This week we look at how political campaigns use data-driven targeting, and the influence this could have on the 2022 Australian federal election.

Click-to-vote rates

Data-driven targeting could decide the brand of your next toaster – or the name of your next prime minister.

Ian Bennett

New Business

Learning Organisation

6 minute read

An election year is upon us. For most, it fills us with horror – countless self-congratulatory advertising campaigns and hour after hour of media coverage. And yet behind the scenes it is a very different story. One of sophisticated data profiling and targeting, as major parties look to spend limited budgets on marginal seats.
In short
  • Access to online data sources and targeting methods has been a gamechanger for political campaigning. 
  • Laws were tightened following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but legislation has a way to go.
  • Our data will inform which political messages we receive in the lead up to the Australian election.
From door-knocking to digital
Where campaign data was once painstakingly gathered and opportunities to reach voters identified through lengthy interpersonal efforts, access to online data sources has made political campaigns, at times, dangerously nimble. Not only are profiling efforts significantly more comprehensive now, they’re a hell of a lot faster.1 And wide-scale patterns in attitudes or behaviour that could characterise potential voter bases, a cinch to identify.1 To top it off, the test-and-learn capabilities of most digital platforms has meant politicians can isolate and replay the campaign messages they know to most resonate with their target audience, pushing them further down the funnel to a vote.
The campaign that changed it all

Let’s go back a few years to 2016 and a company called Cambridge Analytica who used the personal Facebook data of 50 million users to help the Republican Party (led by Donald Trump) embark on a highly sophisticated and targeted digital marketing campaign.2

Instead of expensive national TV campaigns, budgets were re-directed to social media where, in hindsight, ROI was impressively higher.

The idea was to map personality traits based on what people had liked on Facebook, and then use that information to target audiences with digital ads. To do this, Cambridge Analytica used details on users’ identities and ‘likes’. But what was perhaps most effective was the use of look-a-like audience targeting, which opened up potential new bases in the hundreds of thousands in a few deft clicks.3 The value of this tool was not lost on Trump’s senior adviser for data and digital operations, Brad Parscale, who stated: ‘One of the most difficult tasks of a political campaign – distinguishing likely supporters from the undifferentiated mass… can now be accomplished instantly through artificial intelligence.’3

It also cannot be ignored that group-based targeting is simply more effective at achieving certain objectives. Persona-based targeting often ‘ignores the fact that people are social creatures [who] belong to communities and are part of influence networks that they use to decide what to watch, read, buy, and pay attention to’.4 Where targeting based on ‘likes’ may be all that’s needed to nudge a new toaster into your cart, who you choose to politically align yourself with is often informed, or reinforced, by your broader social or cultural context.

“Access to online data sources has made political campaigns, at times, dangerously nimble.”

Messaging where it matters
But there’s no point reaching the right audience with the wrong message.

By reducing budget waste on ATL campaigns, Trump was able to funnel it into ‘micro-targeting’3 – gradually increasing the relevance and frequency of messaging around subjects close to audiences’ hearts, homes and interests.

This allowed his team to address concerns at a local level, or stir up worries amongst very specific groups – a strategy echoed in another Cambridge Analytica-backed campaign: Vote Leave (Brexit).5 In this instance, politicians were able to target and message different regional and ethnic groups with very specific messages around leaving Europe, to similar success.
Voter data in Australia
Since how Cambridge Analytica accessed and used data became public, media attention and legislation has been passed to stop it happening again. There is little danger of such widespread data manipulation happening here, or is there?

In 2022, here in Australia, there are still some issues. Anyone had a text from Craig Kelly? All totally legal as political parties are exempt from the Do Not Call Register.6 Thus, any party with enough money is free to bombard us on our mobiles with little concern over rebuke ‘thanks to their political exemption from national privacy legislation’.7 Digital Rights Watch board member David Paris goes on: ‘Regardless of the information they collect and the information they use, there's no way for people to opt out, there's no way for people to say that the information they have is inaccurate, or they don't want it used.’7 To top it off, NationBuilder – the CRM software used by Trump and the Vote Leave party – is similarly relied on by many of Australia’s own politicians.7

While the ethics of using a piece of ‘non-partisan’ software, as well as the overall effectiveness of data-driven targeting in politics is forever under debate,7 with only 15 federal seats where 1,500 votes determined the outcome of the last election,8 it’s unlikely that these tactics won’t play a role in determining Australia’s next prime minister, in 2022 and beyond.

on Netflix’s taste communities
Your data doesn’t only shape what you see, but what gets made. Netflix’s taste communities do more than just group likeminded watchers. Like political messaging, shows are specifically produced to serve different communities. Case in point: Netflix’s VP of Original Series greenlit Shadow and Bone to cater to a neglected taste community.

Written by Ian Bennett, 52 Words by Abby Clark, editing by Natasha Velkova, key visual by Chelsea Abbott, page built by Kate Pendergast
  1. Katherine Dommett, Data-driven political campaigns in practice: understanding and regulating diverse data-driven campaigns (31 December 2019) Internet Policy Review.
  2. Kevin Granville, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens (19 March 2018) New York Times.
  3. Andrew Hutchinson, New Research Highlights Trump Campaign's Focus on Microtargeted Messaging via Facebook Ads (14 July 2020) Social Media Today.
  4. Ana Andjelic, Targeting taste communities (23 August 2021) The Sociology of Business.
  5. Carole Cadwalladr, ‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower (18 March 2018) The Guardian.
  6. Shalailah Medhora, ‘How is this legal?’ People are REALLY annoyed by that Craig Kelly SMS (2 September 2021) Triple J Hack.
  7. Ariel Bogle, Federal election 2019: Politicians are tracking Australian voters for their data (16 May 2019) ABC News.
  8. Josh Butler, Another hung Parliament? These are the seats to watch at this year’s poll (27 December 2021) the New Daily.

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