Technology: ‘Big Data’ transforming electoral politics in India

Data collection, analytics, technology and social media are changing the process of ‘elections’ beyond recognition. India too is catching up fast

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Anil K Antony

“Data is the new natural resource.” “We are at the beginning of an era where data is the new oil” was a recent statement made by none other than Mukesh Ambani, Chairman of Reliance Industries.

Each and every activity of ours in these times generates data—with or without our knowledge. Our mobile phones, our personal computers, our social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the applications we download, the web pages we visit, our home and office sensors—all of them generate humongous volumes of information. In fact, IBM says that over 90% of the world’s existing data has been generated just in the last two years.

The contemporary times are also seeing advancements in the world of mathematical modeling and computing, unprecedented in human history. The scenario has created powerful possibilities where any large volumes of the most complex information can be analysed to take well-informed decisions not even remotely conceivable in the past. One such area where data-driven technologies are making an indelible impression is in the manner the democratic world elects their political leaders.

Obama and Trump campaigns

It is unsurprising that it was in the United States, the pioneer in global technological innovations, that the world of political campaigns and elections saw the grand entrance of ‘Big Data’. Barack Obama, a young first-time senator, used social media platforms to reach voluminous masses and tapped the internet to raise unprecedented amount of campaign financing from small donors to out-compete established heavyweights in 2008. Those were the groundbreaking innovations then! How times have changed—technologically and politically!

2012 saw the Obama campaign creating an analytic department five times as large as its 2008 team and the campaign strategists, for the first time, relied more on Big Data analytics than traditional media consultants. Personalised messages were sent via social media platforms to prospective voters to ensure higher voter turnout and to influence swing voters. The rest of the world followed suit in a frenzy and the Indian Parliamentary elections in 2014 saw digital campaign strategists from across the political spectrum adopting many of these proven tools.

Arvind Gupta, head of the BJP’s IT cell during the 2014 elections, had said that for a period of 18 months, particularly between December 2012 and February 2014, the party’s “primary campaign was on digital and social media” including years of meticulous data collection.

The 2016 American Presidential elections have pushed the applications of Big Data in the political landscape to never seen before frontiers. In spite of the Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton’s highly impressive and established digital media and analytical team that could have rivaled any contemporary Silicon Valley startup, it was Donald Trump who raised the bar to never seen before highs.

A UK-based Big Data firm, Cambridge Analytica, collected over 4,000 data points for every adult American citizen from myriad sources. According to Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, "We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people," The data was meticulously used to create a psychometric profile for each individual voter, formulate optimised campaign marketing strategies and create personalised voting pitches for various voting segments.

One such instance was in a district in Florida, a state frequently tormented by natural disasters, where the Trump campaign gave its inhabitants news on the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti to keep the voters in the predominantly Democratic leaning area away from the ballot box. Trump won the crucial swing state by a narrow margin. The same firm had also deployed targeted ads in the ‘Brexit’ leave campaign!

It is only a matter of time before these disruptive tools reach India with our fast-growing smart phone numbers, ever rising Internet penetration and with the world’s largest, fastest growing, tech savvy young population.

Catching up with the BJP

The Indian opposition parties strived hard to catch up with the Bharatiya Janata Party politically and technologically during the just concluded five state elections. The Aam Aadmi Party relied heavily on the digital space for their impressive inroads into Punjab, finishing second ahead of the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance. Ace psephologist Prashant Kishor’s data-based approaches were key strategic drivers of the Congress-Samajwadi ‘Grand Alliance’ in Uttar Pradesh and the Congress in Punjab and Uttarakhand.

The growing importance of Big Data in our electoral processes also raises some pertinent questions for the future. Prescience of voter psychometrics could lead to political parties and candidates reaching out to their prospective voters with tailor-made messages that would give them the best probability to earn their allegiance.

Social media and Big Data are increasingly turning political discourses into “echo chambers” where people with similar beliefs interact with each other completely oblivious to opposing stances. It might lead to candidates and political parties turning a deaf ear to those who are unlikely to vote for them. There are growing fears that the elections of the future would finally just turn out to be very large targeted advertisement and marketing campaigns.

Big Data and Privacy

Several privacy campaigners and digital rights protection groups across the world are raising increasing concerns on the data collection methods of the Big Data firms, many a times without the consent or realisation of the individuals whose information is being collected. Technology would then inadvertently end up undermining our democratic values and systems instead of the intended strengthening.

A quintessential Indian election season accompanied by its massive road shows, boisterous rallies and lively door-to-door vote-seeking makes it a spectacle without parallel anywhere around the globe. With almost 70% of our population still residing in rural areas and the premium an Indian voter places on personal interactions with their candidates and vote canvassers, the conventional campaign practices will continue playing an important role in our elections for the foreseeable future.

But our era has seen technology make steady, irreversible, inevitable inroads into every sphere of our lives and Big Data in our electoral processes seems like no exception. It is all set to play an even greater and more decisive role in our future elections. Those who adapt will survive and thrive.

Anil K Antony is a Venture Architect and a Social and Technology entrepreneur. He tweets at @anilkantony

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Published: 27 Mar 2017, 3:48 PM