‘Big Data’ and Africa’s political campaigns: The growth (pains) of Africa’s Technological Democracy

By Marthinus Swart

Analysis in brief: As ‘Big Data’ mining becomes more prevalent across the African continent, especially with regards to how political campaigns are run, there is hope that a more transparent use of political and voter data can be used to strengthen Africa’s democratic efficiency.

In the fast-paced, digitally driven world we currently inhabit, everything we do leaves a digital trail that can be used by a multitude of actors to gain a picture of who we are as human beings. We generate this digital trail when we browse the internet, move around with our smartphones, and when we talk to our friends and family on social media. Today’s reality is one of widespread information availability which has, in turn, given rise to the era of ‘Big Data’ – referring to society’s ability to harness information in novel ways and create new forms of value.1

‘Big Data’ has crept into how we live across a wide spectrum; from business, where it is used to predict future sales trends; to social, where it is employed by software developers to match people with suitable romantic partners. Unbeknownst to many, ‘Big Data’ has also crept into the political arena, helping political strategists find new ways to collect and analyse voter information that can be used to influence election outcomes. Over the last few years, the sophistication and use of data analytics to predict the future has increased, with private companies increasingly perfecting the use of effective data mining to create large data sets to identify, acquire and retain profitable consumers, calculate a person’s future customer lifetime value, and effectively allocate resources to maximise business benefit.2

Companies buying and selling third-party personal data are required to register with the Secretary of State in Vermont, USA
Image courtesy: Unsplash/Kevin Ku

This entanglement between consumer marketing and political campaigning has given rise to an interesting set of questions. Most prominent is whether or not ‘Big Data’ can be used in political campaigns to promote democratic efficiency and efficacy in Africa’s political systems. This question opens Pandora’s Box on whether there can be ethical uses of personal data in election campaigns , while also asking if it is still possible to conceptualise the public-private divide necessary for liberal democracy if everything that citizens do in the private sphere is becoming public knowledge.

‘Big Data’ in Kenya’s 2017 Presidential election

The use of ‘Big Data’ technologies has had a definite effect on the conduct of political campaigns. The data that is generated by the consumption of technologies, like the apps you allow to see your data, or the browser extensions that may be collecting or sharing your internet history with third parties, has become big business. So much so that The Economist stated in 2017 that, ‘the world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data’.3 This data is used to create curated profiles of an individual and can be used to target specific individuals with relevant ads, classify the risk in their chosen lifestyle, determine their eligibility for a job, or most controversially determine how likely a person is to vote in a particular way.4

History will remember that Uhuru Kenyatta and his Jubilee party won the election in 2017, and that opposition leader Raila Obinga challenged the outcome in Kenya’s Supreme Court and got the election overturned and rescheduled.5 It is however questionable whether history remembers the role that ‘Big Data’ played in this election. Two noteworthy Kenyan examples come to mind on how voter information is captured for use in the political arena. The first is the case of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission which carried out mass voter registration exercises in early 2017, and required that those that wish to vote provide their national ID number, biometric information, polling station location and phone number. These registers were made publicly available for purchase via an online portal, thereby providing mass data sets for political campaign strategists.6 The second is the existence of ‘bulk SMS agents’ who build and maintain contact databases as a commodity, which eventually get sold to the highest bidder. Though usually employed for the purposes of consumer advertising, political operatives in Kenya have in the past reportedly obtained these contact databases and bulk SMS packages from the ‘data traders’ to use for political purposes, such as sending personalised messages to potential voters.7

Branded vehicle of the SWAPO party in Namibia used in rallies.
Image courtesy: Pgallert/WikiCommons

During the Kenyan 2017 Presidential race, professional digital election campaign consultants were employed by both ruling and opposition political parties.89 Using data obtained from Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and the ‘bulk SMS agents’; political consultants were able to gleam large amounts of insights, such as a voters location, age and voting history, from public electorate data. This allowed consultants working for political parties to micro-target voters on social media and internet platforms with ads that were specifically curated according to the recipient’s collected data. This allowed for the creation of divisive political strategies focused on portraying their candidate of choice in a positive light while discrediting the opposing candidate.10 This can be interpreted as a way of influencing the political agency of the voting public, as well as creating a rift in the political process, leading to political violence. What is arguably most important is the context in which this technology is deployed.

Utilising ‘big data’ in political campaigns to improve Africa’s democratic efficiency

Detailed audience segmentation, cross-device targeting, the growth in use of ‘psychographics’ and the use of Artificial Intelligence to target, measure and improve political decision making, can all be harnessed to enable a more participatory and efficient system of democracy than ‘Indirect Democracy’, the process of voting representatives into power to make decisions on behalf of the population, could ever hope to achieve. Instead of fearing these new technologies, they should be something that can be utilised outside of the commercial and influencer realm to increase how ordinary African’s needs are responded to by the political candidate campaigning for their vote. As Data Analytics becomes more advanced and their predictive capabilities increase in accuracy, the world may need to internalise the fact that decision making through majority rule is no longer the most accurate and sought after method to solve a problem. Already in 2015, researchers from the University of Cambridge and Stanford University released a study highlighting that computers’ judgements of people’s personalities based on their digital footprints are more accurate and valid than judgements made by close family/friends or acquaintances.11

One of the areas in which Africa’s democracies continually struggle is voter apathy, and yet this seems to be one of the main areas in which these data driven technologies can make a difference. In a study of 61-million people conducted in the United States in 2010, researchers did an experiment to explain how 350 000 more people showed up at the ballot box, because of a single Facebook message, as opposed to the previous election.12 The utility of ‘Big Data’ can be employed to better identify and address the causes of political apathy within African countries, by relying on the social aspect of political mobilisation. Through effectively gathering and utilising ‘Big Data’ to better understand the African voting population, future political campaigns can be organised around addressing these issues, using the power of voter data to create political campaigns centred around the needs of voters, utilising the positive benefits of ‘Big Data’ to combat voter apathy.

Digital footprints becoming the blueprint for the future

Humans have been entangled with their technological creations from the start of our evolution, and as humans living in the present digital world; we are still using technologies to improve our survival efficiency. Unfortunately, the inescapable reality is that every piece of technological innovation carries with it both negative and positive attributes. Humans who first controlled the use of fire may have burnt their fingers, but it did not mean the technology became irredeemable or feared. The marriage of ‘Big Data’ and political campaigns should be seen in the same light; as a tool to be used for the overall bettering of human lives, even when there are some growing pains attached to learning how to utilise the technology.

Africa has at its disposal the technological means to change its developmental trajectory, in both the economic and political sphere. Through the utilisation of the positive forces of ‘Big Data’, Africa has been granted the opportunity to change the function of political campaigns; transforming them into voter centric data driven campaigns, instead of the political sales pitches Africans get to ‘participate’ in every election cycle. The undeniable reality is that ‘Big Data’ has been and will continue to be used to influence election outcomes. This should not be seen as a threat, instead, it should be seen as an opportunity for African’s to deploy the uses of ‘Big Data’ through a decentralised bottom-up structure. Allowing political candidates and campaigns to become receptive to the needs of voters and adjust their policies accordingly. Enhancing Africa’s Democratic system through the incorporation of data driven technologies, based on Africa’s digital footprint, will allow Africa to take a step forward in how it approaches political campaigns and the process of Democracy.

Critical Points:

  • The reality that ‘Big Data’ has arrived and become an explicit part of our lives, economically, socially and politically, is a reality that cannot be ignored anymore.
  • For many voters on the African continent, the use of ‘Big Data’ has already had an effect on their political lives. This was seen in the 2017 Kenyan national election, when professional digital election campaign consultants were hired by political parties to increase their parties share of the national vote.
  • Instead of fearing the use of ‘Big Data’ in elections, the argument is made that Africa has the opportunity to use this new technology to enhance its Democratic dividend, making elections voter centric data driven campaigns centred around positive change.

1 Mayer-Schonberger, V. & Kennerth Cukier ‘Big Data: A revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work And Think’, John Murray Publishers, 2013
2 Christl W., ‘Corporate Surveilance in Everyday Life: How companies Collect, Combine, Analyze, Trade and use Personal Data on Billions’, Cracked Labs, June 2017. https://crackedlabs.org/dl/CrackedLabs_Christl_CorporateSurveillance.pdf
3 ‘The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil but data’, The Economist, May 2017. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2017/05/06/the-worlds-most-valuable-resource-is-no-longer-oil-but-data
4‘Here are the data brokers quietly buying and selling your personal information’, Fast Company, March 2019. https://www.fastcompany.com/90310803/here-are-the-data-brokers-quietly-buying-and-selling-your-personal-information
5 ‘What went wrong with Kenya’s Elections?’, Council on Foreign Relations, November 2017.https://www.cfr.org/expert-brief/what-went-wrong-kenyas-elections
6 ‘Kenya: Data and Digital Election Campaigning’, Tactical Tech, July 2018. https://ourdataourselves.tacticaltech.org/posts/overview-kenya/
7 Ibid.
8 ‘Kenyatta, Jubilee hire British data analytics firm to boost campaigns’, Africa Times, May 2017. https://africatimes.com/2017/05/11/kenyatta-jubilee-hire-british-data-analytics-firm-to-boost-campaigns/
9‘Deported US data firm boss Phillips tells of painful experience’, Daily Nation, August 2017. https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Deported-US-data-firm-boss-Phillips-tells-of-painful-experience/1056-4049056-kde90tz/index.html
10 ‘Trump-Connected Firm Helped Sow Chaos in Kenyan Election, Report Says’, The Intercept, December 2017. https://theintercept.com/2017/12/13/trump-connected-firm-helped-sow-chaos-in-kenyan-election-report-says/
11 ‘Computer-based personality judgements are more accurate than those made by humans’, PNAS, January 2015. https://www.pnas.org/content/112/4/1036
12 ‘Facebook Boosts Voter Turnout’, UC San Diego News Center, September 2012. https://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/pressrelease/facebook_fuels_the_friend_vote

The views expressed are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of In On Africa.