks public opinion.