Almost three years after the UK voted to leave the EU – an outcome which some say was heavily influenced by targeted advertising on Facebook – an important new research project examining the impact of digital campaigning on democracy in five countries is about to begin.
The project will be led by Rachel Gibson, a Professor of Political Science from The University of Manchester. The key goal will be to examine how digital technologies and new forms of data are reshaping the electoral landscape and the nature and purpose of political campaigns, in both new and old democracies.
Focusing on the cases of the U.S., the UK, France, Germany and Poland, the project will provide one of the first in-depth comparative analyses of what has been dubbed a new form of ‘data-driven’ political campaigning. It will look at where this new mode of electioneering is emerging and ask why it is more prominent in some national contexts than others? Perhaps even importantly, it will address growing concerns about the consequences of these new techniques for voters, parties and the wider democratic process. What do the new opportunities for mass micro-targeting mean for the quality of voter decision making? Does it increase voters’ access to information on those issues that they care most about – or open the door to a tide of misinformation and deliberate attempts to manipulate voter opinion and choice? Are parties encouraged now to use the new tools to reach out to new voters and those that are typically harder to reach? Or does it lead to a concentration on the ‘low hanging’ electoral fruit – the already engaged citizens who are most likely to turnout.
To deliver on these goals, the project will draw on a range of established and new cutting-edge methods and data that will allow for unique insights into how and where the new practices are being deployed.
“This research will provide systematic and robust answers to questions about the impact of new political practices and their future growth,” said Professor Gibson. “There is considerable concern - and even panic - in many democracies about how citizens’ personal data is being used to influence their political attitudes and behaviour. The project aims to put those claims to the test, and see how the well-founded current speculation about negative effects of the new forms of campaigning are.”
The project is taking place due to the award of a European Research Council Advanced Grant, as part of a €540 million investment to fund research by leading experts from across the EU.
Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: “The ERC Advanced Grants back outstanding researchers throughout Europe. Their pioneering work has the potential to make a difference in people’s everyday lives, and to deliver solutions to some of our most urgent challenges.”