What BIG DATA knows about YOU!

…and what politicians do with this information


Big data may seem like the next “big bad” in politics, but it is used by practically every industry: retail, banking, education, and even government.  So what is it? 

{Big Data: massive sets of data that can be analyzed to reveal connections between a person’s interactions and behavior}  

You’d be surprised to see just how many data sets are freely accessible online through a quick internet search.  But how much do they know about YOU? 

Most data comes from 1 of 3 places: streaming (data from services like Netflix or Hulu), social media, or publicly available sources (like data from a government website).   

The data itself might not seem important.  Just random little bits of information that, by themselves, are basically meaningless.  But the analysis of each of these billions of bits of information together is where they find value.  The insights gained from this analysis are used to make major decisions. 

But its not the sheer amount of data that is alarming, its what can be done with it.  

With a constant societal debate surrounding privacy, you may wonder what information companies can legally gather about you and what data is actually private.  The issue of legality lies not in the content of the data or how it is used, but how it was obtained. 

Back in 2016, Cambridge Analytica shocked many when a whistleblower revealed how they had been using our personal data.  Although they were analyzing the data like other consulting firms, they obtained the data illegally.  

But what do our politicians do with this data? 

Big data can change the outcome of an election, or at least the proper interpretation and application of the data.  

Former-President Barrack Obama’s relied on the use of big data in his successful 2012 reelection campaign.  More recently, Beto O’Rourke used data to launch a digital advertising campaign for Senate in Texas.  Although he lost, he now has the name recognition necessary to attempt a campaign for President of the United States. 

But its not just Democrats.  President Donald Trump’s use of big data has been successful at garnishing support through digital advertising on social media sites like Facebook.  The Trump campaign has done this in two ways; by advertising to the right people and by flooding the market with ads. 

Politicians hire political consulting firms to advise them on how to reach and influence potential voters.  These consulting firms collect and analyze data about these voters and use this information to determine how to spend advertising money most effectively, often through the use of microtargeting. 

{Microtargeting: a direct marketing strategy used to identify subgroups in the electorate and target that subgroup with tailored messages based on information gathered about that specific demographic} 

This information is valuable in a campaign where the goal is to advertise to voters in the most effective way possible.  It allows these campaigns to focus on their supporters and voters who have not yet decided, rather than wasting advertising resources on those who support opposing candidates. 

And how does this impact our elections? 

Although microtargeting can be used to help win elections, its not without its risks.   

Since these ads can be targeted at specific groups, advertisers have control over who sees which messages.  This can allow advertisers to put out ads with falsified information about their competition without being challenged.  If only people who agree with your message see it, then there is little risk on being called out on inaccuracies.  

Money also makes a difference.  It allows advertisers to bombard platforms with digital ads.  These targeted ads are tested, tweaked, and adapted until the audience engages.  This allows for continuous exposure to the same or similar advertisements until desirable results are reached.

Although not without its dangers, big data is an asset that can be used to influence voters, understand a politician’s constituency, and is invaluable for modern political campaigns.  Whether or not you think it’s good for our democracy, big data can change the outcome of elections and is here to stay. 

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