Austrian politics is late to the digital revolution. Past electoral campaigns have typically focused on billboards and traditional media. But in the 2017 election, Americanization was on the rise.
Viewed through rose-colored glasses, Big Data – the collective traces of everything we do digitally – is the ultimate resource for civic democracy: Each data point can be seen as a “vote” cast, the crowdsourced tally reflecting the broad spectrum of human behavior, needs and desires. Social media and digital communication have the potential to mobilize a citizenry to action, amplify the voices of the underdog, and build communities of support that cut across traditional market segments.
Yet Big Data also has a dark side. Via social media, political campaigns can use Big Data to micro-target voters with misinformation and erode rational debate.
In the polarizing 2016 U.S. election, spending on digital campaigns rose to $1.14 billion (nearly an eightfold increase over 2012). While it vastly surpassed the amounts spent on Brexit and other recent European elections, similar digital strategies were used by several opposition candidates and parties to spread disinformation, create buzz on wedge issues and splinter formerly solid voting blocs. Austria’s national parliamentary elections in 2017 were certainly no exception. As it has been with most digital trends in America, Austria was not affected right away. Its relatively small population, concentration of mainstream media, legal limits on campaign spending (each party’s election budget is capped at €7 million) and data privacy laws kept its political parties in the old-school “shotgun approach” to electioneering – advertising on placards, in newspapers and via broadcast media.
“In the USA, there are 75 different TV markets, each with hundreds of channels and countless categories of media interest,” said Austrian political pundit Peter Filzmaier. “In Austria, TV media dominates the election campaign, as it is extremely concentrated on public TV (ORF) and three private networks. Traditional media campaigns are still more important here than Big Data.”
The drawbacks to this approach have become more and more apparent. “Parties must come up with a slogan, which must convince everyone, or at least all their potential voters,” Filzmaier said. “Just one example of many: The SPÖ [Socialist Party of Austria] slogan, ‘Hol dir was dir zusteht’ [Get what you are entitled to] was a very, very good slogan for some SPÖ target groups.”
However, it turned off some of their upper middleclass supporters because “they would respond ‘I’m afraid that something will be taken away from me.’ With Big Data, this would be done differently,” by targeting a specific message to each bloc, so that none of them would necessarily realize what others were receiving.
But Big Data also can be misused for destructive political purposes, especially by those seeking to grab or hold onto power against the democratic will. By splitting traditionally aligned blocs of voters into competitive tribes and targeting them with distinct, narrow agendas (i.e., “wedge issues”), unscrupulous politicians have weaponized Big Data and social media into highly effective tools of propaganda and demobilization.
These and other warnings were published in “Digitalisierung und Demokratie,” a Green Paper presented to Austria’s Bundesrat (upper house of Parliament) in July 2017. “Personalization of news and information feeds contribute to a fragmentation of public space and thus jeopardize the basic requirements of democratic debate,” wrote University of Hildesheim professors Marianne Kneuer and Wolf Schünemann in their contribution, titled, “What we learned from Barack Obama: The role of social media in political communication and electoral campaigns.”
From Global to Goebbels
Stung by Obama’s reelection in 2012, Republicans began in earnest amassing data on their core constituencies and organizing “astroturf” campaigns (artificially generated grassroots activism) propagated through clickbait content (often criticized as factually questionable propaganda) on alternative conservative media sites. One of the most influential outlets was Breitbart News Network, which was co-founded by Steve Bannon and received investment from the billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer. It has been widely reported that Mercer also invested in Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot of a British digital communications firm, and Bannon served as a corporate officer there.
Cambridge claimed to have mined Big Data to create psychographic voter profiles, which would allow its clients to micro-target audiences with emotionally relevant messaging. Data scientists claim that by analyzing only 300 likes of any Facebook user, they can know more about that individual than the person’s own mother. In October 2016, CEO Alexander Nix boasted that Cambridge had four-to-five thousand data points on every individual American voter.
Cambridge asserts it made a positive impact in the presidential campaign of Texan Senator Ted Cruz, who was Bannon and Mercer’s initial pick in the crowded field of Republican candidates. When Cruz’s socially conservative platform proved no match for Donald Trump, Bannon and Mercer hopped on the eventual nominee’s bandwagon and brought Cambridge Analytica on board.
Meanwhile, in England, the Brexit “Leave” campaign was in full gear. The Guardian has since reported that £3.9 million (€4.8 million, equal to more than half of the U.K. Independence Party’s campaign budget), was paid to an obscure and secretive Canadian web analytics company called AggregateIQ, which the British newspaper linked to Mercer and Cambridge Analytica.
Numerous U.S. and British media outlets have reported that both the Leave and the Trump campaigns used Big Data analytics to identify “behavioral triggers” and target voters with often misleading messages that mobilized support among their core constituencies and demobilized the undecided.
The ÖVP (the center-right Austrian People’s Party) adopted digital strategies relatively early on. In 2013’s national election, Philipp Maderthaner’s political consulting firm, Campaigning Bureau, started to build a database of supporters of the then-candidate Sebastian Kurz, who won election to Parliament that year and was subsequently appointed foreign minister. Last year, he took over and transformed his party, which won the 2017 election. Today, at age 31, he is Austria’s youngest-ever Chancellor.
Interviewed in December by the website Campaigns & Elections, Maderthaner said that in 2013, his company “recruited tens of thousands of supporters with whom we have stayed in touch ever since. We have involved them throughout the entire process, and they were a key factor that helped us give our campaign momentum right from the word go.” This database would grow in size and scope over the intervening years and would be used not only for messaging and organizing (the party developed an app that helped casual supporters become core activists), but also for online fundraising – very nontraditional in a country with public campaign financing. But, Maderthaner told Campaigns & Elections, “every tradition was started at some point… Viewed from the U.S., it looked like peanuts; for us, it was a revolution. Two million euro through online fundraising – 95% from microdonations.”
The Reign of the two Percent
Maderthaner estimates that the ÖVP’s digital operation made up 15% of the party’s overall budget. The FPÖ (Austria’s far-right Freedom Party) also claimed to spend 15% on social media. Among the five main parties in the race, only the SPÖ has voluntarily divulged its expenses ahead of the required one-year deadline. The SPÖ said it had spent €600,000 on “social-media activities.” Like many of her journalist colleagues in Austria, digital media expert Ingrid Brodnig bemoans the lack of transparent information: “We don’t even know if reported numbers reflect only ad costs or if they include the manpower” to develop online content and analyze data.
While campaign spending is opaque, the strategies of each party are more visible. Brodnig said that for several years “the FPÖ has been a tremendous force on Facebook. There were big doubts that any other party could be as successful.” But the FPÖ’s consistent rise was a wake-up call to the ruling coalition parties – SPÖ and ÖVP. So in the last few years, “Kurz and [former SPÖ Chancellor Christian] Kern both increased their fan base and engagement” by building up their e-mail lists and Facebook presence.
Fakt-ist-Fakt, an Austrian political fact-checking website, analyzed the Facebook strategies for each party. The FPÖ’s official social media campaigns were indeed focused on mobilizing the party’s nationalist-populist base and demobilizing ÖVP supporters by smearing the 31-year old Kurz as a “Spätzünder” (a late-bloomer). The neo-liberal NEOS party predominantly targeted Green party progressives with narrow interest issues (asylum rights and EU integration). The Green party, whose devastating loss in the election has left it out of Parliament for the first time in 31 years, targeted affinity groups interested in, for example, Marxism, Feminism and Veganism. The SPÖ focused more on activating its core voters than getting people to switch party allegiances. The ÖVP micro-targeted different messages mainly to its core supporters: tailored videos to startup entrepreneurs; anti-immigration messaging to people data-tagged as interested in police; and messages focused on “security and the rule of law” were targeted to voters considering a switch to the FPÖ.
“What was remarkable in this election was how Americanized the tactics became,” Brodnig said. In addition to crowdfunding and the voter-list databases, “the ÖVP was actively A/B testing the effectiveness of slogans on their targeted Facebook posts. I’d be surprised if the other parties were doing this.” Among the various iterations, Maderthaner’s 2013 slogan for Kurz, “Politik anders machen” (Do politics differently) morphed into “Ein neuer Stil – es ist Zeit” (A new style – it’s time) in the 2017 campaign. Maderthaner told Campaign & Elections, “For us, Facebook was … the most important recruitment pool for new supporters. Segmentation in the recruitment process was very agile, very data-driven.” Demographics were less important than online behavior: “How and where someone interacts with the campaign often says more than how old that someone is.”
A critical goal of Big Data analytics in politics is figuring out who the biggest opinion influencers are on social media and targeting them with content that will engage them to help make it viral. A study recently released by the investigative online magazine Mokant analyzed 2.9 million comments left on election-related Facebook pages. Austria has a relatively high concentration of Facebook users (3.7 million, 80% of whom use it daily), but the comments came from only 400,000 users. Mokant found that only two percent of these users are responsible for half of the comments, and only 400 people are responsible for 12.6 percent of the social engagement.
Dirty campaigning is nothing new in politics, but its impact is amplified by social media. The costs are lower, the attacks can be directed to specific target voters and the anonymity afforded by social media insulates the parties from shitstorms. The SPÖ was criticized for an online smear campaign attributed to its handsomely paid consultant Tal Silberstein, who reportedly created a Facebook page, “The Truth About Sebastian Kurz,” to appear as though it came from an alt-right source, complete with anti-Semitic code speech alleging that Kurz was in the pocket of billionaire philanthropist George Soros. A counterpunch page attacking the (then) social-democratic chancellor, “The Truth about Christian Kern,” was created by a user named “Boris F.” who has since been linked to the ÖVP. As with most “dark posts” on social media, any contractual relationship between the parties and such individuals or extra-party organizations is hard to prove, but investigations are continuing.
Divide and Conquer
The sense that the digital transformation of politics has polarized people into tribal camps has been more acute in two-way electoral contests such as the yes/no Brexit referendum and presidential contests in the U.S., France and in Austria. With parliamentary, multi-party elections, such as in Germany and Austria, however, the lack of a single clear “enemy” makes it harder.
Around the world, populist parties have the advantage of simplifying a message of opposition, and, online, steering targeted voters to like-minded sources of information. With his Tweets targeting the “fake news” and the “lamestream media,” Donald Trump has demonstrated how to engage his core constituency, while simultaneously dictating the content of easily distracted news media.
The European Union’s data privacy laws have mitigated the full impact of the digital transformation of politics. However, the rise of dark posts on social media– whether from meddling foreign states or domestic users – has many calling for remedies.
Civic advocates in and out of government are demanding greater transparency from the political parties and the media. To be useful to a voter, information about where campaign money comes from and how it is spent must be issued in real time, and not released a year or more after the polls have closed.
Under increasing pressure, Facebook is tweaking its algorithms to filter out dark posts, or at least reveal their sources. Fact-checking initiatives like ProPublica and Fakt-ist-Fakt continue to investigate cases of fake news, and are distributing software such as “Who Targets Me?” – an internet browser plug-in that tracks the source of dark posts and ads on Facebook, and collects this data (anonymized, they claim) for investigative purposes.
Has the initial utopian hype that Big Data would be a boon to democracy been replaced by dystopian fears that it will bring about tyranny? Not entirely, and its positive potential should not be discounted. Perhaps the rose- colored glasses need a stronger prescription, but it is already clear that the future of data-driven politics will not be your father’s democracy.