One of the main reasons why Barack Obama won the 2012 US presidential election was his campaign’s use of “big data” to target specific voters. His team created several versions of ads aimed at niche audiences, taking care to test each message.
Understandably, some are concerned about the potential power of these data-driven campaign techniques to manipulate voters. But have these methods taken over from electoral campaigns in Australia?
In short, not really. Australian campaigns generally rely on much less data-intensive techniques due to a lack of resources, doubts about the data, and ethical and philosophical concerns about the approach.
I am a political scientist studying political advertising in the United States and spent the first six months of 2023 in Australia as a Fulbright scholar. I interviewed campaign staff and political consultants about their use of various campaign techniques in state and federal elections.
My questions focused on political advertising: how it is targeted, how well ads are tailored to specific audiences, and how campaigns test their messages.
So, what do advertising campaigns look like?
First, while there is the expertise to micro-target individual voters based on sophisticated statistical modeling, most campaigns target broad categories of voters defined by age, gender, their place of residence or the language they speak.
Of course, this type of targeting has been around for decades. Campaigns sent mail to specific addresses or knocked only on certain people’s doors.
Second, although a presidential campaign in the United States can create tens of thousands of versions of an online political ad, such tailoring of ads for specific audiences is much more limited in Australia.
Third, ad testing relies heavily on the simple tools provided by Meta (owners of Facebook and Instagram) and focus groups. Large-scale testing with online panelists is rare.
In short, most Australian campaigns do not resemble the data-intensive campaigns typical of US presidential elections. For what?
One reason is that campaigns do not have unlimited financial and human resources. Ultimately, hiring a data scientist or creative team to design ads for multiple audiences is a luxury that most campaigns can’t afford. In contrast, more than US$6.6 billion (A$10.2 billion) was spent on the 2020 presidential election.
Second, campaign staff expressed some doubts about the existing data. Although there was a lot of trust in the electoral rolls provided by the Australian Electoral Commission, many respondents reported that public engagement on Facebook had declined significantly. Additionally, it’s now much harder to determine where people spend their time due to privacy changes to Apple’s operating system.
Additionally, some activists, notably among the Greens, had ethical concerns about the need to convey different messages to different groups of voters.
Finally, there is real disagreement over whether to run a data-intensive campaign in which individual voters are targeted with personalized messages based on their beliefs, behaviors and demographics. Not only is this type of campaign expensive, but some have argued that the key to winning an election is sending a general message – or a small number of messages – to as many voters as possible. Ultimately, parties want to know their candidates and understand their central message.
Will Australian campaigns soon resemble the data-driven businesses we see in the US? This seems unlikely.
First, despite public funding and some limits on fundraising, Australian campaigns remain inexpensive compared to their American counterparts.
Second, doubts about the effectiveness of micro-targeted, data-driven campaigns – and the data they rely on – show no signs of diminishing. Indeed, one person who works for the Labor Party told me that the party had significantly reduced the number of online ads it created between 2019 and 2022. The individual explained:
In 2019, we created 1,000 different variations of digital ads, all based on online experiences. We identified segments based on demographics or geography, and we selected the best performing ads. But I’m not sure how much value we got from this hyper-optimization: it was a technological fetish. We didn’t think about whether this was a strategically smart campaign.
Finally, although registered political parties in Australia are exempt from data privacy laws, this may not be the case forever if Australia follows Europe’s lead. New rules in the European Union limit the use of sensitive personal data for micro-targeting political ads.
Earlier this year, the Australian Attorney General’s Department released a revision of the Data Protection Act 1988. Among the recommendations were limits on ad targeting.
So concerns about the potential for data-driven campaigns to manipulate Australian voters may prove to be more hype than reality.