Fact over fiction: digital campaigning in a post Cambridge Analytica world

By Alex Pearmain, co-founder, One Fifty Consultancy

Alex-small-and-cropped“Covfefe”. Even typos can structure a news cycle, when you’re a tweeting president. Such is the impact of digital tools on our political discourse, strategy and tactics, that the 2019 general election looks set to be the first principally digitally driven UK campaign.

This is against a backdrop of allegations of foreign interference, illegality and general mania about anything involving the word ‘data’. But how did we get here, and what can it point to about how we shape a better political future?

Recently, I hosted an event addressing these questions, with observations from a lifetime on the coalface of political campaigning from Theo Bertram, currently UK public policy manager at Google, and formerly digital advisor to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The milestones which pave the journey towards this digital dystopia are mapped here, but they can be broken into some distinct areas of impact

Political campaigning-001 (Nov 19)

1. The cultural/ideological origins of digital politics

Much of the contemporary landscape was shaped by individuals and groups with anti-establishment perspectives: from libertarian bloggers like Guido Fawkes, to left wing grassroots groups such as Momentum. Few centrist causes have mastered the medium.  This has also meant that the terms of debate have been broader than those of traditional media.

2. Speed and focus

Blair and Campbell’s famous ‘grid’ for message and news management, combined with the emergence of 24-hour news cycles changed politics.

The internet has now taken it a step further with multiple news cycles, and different cycles for select groups, within a single day.

Alongside this has been the ability to focus in a granular fashion on different groups, using digital micro-targeting.

Whilst the traditional postal system has seen political targeting happen for a century, the internet has given added levels of granularity. We’re now living in a world with macro and micro messaging frameworks.

3. So much difference, so little change

Despite all this technological development, the essentials of a strong leader, a competent party infrastructure, and clear disciplined messages are constants. For all the shifts in speed, data and tactics, good campaigns remain true in essence.

What can we learn for life outside politics?

Most people won’t ever run a political campaign. The rawness, time-pressured nature, and objective results makes politics an ideal microcosm to help inform organisations and campaigns with wider objectives.

We picked out the following as points of marked opportunity.

  1. Better targeted use of data to inform approaches: use data to shape the range of possibilities, not to confirm pre-determined routes
  2. Move faster: simply put, political campaigns go faster through cycles of action/reaction/counterpoint. There’s usually no reason decision journeys can’t contract accordingly outside of politics
  3. Spend on high-frequency rapid iteration activation: many brands and organisations obsess over aesthetic perfection, wanting everything to be beautifully crafted. Politics prioritises generating impact through more messages, optimised faster, timed to maximise saliency, not a single beautiful creative

Netflix has run some compelling but overhyped documentaries on the rise of digital political campaigning recently. These concerns are compounded by the trend to breathless journalism, paining the digital ecosystem as corruptive of democratic ideals.

I struggle to reconcile these current concerns with the so-called golden age in which journalists were arbiters of truth, unencumbered by owners or special interests.

If you do believe social media presents dangerous tools for bad actors, then I’d argue that logically it also offers tools which different politically engaged voices could use.  This would increase political participation and strengthen democracy. Anything which is force for evil has the power to do good.

Personally, I choose to be optimistic, and think more transparency will level the digital political playing field. The next few weeks might tell.

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