President Mauricio Macri’s electoral strategy is heavily leveraged on the use of technology to reach potential voters. Taking a page from former US president Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election, Macri’s team has been focusing for years on the development of deep data sets with which to generate segments that allow them to micro-target their messages for maximum efficiency. Being the incumbents, they have also crossed those profiles with official data sets from institutions like the ANSES social security agency, a practice that hasn’t been thwarted despite the complaints of the opposition.
According to Perfil, they have identified 32 segments this time around and are currently impacting 25 million Argentines online. Thirty-five million are registered to vote. Macri’s communications team has developed some 40 television ads and 220 digital variants. According to journalist Alejandro Bercovich, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Frente de Todos “Everyone’s Front” has put together 37 ads for Facebook and Instagram. They are also relying on messaging apps, particularly WhatsApp, where market penetration and usage is extremely high.
It is unclear what the level of investment in the digital campaign will be this time around, but it’s absolutely clear that it will continue to outgrow other types of advertising. Not only is it relatively cheap, it’s also incredibly effective, given the granularity allowed by platforms like Facebook and Google’s YouTube. Through their respective profile pages, it is possible to check how many people each candidate has working on their Facebook campaign. The numbers are revealing: Alberto Fernández has seven people managing his page, compared to Cristina’s five, former economy minister Axel Kicillof (aspiring for the governorship of the Buenos Aires Province) has eight. President Macri counts 14 community managers on Facebook, while City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta more than doubles him with 33. Their political wunderkind, the incumbent Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal beats them all: 37. During the 2017 midterm elections, the victorious Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”) coalition spent nearly 90 million pesos in declared funds in the City and Province of Buenos Aires, around US$5 million. That compares with Cristina Fernández’s 25 million pesos. According to LetraP news site, Macri’s coalition spent over 40 million pesos of those funds on digital advertising compared with the 5.6 million pesos put into play by Cristina’s Unidad Ciudadana (“Citizen’s United”). And, of course, we are talking about declared funds: according to several experts they represent approximately 10 percent of total campaign spend.
While it’s interesting to analyze the behind the scenes work of a modern political campaign, it’s important to remember that we have clearly not learned our lesson. The Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 pushed society to lose its innocence, but not to really take action. The British-US data science and electoral strategy firm run by Alexander Nix had stolen a trove of data from Facebook that included detailed personal information from 30 to 90 million people. Mark Zuckerberg’s social network was aware, it slapped Cambridge’s wrist, but did little more, and hid the information from regulators and the public. With that data, Nix & Co generated psychographic profiles of potential voters and then went to town on the undecided set by targeting their innermost fears and negative emotions. While psychology has been used for advertising broadly and political campaigning more specifically for years, this iteration was much more powerful given the breadth and scope of the data.
Not to mention the Russian influence in the US election that got Donald Trump to the White House, where Cambridge Analytica ran the digital campaign. And it’s not only Facebook, as Google’s YouTube is one of the largest players in the digital advertising space. The manipulation of attention to generate more money for Silicon Valley’s giants had become the perfect tool for targeting and convincing undecided voters. Not only has politics completely avoided debating the issues, focusing on emotions instead, but also the rise of disinformation campaigns has become the norm, particularly given the cloak of darkness and anonymity granted by the internet. For anyone looking for a deeper dive into all of this I suggest watching the recently released Netflix documentary, The Great Hack.
As the tide turns against big tech, the response has been mainly superficial. Facebook, for example, was forced to pay US$100,000 to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, allowing ‘Zuck’ to escape without even admitting guilt. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) went a little farther, slapping them with a record US$5-billion fine, which sounds like a lot but actually made Facebook’s stock price surge, indicating it was but a minor chink on their financial armour. Google has suffered some setbacks in Europe, particularly with the new data protection directive known as GDPR, while suffering the pressure of the publisher community. A new digital copyright directive should force the company to cough up a few cents for publishers who today are laying off journalists given the deep crisis afflicting the industry.
Back in Argentina, the vast majority of the population isn’t really aware that their privacy is at risk. Or that their personal data is being harvested and monetised by the likes of Google and Facebook, while Cristina and Mauricio gladly put down the cash for access to those treasure troves of information. Even worse, few have questioned the use of state-owned data sets for electoral purposes, as mentioned above, and the use of facial recognition technology that results in all of us being under constant surveillance without proper cause. That is as troubling as the public discourse where people and ideologies are being debated rather than ideas.
The digital campaign, with its growing importance, is a demonstration of our immaturity as a society in Argentina, but also
as a species in the face of a new, dynamic, and accelerating set of
technologies that promise to have an unpredictable outcome. We
didn’t realize the world had become essentially fully under surveillance the day we bought those iPhones and Samsungs en
masse. George Orwell’s Big Brother has nothing on Silicon Valley.