What does a new personalised era of campaigning mean for democracy?


A decade ago, there was one phrase we heard time and again, whether in a focus group, online or on question time – “the politicians are out of touch”. There was an overriding sense that politics was irrelevant, it was elitist and it didn’t understand or reflect the concerns of ordinary citizens.

Electoral media was limited. You had one party political broadcast to set out your vision for the country or maybe an editorial or a debate. The lawyer saw the same broadcast as the care worker, the voter in London saw the same debate as the voter in Clacton or Crewe.

Online party political campaigning has changed this entirely. Suddenly, each and every one of us sees a message directed to us and personalised to our interests. It enables a party to cut to the chase – to ensure you have the information that you need to make a decision. Archives of political advertising from the last few years include messages about fishing policy, flood defences, bull fighting and protecting polar bears. These issues might well be important to some of us, but would never have made it into a 3 minute segment on the BBC. This new era talks to a politics that really works for you.

But this personalisation of political campaigning hasn’t been good, and I think there are two broad reasons why. The first is an overarching failure of oversight. It has led to campaigning that is opaque and impossible to track. It’s hard to verify lies or apply standards and expectations and it’s impossible to hold the promises and pledges to account. The fast and loose ways in which digital channels have been used, the failure of technology providers to act as custodians of democracy and society, the failure of governments to ensure it is used fairly, transparently and honestly, have all contributed to the problems we’re now facing.

But there is a second, even more fundamental reason. Democracy is not like eBay or Amazon. In a world of personalised advertising we all see the shoes we might personally want, and we can make the decision to go out and buy them. Democracy however, requires cooperation, negotiation and compromise, and sometimes you get the pair of shoes that everyone agreed on rather than the pair you really wanted. Personalisation exaggerates the personal at the expense of the common ground. It creates a false promise that in a democracy you always get exactly what you want.

There are two sets of solutions. One set is clear – where the system is being abused, we change it. We change or scrap defective models of digital campaigning that are designed to overpromise and to disappoint, and punish those who exploit these technologies to distort and undermine democracy in this way.

But we might also look to adapt, and to find ways of doing politics and government that are more personal. This would allow us to make more promises, but also to fulfil them. Technology has solved the first bit of that equation: perhaps it can help with the second half.

If we don’t, we risk descending into a political arms race, where the party with the best data scientists, the best algorithms and A-B tested advertising wins, and all at the expense of the real, participatory, engaging and personalised politics the digital world once promised and that we so desperately need to realise.