TMT Blog: Election Technology – The Key to the White House?

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The US Presidential primaries are in full swing and Americans are gearing up for what could be the most controversial election in recent memory. As well as being characterised by extreme views and hairstyles this election is one that is demonstrating the increasing importance of technology in the race for power.

2016 is the year of data science and big data technologies can be used to achieve the holy grail for every politician – truly understanding your voter and creating personalised messages for them.

Amazon Web Services offers voter mapping which relies on similar software that Amazon uses to work out where, when and with what to target its online customers. Companies such as Cambridge Analytica use data-driven tools which rely on survey statistics to profile voters according to their personality traits. This helps to shape campaign methodology.

Digital campaigning has gone mainstream. As viewing habits increasingly evolve from traditional broadcast networks to on demand services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, campaigns have to be more inventive to target voters. Facebook and Twitter were the stand out tools from the Obama election but newer media such as Instagram, Snapchat and Spotify may play their part in reaching younger millennial voters.

Mobile apps have also become prominent. Tele Town Hall allows candidates to hold large town hall-style meetings with up to 500 voters through conference calls. Apps are even being used to count the primary votes themselves – Microsoft developed an app to accurately calculate results to prevent a repeat of the announcement of the wrong winner in 2012. This is significantly more sophisticated than the toss of a coin used to settle some contested areas in the Democrat Iowa caucus.

But as the use of campaign technology increases so does its ability to materially impact an election result. An academic study found that Google listings could shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more and up to 80% in some demographic groups with virtually nobody realising the results were being manipulated. Considering half of all US elections have been won by margins of under 7.6% this could determine the election outcome giving Google a terrifying amount of power, just from a simple change to an algorithm.

Pointing us towards the best place to get that Trump hairdo is one thing but are we ready for a world in which a search engine algorithm has the ability to choose the leader of the free world?