Democracy disrupted? The future of political campaigning

In July, the Information Commissioner’s Office launched their report, Democracy Disrupted? Personal information and political influence, which was informed by Demos’ report, The future of political campaigning, examining how political parties and campaign groups in the UK and beyond are increasingly using personal information and sophisticated data analytics techniques to target voters.

On Tuesday 13th November, Demos was delighted to welcome the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, along with a panel of experts to discuss the implications for the future of political campaigning in an increasingly data-driven world. Below is a summary of the key themes to come out of the speeches and panel.


  • Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner
  • Claire Bassett, Chief Executive, Electoral Commission
  • Steve Wood, Deputy Commissioner, ICO
  • Alex Krasodomski-Jones, Head of CASM, Demos
  • Dr Damian Tambini, Associate Professor, Department of Media and Communications, LSE
  • Josh Smith, Senior Researcher, CASM, Demos
  • Rowland Manthorpe, Technology Correspondent, Sky (Chair)

The Life and Times of a Regulator

Over the last 18 months, The ICO have conducted investigations on a huge-scale, across thirty organisations and hundreds of individuals, from political parties, data brokers, journalists, whistle-blowers and more. They’ve doubled their staff, especially their technical capacity. They have gained new powers, such as no-notice investigations, allowing them to conduct a dawn raid to seize information from Cambridge Analytica. GDPR finally came into effect, marking a once in a generation change to the data protection regime. During her speech, the Information Commissioner made clear that GDPR has certainly modernised the regulatory environment, especially around profiling and algorithmic decision-making, even if it isn’t perfect.

It’s clear that the ICO has been on quite a journey. As the Commissioner put it, the experience “felt like trying to change the tires of moving car on a roundabout”. Steve Wood, ICO Deputy Commissioner (Policy), echoed this sentiment stating that they felt a great sense of responsibility to tackle the depth and breadth of problems that have arisen around data protection in political campaigns.

The ICO have been able to conduct dynamic and fast-paced investigations not often associated with a regulator. Rather than classic linear investigations of companies breaching the rules, they instead adopt broad and wider reaching investigations. They emphasise the importance of following the flows of data through an ecosystem, between parties, data brokers and platforms, rather than concentrating on a particular company or case. They do however, acknowledge their need to move quickly and produce outcomes in months not years. Yet they also need to rigorously process evidence in accordance with legal procedure, as opposed to journalists and whistle-blowers who can publish evidence at will and follow a daily news cycle.

Issues that were once only discussed in backrooms and covered in the back pages at best have been thrust into the political mainstream. The Information Commissioner argued that this was a big part of the value of the ICO and Electoral Commission’s broad investigation; bringing the whole political data ecosystem to the attention of the public and making it feel real. Discussions can’t just be restricted to small rooms with the same people, over and over. Instead, we need to inform the public, so that they can critically engage with political campaigning practices and discuss how they want politics to be governed.

Steve Wood, highlighted that in addition to calling out malpractice and taking action in particular circumstances, the ICO should produce policy recommendations and take a look at the wider issues, such as future trends and what future elections may look like. The ICO are seen as leading the charge across Europe; a regulator that others will look to for establishing precedents and shaping how other countries should react. During the discussion, the importance of international cooperation with other similar agencies was highlighted. The data brokers and advertising platforms they need to regulate operate and store data across national borders, with no physical presence in many countries, making it difficult for any single regulator to govern their actions.

So what problems did the panellists feel they and the whole political ecosystem face? What solutions do we have available?


A Culture of Disregard

The Information Commissioner highlighted a concern around a culture of disregard for privacy by actors in the political ecosystem. It is understandable that campaigners want to take advantage of new tech to engage more effectively with voters, but manipulation in a system where voters can’t verify the origins of what they see or why they are seeing it is deeply concerning. The players in this area are being swept along with new technologies, but an understanding of its potential impact on the public or the ethics of their decisions to utilise it have often been absent.


During a presentation of Demos’ report, The Future of Political Campaigning, its author Josh Smith highlighted how many of the techniques currently being applied in political campaigning are not novel inventions but have been adopted from the world of marketing where they have been deployed with rigorous efficiency. In particular, the increasing segmentation and atomisation of audiences; in this case the entire electorate, political parties are able to target on increasingly narrow dimensions and their ideal audience may now be an audience of one.

Cross-device targeting is another powerful tool; targeting the person, not just their device or browser. For example, if someone searches for flights to Ibiza, an advertiser might then target them with an ad in their social media feed. Then, schedule an ad showing sunny beaches right after a wet weather forecast on television. Finally, give them a limited time offer just before bed when they’re most open to influence and impulsive decisions. This constant, orchestrated, barrage of adverts can be as powerful as one tailored exactly to your personality.

Voters seeing what is most relevant to them might sound good on the surface. However, Josh questioned the impact this might have on political discourse. For example, how do you discuss a campaign when you and your neighbour have seen completely different messages.

Moreover, political parties cannot live up to all the individualised promises that they make. Democracy is about compromise and negation; yet this segmentation exaggerates the personal at the expense of the common and makes a false promise that in a democracy you always get what you want. There is only so much bandwidth in politics and even with the best of intentions, a government only has so many resources, politically and materially. They can only hope to fulfil six or seven broad promises, not a laundry list of thousands of individual promises made to increasingly small sections of the electorate.

Beyond the Short Campaign

In the discussion, Alex Krasodomski-Jones highlighted that we need to look beyond structured election campaigning when considering this problem. Real influence is constant, by political parties and other actors, for example, sharing promotional material all-year-round through networks of influencers and activists or launching petitions on topical issues to gather personal information from potential supporters.

It’s not just in our politics but our society and culture. As recent Demos research examining the Russian influence on Twitter shows, those who aim to influence politics may choose to incite hatred and undermine the democratic process to achieve their political goals, rather than actively and explicitly supporting any one party.

It is not just a case of fake news, there is often much subtler and more targeted influence going on, and what was once obviously automated is now almost impossible to detect.

Broader Harms

The Information Commissioner noted that concerns around the use of personal data in political campaigns is just one part of a bigger picture, with the DCMS, BEIS and other bodies all thinking about the use and misuse of the internet in a broad way: not just electoral influence but children’s safety, the takedown of offensive or copyrighted material.

It was noted that more and more of our lives will be recorded in one format or another, particularly through the rise of the Internet of Things. Some might suggest just deleting Facebook or stopping using Google Maps but these platforms are so ingrained into our daily lives that many people simply don’t have the luxury to give them up.

Any decision about how to govern data processing won’t just have an impact on electoral campaigns, it will set a precedent across the rest of public life. We need to have principles that can be followed across time and circumstance. How companies evolve and make ethical decisions has data at the core but bigger than just that, broader corporate governance will have to play a role in stopping the abuse of personal data and manipulation of public life.


An Ethical Pause

This year the Information Commissioner called for an ethical pause on digital political campaigning to understand the impact of big-data politics. In her response, Claire Bassett, Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission, raised the point that in public attitude surveys, they have found that the public don’t think targeted campaigning is necessarily wrong but do want to know the source and to have greater transparency. Claire went on to say that it is important to be mindful of the chilling effects of any move to restrict online campaigning which could lead to the self-disciplining and restriction of legitimate and legal campaigning out of fear of mistakenly breaking the rules, especially if there are severe fines or even potential criminal prosecution. These could be of particular concern to non-party actors such as expert charities, who contribute valuably to public discourse but whose impact could be severely blunted without digital engagement.


The Information Commissioner argued that education is a critical pillar in a healthy electoral campaigning environment. Citizens need to be able to navigate safely online and understand a privacy notice. While there had already been strides in the national curriculum, more digital education is needed in communities. During the discussion it was suggested that a digital services tax could be used to educate the public and there could even be a need for a regulator for digital education.

Dr Damian Tambini of LSE, cited that there have been calls for education and literacy in the scope of regulatory debates for a very long time and that it would be challenging to give those proposals teeth. The Information Commissioner acknowledged that it is a very complex and difficult area to crack. However, she argued that she didn’t want to let agencies and companies off the hook from an obligation to communicate clearly.


Both the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner highlighted the role that platforms and providers need to play in ensuring transparency. Many companies are already improving on incorporating systems from the start but this needs to be widened out. Transparency should include explaining how algorithms work, not just presenting them without explanation. Steve acknowledged that there is a burden on regulators to look behind the curtains on organisations. Currently, this can’t be left to the public as until education catches up, most of the public do not have a deep enough understanding to know what to complain about.

A Bigger Hammer

Claire highlighted the importance of having effective regulators in this space, with the sufficient powers and resources. She was positive about the empowerment of the ICO but argued there is more to political campaigning than just data. The Electoral Commission needs to be able to track funding and where it’s coming from. She said there was some welcome progress being made, for example, on digital imprints, etc. but that systemic change of electoral regulation was needed.

A Code of Conduct

One of the ICO recommendations is a statutory code of practice for the use of personal information in political campaigns under the data protection act. The ICO sees political parties as being at the heart of this ecosystem, but currently without any boundaries. A binding code of conduct will level the playing field for smaller campaigns and should help prevent an arms race. Reflecting their desire to reach out to the wider public, the ICO have issued an open call for views about this code of practice:

A New Regulator

The panel as a whole was sceptical about the need for a new regulator as a solution. If a new regulator was to be created, both the Information Commissioner and Claire called for a deep and thorough government review of the regulatory gaps around political campaigning and online harms the public. However, there was a general consensus that a new regulator and a new set of laws wasn’t going to be enough.

International Collaboration

Although the European Commission has released a voluntary code of conduct for companies, many are looking to the work of the ICO and Electoral Commission as the UK is seen to have an especially joined up regulatory environment.

The Deputy Commissioner stressed the importance of international regulators working as a central challenge to get big tech companies to take things seriously as a joined up approach will have greater impact. For example, when dealing with AIQ, the ICO worked with their Canadian counterpart who stepped in to support enforcement actions. Therefore countries with no data protection laws, such as Kenya, could have a negative impact on the global ecosystem by allowing areas for invasive campaigning techniques to be developed without oversight by any authority.

GDPR had empowered regulators to tackle issues under a joint board, and The Information Commissioner was optimistic about the prospects for cooperation after Brexit, as even without explicit provisions they still have strong bilateral relations with other regulators.

Are Any of These Enough?

Damian argued that if there was an election tomorrow, the investigations, rule-changes and new powers wouldn’t make a large amount of difference; he would expect to see significant data and spending breaches, and foreign intervention. If an election happened in 2022, with a new code of conduct, he wasn’t sure that would be sufficient either. He suggested that there were big gaps in what is currently on the table, especially outside electoral periods or a particular jurisdiction and so democracy may still be undermined by the tactics of political campaigns and their misuse of data.

He argued in favour of a stronger cross-party process and a public conversation and examination, like that which took place around propaganda in the mid 20th century after seeing propaganda’s effects before and during the Second World War. Alex noted that whatever the UK agreed as a framework might look very different to what would be generated in another country. Would this therefore mean we have to ask platforms to operate differently across different nation states and cultures?

Damian noted that many platforms are frustrated by a lack of clear articulation on what society wants from them and urged that we need to clearly set out how we engage in democratic debate with platforms. For example, we could create citizens assemblies for each platform which bring together a randomly chosen selection of individuals, to provide feedback to that platform on their proposals or veto unacceptable uses of data.

Alex further noted that we currently target Facebook and Twitter, the companies most capable of cleaning their act up and cooperating. Below these huge platforms, there are many companies operating out of bedrooms that scrape data which we have not properly engaged with. We have to bear in mind issues of scale in any governance that is expected. What Facebook can comply with may not be a reasonable expectation of single-person operation. By requiring platforms to comply with rigorous auditing and processing of our data, will this limit the capabilities of the smaller operators, likely forcing them out of existence, leaving only big tech companies with the internal structures that enable them to comply.

Adapting Democracy

Alex highlighted the need for democracy to adapt to new technologies and information sharing as much as those systems need to be regulated and monitored. If our politics doesn’t line up with how we sell politics, perhaps we need to change politics as much as change campaigning?

The success of these new campaigning techniques, particularly the individualisation of the selling of policy, might reflect a latent demand for more responsive democratic institutions. We should look at digital technology as a way to engage with the public, to bring them into the policy-making process, to speed up decision-making and to allow for more parallel decisions to be taken. The same access to data and deeply connected communication channels that are so concerning could equally provide a path to a better and more in-touch democratic system than ever before. Claire highlighted that less than a decade ago the Electoral Commission was despairing about political disengagement. Now, we’ve seen record engagement, with over 70% turnouts and a resurgence in young people engaging in the political process.