Sunday, 18 November 2012

Politics and data crunching

One of the interesting points to emerge in the aftermath of the US presidential election is that Obama beat Romney because he had better data crunchers on his side. An article by Michael Scherer in Time magazine explains a lot about how the Democrats used a big voter database to identify what would work with various groups of voters, ran countless projections, and used the information to whip up donations and get the vote out before and on polling day.

I’m sure this is going to have implications for politics in Britain, where the main parties have always got an eye on the latest techniques to find an edge on election days. Data analytics is already a big thing in the business world, and its potential for analysing and exploiting human behaviour makes it an obvious weapon for politicians. And it makes me wonder if this is going to be good or bad for politics.

We’re all familiar with the usual complaints about the way politicians try to get into our good books and scare us away from their opponents. You can call it spin, distortion or outright lying, and while it tends to make a bad impression on anyone who takes a thoughtful interest in politics, it’s highly effective on those who pay no more than a passing attention. And millions of the latter turn out to vote, which is why political parties spin, distort and lie out of habit.

Obama’s win has prompted some speculation that the days of the propaganda merchants are numbered. There’s an argument going around that the data crunchers are becoming more powerful than the spin merchants, and in future elections the use of the voter databases is going to make the most difference in who wins and loses. On first glance that’s mildly encouraging. It may not be inspiring, but there’s something positive about the suggestion that the parties will pay more attention to tapping up their support and making a good impression than using scare stories to hurt the other side. It’s not sexy, but it’s clean.

But looking a little further down the line I don’t see the spin/smear merchants going away. It wouldn’t be long before the data analytics is combined with a series of negative messages – which don’t have to be based on fact – to tilt the balance. Those voter databases can be used to target different groups more effectively, getting them to respond not so much to reminders of who they support, but the fears that can scare them away from a candidate who could otherwise win their vote. Elections could be settled not by one or two big lies, but a series of little lies that touch the buttons of different groups of voters. Give it a few years, and we’ll be reading reports of how the data crunchers have helped the spin merchants bring one or other party to power.

Sorry, it sounds cynical, but that’s politics.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

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