The digital age has brought with it new methods of persuasion. A lie no longer has to be told a thousand times to become true, as Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels argued. With the help of big data, candidates can uncover the intimate desires of every elector and offer them custom messages with just the format most appealing to them—all of which on industrial scale.
The technology raised eyebrows during the US electoral campaign. In Brazil, big data has just started to be used by politicians. Cambridge Analytica, the company in charge of Trump's online campaign, has started working in Brazil, in partnership with CA Ponte.
Among the services listed on their website are market research (finding out how the electorate thinks and behaves), database integration (centralizing several data bases to aggregate value), data analytics, (deeply understanding the electorate), audience segmentation (predicting portions of the population more in line with your campaign), and segmented communication (developing multi-channel campaigns for engaging priority segments).
A number of companies provide this kind of services, like CA Ponte. Up until the last election in Brazil, paying for boosting publications for specific audiences on the web was not allowed. The electoral reform allows this type of boosting, but the topic is still controversial. The legislation approved by Congress in Brazil stipulates that “the circulation of any paid online propaganda, except for content boosting, is prohibited.”
On December 18, Brazil's Superior Electoral Court released a resolution outlining the electoral rules and setting limits to online propaganda. According to the court, propaganda can only appear on the websites of candidates, parties, and coalitions—and must not be found on sites belonging to natural persons or private companies. All resolutions may be altered by March 5, the deadline for establishing electoral rules.
In early days, the contact with voters was strictly analogical, starting with the direct dialog with the population, in person on the streets. Also carried out were surveys by several pollsters, which attempted to gather data on the electorate.
There are also key differences regarding what used to be done and what has been made possible by new technology, says Fernando Neisser, coordinator at the Brazilian Electoral and Political Law Academy (Abradep). In his view, all these materials could be seen, which enabled voters to become familiar with the ideas of politicians. Now they can choose to show content to certain groups of voters without voters from other groups ever knowing about it.
On Brazil's main social networking site, this strategy may be implemented through the so-called dark post: a sponsored publication directed at specific people, which does not appear on the page that created it. In other words, a candidate may argue for the legalization of marijuana for those who agree with it, and say exactly the opposite to those against it.
In addition to affecting electors individually, excessively directing content may hinder the debate among society, Patrícia Cornils, a member of Actantes, argues. “Let's take Jornal Nacional [Brazil's most popular primetime news program], for instance. We can all watch it and be critical or supportive of what we see. But targeted propaganda is extremely fragmented. Only those doing it know who's receiving it. How can you promote public debate on policies like this?”
The topic was discussed during the Internet and Elections Seminar, held by the Superior Electoral Court this month. The court, which created a dedicated council for Internet and Elections, heard experts talk about ways to ensure a democratic and transparent election. In this connection, Fernando Neisser proposed the introduction a new article in the electoral overhaul which allows online content boosting, “as long as they are public.”
To make targeting effective, a number of countries avail themselves of the data generated when users click ad links and perform other actions online. Patrícia Cornils believes that Brazilian users “are extremely vulnerable” to this practice, as the country has no law on data protection.
Several bills are under deliberation in Congress regarding the topic. The main piece of legislation is currently being studied by the lower house, which created a special committee for reviewing PL 5276/2016, on the treatment of personal data for people's free development of personality and dignity.
Concerned with the misuse of technology during elections, organizations—among which Instituto Update, AppCivico, InternetLab and Agência Lupa—have launched a campaign entitled Não Vale Tudo (“Rules apply,” in a free English translation). In its presentation letter, the use of data is described as invaluable in optimizing the dialog between candidates and citizens. The text goes on to say, however, that its use should be made responsibly.
The organizations involved argue citizens must be given access to in-depth information about the technology to be used by hopefuls in the elections.
Translated by Fabrício Ferreira