Technical ReportPDF Available

Potential Impact of Social Media and Data-Driven Campaigning on Democracy: A Perspective from Québec

Authors:

Abstract

Submission to the Inquiry into the Impact of Social Media on Elections and Electoral Administration, Electoral Matters Committee, Parliament of Victoria (Australia). According to Garnett and James (2020), three fundamental principles are requisite in a democracy: deliberative opportunities, equal participation, and electoral management. All three are challenged by digital technologies. We take these principles as the anchor of our submission. Based on the results of our recent research focusing mainly on political actors and their campaigns in Québec and Canada, our objective is to present how social media contributes to changing elections from the perception of electoral organizations – candidates, strategists, and activists. How campaigning on social media using data-driven techniques affect their role and their actions? How can these changes impact elections and democracy? Have the main actions taken by the governments of Québec and Canada been sufficient?
Potential Impact of Social Media and Data-Driven Campaigning on Democracy:
A Perspective from Québec
Submission to the Inquiry into the Impact of Social Media on Elections and Electoral
Administration, Electoral Matters Committee, Parliament of Victoria (Australia)
Philippe R. Dubois
Prof. Thierry Giasson
Prof. Eric Montigny
Groupe de recherche en communication politique (GRCP)
Université Laval
Political Science Department
Charles De-Koninck Building
1030, Sciences-Humaines Avenue
Québec City (Québec) G1V 0A6
Canada
September 30th 2020
Pavillon Charles-De Koninck
1030, avenue des Sciences-Humaines
Bureau 3449
Université Laval pol@pol.ulaval.ca
Québec (Québec) G1V 0A6 CANADA www.pol.ulaval.ca
2
Faculty of Social Sciences
Political Science Department
Québec City, September 30th 2020
Lee Tarlamis OAM MP, Chair
Electoral Matters Committee
Parliament House, Spring Street
East Melbourne VIC 3002
Australia
Dear Mr Tarlamis,
Following your letter of August 11th, it is our pleasure to send you our submission as part
of the Inquiry into the Impact of Social Media on Elections and Electoral Administration.
We thank you for giving us the opportunity to provide our observations on this important
issue.
Our submission is based on our recent research, the results of which have been
published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science and Internet Policy Review,
among others. As researchers in the Groupe de recherche en communication politique
(Political Communication Research Group, GRCP) at Université Laval, we have studied
the impact of social media on politics in Québec and Canada. We believe our
observations may be relevant in the Australian context as well.
Much has already been written on privacy issues, especially since the Cambridge
Analytica scandal. This is why we address other issues related to the role of social
media in politics. Our submission focuses on recent transformations in electoral
communication and its consequences for partisan organizations. By adopting the
perspective of political actors, we seek to analyze the impacts of social media and data-
driven campaigns for three pillars of democracy: opportunities for deliberation, equal
participation, and electoral management. We then mention the main actions taken by the
Government of Québec and the Government of Canada to address these issues. We
Pavillon Charles-De Koninck
1030, avenue des Sciences-Humaines
Bureau 3449
Université Laval pol@pol.ulaval.ca
Québec (Québec) G1V 0A6 CANADA www.pol.ulaval.ca
3
end with a few recommendations which, in our opinion, should be part of a reflection on
the state of democracy in a rapidly and continuously changing digital environment.
We believe that parliaments like the National Assembly of Québec and the Parliament of
Victoria have an important role to play in preserving a healthy and vibrant democracy.
We hope that these few observations will be useful for the work of the Committee.
Sincerely yours,
Philippe R. Dubois
Professor Thierry Giasson
Professor Eric Montigny
Groupe de recherche en communication politique (GRCP)
Political Science Department
Université Laval, Québec City (Québec, Canada)
4
CONTENTS
Introduction ....................................................................................................................... 5
1. Different states, different storms? ................................................................................. 6
2. The changing nature of electoral communication ......................................................... 7
3. Possible threats to democracy ...................................................................................... 9
4. Some thoughts on government actions in Québec and Canada ................................ 11
Conclusion ...................................................................................................................... 13
References ...................................................................................................................... 15
About the authors ............................................................................................................ 18
5
INTRODUCTION
Political parties, like other political actors, adapt to social and technological changes by
integrating new means of communication and mobilization in their campaign arsenal. This
is true both for the strategic planning phase and the tactical implementation of the
campaigns. Thus, social media can serve as a source of information to develop a strategy,
and as a communication channel to deploy it (Giasson et al., 2019; Montigny, 2015). In a
political marketing paradigm (Lees-Marshment, 2001) and a permanent campaign context
(Van Onselen and Errington, 2007), digital technologies are also used for data-driven
electioneering. Therefore, micro-targeting plays a central role in electoral communication.
Micro-targeting is the strategic use of resources […] designed to focus communication
efforts on small segments of the electorate whose socio- and geo-demographic profiles
indicate a propensity for supporting the sponsor [which relies on] complex voter profiling
activities or databases (Marland et al., 2014). This somewhat recent trend in
electioneering “represents a shift […] to more individualized messaging based on
predictive models and scoring (Bennett and Lyon, 2019). It is particularly useful for
election advertising purposes, especially online and on social media.
Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018), several
concerns have been raised about the electoral opportunities offered by social media,
especially in a context of data-driven electioneering. Many have focused on voter privacy
issues. Attention has also been turned to threats of foreign interference in national
elections. These issues are obviously important, but they are not the only ones that should
concern lawmakers.
According to Garnett and James (2020), three fundamental principles are requisite in a
democracy: deliberative opportunities, equal participation, and electoral management. All
three are challenged by digital technologies. We take these principles as the anchor of our
submission. Based on the results of our recent research focusing mainly on political actors
and their campaigns in Québec and Canada
1
, our objective is to present how social media
contributes to changing elections from the perception of electoral organizations
candidates, strategists, and activists. How campaigning on social media using data-driven
techniques affect their role and their actions? How can these changes impact elections
and democracy? Have the main actions taken by the governments of Qbec and Canada
been sufficient?
Why is this viewpoint relevant for the inquiry? First, it is a relatively little studied angle.
Many studies focus, for example, on the regulatory framework, on the effect of digital
communication on citizens, or on the online communication of candidates. However, we
know little about how people in partisan organizations perceive what they do. In other
words, the outcome (political communication) rather than the process (how to achieve it)
has predominantly been the focus of previous research. And what political actors involved
in the process think about it is even less studied. We therefore believe that this original
point of view might be relevant for your inquiry.
Second, it is rather rare that the views of politicians and their staff are directly addressed
during public inquiry, committee hearings or other legislative procedures. Members of
Parliament are mandated to represent their constituents and not their own personal or
1
See Dubois et al. (forthcoming), Giasson et al. (2018), and Montigny et al. (2019) for details.
6
partisan interests. This is why during consultations and inquiries, it is generally citizens
and experts who testify, focusing on the issues that affect them. However, we do believe
that MPs must pay attention to partisan and electoral realities when considering issues
such as those that are the focus of this inquiry.
In sum, our submission focuses on the problems with social media and online advertising
that we observed in Québec and Canada two Westminster-style parliamentary
democracies
2
. We mobilize research data obtained from content analyses and interviews
with politicians and their staff. This submission focuses on the effects reported by these
people. We believe that these observations may help Victorian MPs to address these
similar issues in their own context.
1. DIFFERENT STATES, DIFFERENT STORMS?
Québec, Canada and the State of Victoria share some political and electoral realities that
make the comparison relevant. Among others, political parties are now running hybrid
campaigns that combine traditional and emerging communication technologies (Giasson
et al., 2019; Lesman et al., 2019).
According to many strategists we interviewed for our research
3
, social media is an
effective way to increase the visibility of their party not only online, but also in traditional
media. Smaller parties are using it to try to get journalists' attention and generate media
coverage. Paradoxically, it is also an effective way to bypass the traditional media’s filter
and directly address a relatively large number of voters. In addition to allowing the
coordination of electoral activities within private groups, platforms like Facebook offer
attractive advertising options. They allow parties to send a variety of messages to a variety
of audiences. But the adoption of digital technologies in politics seems to raise concerns
which in several respects are comparable between Québec and the State of Victoria.
In our latest study on data-driven campaigning in Québec (Montigny et al., 2019), we
identified what we called a “perfect storm”. Political parties massively adopted social
media, data marketing and data-driven communication techniques in recent elections.
Meanwhile, regulatory bodies like Élections Québec
4
(2019) expressed concerns about
their lack of resources and powers to oversee novel forms of electoral digital
communication. This situation prevents them from truly responding to digital threats to the
integrity of elections and democracy. In addition, the Cambridge Analytica scandal caused
a turnaround in the media treatment of party strategies: yesterday's innovations have
become threats to voters and democracy. Quickly, the Members of the National Assembly
(MNAs) found themselves caught between two lines of fire. On the one hand, they had to
justify their use of data and digital technologies for electoral purposes. On the other, as
citizens' representatives, they had to maintain public confidence in political institutions and
propose solutions to insure the integrity of the electoral process.
2
It is important to note, however, that the electoral system as well as the party system differ between Québec/Canada and
the State of Victoria/Australia.
3
See Giasson et al. (2019), and Montigny et al. (2019).
4
Élections Québec is an independent institution responsible for the management of provincial and municipal elections and
referendums in the Province of Québec. Its mission is also to ensure compliance with political financing rules, to guarantee
the full exercise of electoral rights and to promote democratic values in Québec. The Chief Electoral Officer (in French: le
Directeur général des élections du Québec, DGEQ) is appointed by the Members of the National Assembly of Québec
(MNAs).
7
Australia is also facing many elements of this same “storm”. The 2018 election confirmed
that Victorian political parties are integrating social media as an essential component of
their strategies. Social media platforms not only play an significant role in state elections,
but their importance grows from election to election (Lesman et al., 2019). While the media
and the public increasingly scrutinize the strategies of political parties, the regulatory
framework appears to be ineffective to address the new digital reality (Bennett and Odura-
Marfo, 2019: 24-27). On this point, in its Report to Parliament following the 2018 State
election, the Victoria Election Commission (VEC) calls for new provisions that equip the
VEC to respond to online threats to the integrity of an election” (Victorian Electoral
Commission, 2019: 110). Furthermore, there is voter mistrust regarding the opportunities
social media tools offer political parties. According to the Digital News Report: Australia
2020 (see Park et al., 2020), a majority of Australians (52%) believe that politicians and
their parties should not be allowed to advertise on social media, while they believe the
opposite for television.
Thus, the conditions under which the public authorities are brought to address the problem
of the impact of social media on elections seems similar between Québec/Canada and
the State of Victoria in many important aspects.
2. THE CHANGING NATURE OF ELECTORAL COMMUNICATION
Faced with an electorate that is less loyal and increasingly more difficult to reach, political
parties are trying to adapt. This reality is evoked by political strategists to justify the
adoption of data-driven tactics of communication. Micro-targeted messages distributed by
email or online ads on social media are seen as effective means to quickly reach key
voters. Strategists seek to reach the right audience with the right message in order to
maximize the potential impact on their voting behavior.
To do this, parties need as much information as possible about the electorate. This not
only allows them to segment voters and target those most likely to be influenced by their
partisan messaging, but it also provides information on how to reach them with the right
message. An increasingly important part of election campaigns is data collection. In the
context of a permanent campaign, this is done continuously. During the election campaign,
party volunteers are no longer tasked simply with canvassing efforts geared at convincing
voters to get out to vote, but rather they are primarily tasked with collecting voter data that
will be useful at targeting groups of voters with the right message. As the following quote
from a political strategist illustrates, the primary goal of voter outreach is first to gather
information, to feed the «targeting beast».
Practitioner quote 1
Our job is to feed [the] database… In short, we must bomb the population with all kinds of
things, to acquire as much data as possible”.5
Obviously, digital technologies play a central role in the collection and processing of data.
This brings about significant changes within partisan organizations. The role of staff is not
5
A party strategist from Québec before the 2018 provincial election, cited in Montigny et al. (2019: 5).
8
the same as before. The tasks entrusted to volunteers are not the same either. These
transformations are illustrated by the following two quotes.
Practitioner quote 2 and 3
“Now we need competent people in computer science, because we use platforms, email
lists”.
The technological tools at our disposal means that we need more people who are able to
use them”.6
We understand that the workforce needs to evolve with digital technologies. This has the
effect of marginalizing some types of volunteers (usually older and less educated). A
political organizer sums up this paradoxical situation: while activists are rarer and are
usually older, whereas the youngest are missing.
Practitioner quote 4
The activist who is older, we will probably have less need of him. The younger activist is
likely to be needed, but in smaller numbers. (...) Because of the technological gap, it's a bit
of a vicious circle, that is also virtuous. The more we try to find technological means that will
be effective, the less we need people”.7
In the interviews we conducted, some participants questioned the merits of data collection
and micro-targeting. Some have mentioned the ethical issues of these practices, while
others question their social acceptability. Elected officials have even criticized the role of
social media in politics, saying that “Twitter is not a form of activism”.
Forms of resistance to new technologies within political organizations are not uncommon.
Recent research on traditional French parties has shown that some elites at both national
and local level see these new methods as a threat to their influence within the organization
(Theviot, 2019). The same goes for some elected officials and organizers who do not wish
to change their ways of doing things. This can sometimes be motivated by a vision of what
politics should be, or a misunderstanding of the opportunities offered by new technologies.
Yet, the trend of data campaigning remains heavy. Election after election, political parties
are increasingly embracing digital technologies. They no longer use social media just as
a mainstream distribution channel, but as a data source and micro-targeting tool. In
Québec, as in the State of Victoria, the tools and techniques developed in the United
States inspire political strategists.
6
Two different party strategists from Québec before the 2018 provincial election, cited in Montigny et al. (2019: 5-6).
7
A party strategist from Québec before the 2018 provincial election, cited in Montigny et al. (2019: 7).
9
Practitioner quote 5
“We were following what was going on in the United States, including the presidential
election of Barack Obama. Their online strategy, its consequences and the way it was
covered by the media forced parties to change how they were campaigning based on what
had been done in the States”.8
Although American methods cannot be transposed fully to other political contexts, the fact
remains that it is the benchmark in electoral practices for several political actors. This is
true in Québec and Canada, where parties retain the services of consultants and
compagnies who have played key roles in past American presidential campaigns. In
France, several actors active in companies offering data and targeting services to political
parties were active during American presidential campaigns (Ehrhard et al., 2020).
Adopting an American-style campaign approach has even been associated by past
French candidates with an image of modernity (Theviot, 2019). In the 2018 election,
Victorian parties identified their key themes based on market research (Ghazarian, 2018)
and used micro-targeting to communicate them to their target voters. Some of them have
resorted to tools previously used in American campaigns (Lesman et al., 2019).
Considering the influence of American campaigns on electoral methods elsewhere in the
world, everything indicates that micro-targeting and data-driven campaigns are here to
stay. Thus, the nature of political communication is evolving from a large and centralized
dissemination of key messages to more targeted, more individualized and more
personalized communication. This trend is illustrated in the following quote.
Practitioner quote 6
Instead of one strong position a day, we had two or three strong positions, many
messages, a multiplicity of ways to deliver them to many clienteles”.9
3. POSSIBLE THREATS TO DEMOCRACY
As Bodó et al. (2017) noted, “the biggest opportunity of political micro-targeting is also its
biggest threat: sophisticated technologies allow anyone to reach any individual or group
in an electorate with any message.” Of course, political parties seek to mobilize their
supporters and convince the undecided to support them. However, because it seeks to
affect the attitudes and behaviors of the target audience, micro-targeting can also be used
for unethical purposes. In addition to exploiting specific voters’ interests (and
vulnerabilities), micro-targeting can be used alongside other fraudulent tactics
(Richardson et al., 2019: 4). Internet bots can be used to spread false or inaccurate
information. Astroturfing campaigns
10
can be set up by parties or interest groups to duped
citizens into believing in false grassroots initiatives. In short, there is no reason to believe
8
A party strategist from Québec after the 2012 provincial election, cited in Giasson et al. (2019: 337).
9
A party strategist from Québec after the 2012 provincial election, cited in Giasson et al. (2019: 337).
10
Astroturfing campaign refers to a centralized communication campaign where information is disseminated fraudulently
by bogus citizens or groups of citizens (see Boulay, 2015; Keller et al., 2020).
10
that attractive opportunities for certain political actors will not be taken because they are
contrary to ethical rules.
For Bayer (2020), micro-targeting represents a double threat. First, it deprives non-
targeted citizens of their right to receive all the information necessary for the exercise of
their political choice. Certain segments of the population are considered more electorally
“useful” than others and become key targets of the communication strategies of political
actors. Second, micro-targeting leads to a distortion of the public debate because it
restricts the free flow of information.
Social media combined with data-driven strategies like micro-targeting may create an
uneven distribution of information among voters. Advertising is therefore no longer a
collective phenomenon where the masses used to be simultaneously exposed to a similar
message, but an increasingly individualized and personalized experience. A voter is
exposed to a message that corresponds to his or her interests, created by a party
according to them. Flows of information vary from individual to individual (Miller and
Vaccari, 2020). The positions expressed by the political actor can be different, even
contradictory, depending on who they are addressed to. It can also generate false
perceptions of the priorities of a political actor (Zuiderveen Borgesius et al., 2018).
Obviously, this can influence the conduct of electoral campaigns, but it can also have
consequences in times of governance.
The inequality of participation also represents a threat to democracy. Although social
media have the potential to allow more people to participate in public debate, research
suggests that only a minority of citizens use Internet and social media to engage in politics
(Lalancette and Bastien, 2019; Small et al., 2014).
11
The same goes for political parties.
Not all are equal in the digital world. Technological tools and expertise necessary to carry
effective micro-targeting are not equally accessible to political actors (Miller and Vaccari,
2020). Also, resources and funding are factors that influence the ability of an electoral
organization to take full advantage of technological opportunities. What is more, some
campaigns have to deal with internal resistance. Some candidates, organizers or
volunteers are slowing down the adoption of new practices in parties because they do not
see their relevance or see them as a threat to their influence within an organisation. Thus,
not all campaigns have the same opportunities. This unequal access to micro-targeting
techniques poses a threat to free and pluralist debate since the diffusion of certain political
ideas may be more effective than others depending on the techniques used to disseminate
them (Bayer, 2020).
Thus, the two first principles of democracy identified by Garnett and James (2020) are
endangered by micro-targeted campaigns online and on social media. Firstly, deliberative
opportunities may be threatened by a distortion of the public sphere caused by unequal
distribution of information to the electorate. Secondly, equality of participation may be
threatened by unequal access to the resources and techniques necessary for micro-
targeting and effective use of social media. If the persuasion effects associated with micro-
targeting practices on electoral mobilization remain unclear until now (Baldwin-Philippi,
2019), micro-targeted ads have the potential to affect voters' autonomy of judgment. Even
small, plausible negative effects can harm democracy. In other words, if parties are so
concerned about the marginal (potential) effects of their communication actions on voters,
11
For example, in Québec, political bloggers are in fact a politically engaged and sophisticated minority known as
hypercitizens” (Giasson et al., 2011).
11
we should be equally concerned about the "small" (potential) effects of these strategies
on democracy.
In this context, electoral regulation of the digital environment is of particular importance.
This poses a serious challenge for electoral managementthe third principle identified by
Garnett and James (2020). To be relevant, electoral regulations must be able to be
implemented on the ground. To do so, they must consequently be developed according
to the realities on the ground. It is difficult to effectively implement a public policy that
ignores or marginalizes certain practices which it aims to regulate. In the case that
interests us, Leerssen et al. (2019) noted that “political micro-targeting has unique
affordances that can enable new types of harms demanding entirely new regulatory
responses.” Not only are the current laws no longer sufficient, but it suggests that it is not
enough to simply broaden their scope. A constantly evolving digital environment requires
an original regulatory approach.
4. SOME THOUGHTS ON GOVERNMENT ACTIONS IN QBEC AND CANADA
In recent years, governments around the world have attempted to adapt legislation in
response to controversies about the role of digital technologies in politics. In Canada and
Québec, concerns over the integrity of the democratic process have been largely
influenced by two major events: the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the alleged online
interference by Russia during the 2016 US presidential campaign. MPs and MNAs
12
addressed these issues through various legislative reforms. We are focusing on the two
measures that we believe have the most direct impact on political parties.
On the federal scene, the Canadian Parliament passed the Elections Modernization Act
(known as Bill C-76) before the 2019 election. While this new electoral act was presented
as a response to potential foreign interference, it contained several measures aimed at
regulating Canadian political actors’ digital campaigning.
13
In accordance with this law,
Facebook Canada announced in June 2019 the implementation of an “advertising
transparency tool” to “give people more information about the ads they see across
Facebook and Instagram, and to help combat foreign interference. The tool would be
known as Facebook’s Ads Library (FAL).
14
Facebook set up a validation process for
advertisers who wish to sponsor content relating to social issues in Canada, including civil
and social rights, the economy, environmental politics, health, immigration, political values
and governance, and security and foreign policy. Advertisements dealing with these
subjects are kept in the archive for a period of seven years. The archive would also allow
users to view active advertisements that relate to other subjects whether or not they are
part of the target audience. However, content unrelated to social issues is not stored once
inactive.
Both the government and Facebook presented platform-operated ad archives as a way to
increase transparency in politics. In our study of the effectiveness of the FAL in regulating
12
Since Canada is a federation, according to the respective jurisdiction of the levels of government, federal elections are
regulated by a law adopted by the Parliament of Canada, and provincial and municipal elections in Québec are regulated
by a law of the National Assembly.
13
Available at: https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/annualstatutes/2018_31/page-1.html
14
See Facebook Canada’s press release “Facebook Launches Ads Transparency Tools in Canada Ahead of 2019 Federal
Election” at: https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/facebook-launches-ads-transparency-tools-in-canada-ahead-of-
2019-federal-election-807760417.html
12
election advertising by so-called third parties
15
during elections (Dubois et al.,
forthcoming), we show how the design of these tools influences their usefulness.
16
In the
Canadian case, the information on each ad contained in FAL is not sufficient to truly
ensure transparency about micro-targeting strategies. Information on the ads’ producer,
their expenses and their targeting practices are often incomplete, and therefore not very
useful to fully grasp the core principles guiding the electoral use of Facebook. It is serves
little other purpose than providing a simple description of the content of political ads. This
is important because the watchdog role of journalists, NGOs, electoral regulators and
public authorities can hardly be achieved in the absence of complete and transparent
information on the advertising and communication practices of political actors (Bayer,
2020). It is clear that despite the recent changes made to the Canadian Elections Act,
doubts persist about its ability to take into account the whole set of online electoral
practices (Pal, 2020).
In Québec, the government seems to favor the protection of voters' personal information
as a response to concerns raised by digital technology in politics. The government recently
proposed Bill 64 (Loi modernisant des dispositions législatives en matière de protection
des renseignements personnels),
17
strongly inspired by the General Data Protection
Regulation (GDPR) in Europe. For political parties, the major impact of this bill is that they
would be subject to the law on the protection of personal data.
18
The collection, storage
and use of voter data would therefore be subject to more stringent control. While this is a
major step forward from the current situation where political parties can do whatever they
want with voter data, the bill ignores a significant portion of the democratic threats
associated with micro-targeting.
We will have to wait for the final version of the bill to be able to assess its impact on the
conduct of the elections. However, in its current state, we already know that it will have no
decisive consequences on parties’ electoral strategies and tactics. The trend of data-
driven elections seems to be here to stay. The government's objective is to regulate these
practices, not to question them.
The results of government actions in Québec and Canada are mixed. First, self-regulation
by political parties is undoubtedly not the best solution. This is the situation that prevailed
in Québec and Canada before the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It has been strongly
questioned by the media and citizens, forcing politicians to take action. Secondly,
measures aimed at increasing the transparency of parties' electoral strategies such as
the FAL are not fully effective because they are not adapted to new realities and fail to
insure transparency and access to information by the public. The ever-evolving digital
environment calls for original and bold regulatory actions, nor mere adaptations of past
electoral communication rules. Protecting voters' personal information is not enough to
deal with all the threats that social media and data-driven campaigns pose to democracy.
At no time, neither in Québec nor in Canada, was there any real government reflection on
electoral practices and their consequences for democracy. This may be the cause of these
15
In Canada, individuals or organizations who want to participate in an election without seeking to be elected must register
with Elections Canada. They are called “third parties” and their actions are governed by certain provisions of the Canada
Elections Act.
16
For a complete overview of the limitations of this kind of advertising archive, see Leerssen et al. (2019).
17
An Act to modernize legislative provisions as regards the protection of personal information. The English version of the
bill under consideration is available at: http://www.assnat.qc.ca/en/travaux-parlementaires/projets-loi/projet-loi-64-42-1.html
18
In Canada, British Columbia is the only jurisdiction where political parties are subject to privacy legislation. For details,
see the Personal Information Protection Act at: https://www.bclaws.ca/civix/document/id/complete/statreg/00_03063_01
13
mixed results. Another explanation might rest with the actual British parliamentary system,
where the legislators are also elected members of political parties. One may wonder what
incentive they would have to drastically change electoral practices that provide them with
winning campaigns.
CONCLUSION
Taking action against threats to democracy in an ever-changing digital environment is
quite a challenge. Parliamentarians try to address the concerns of their voters, but no one
yet seems to have found the best way to do it.
On this point, it has so far not been possible to identify the best way to update the Electoral
Act 2002 (Vic): The committee also supports the VEC’s comments about how Victorian
legislation will always struggle to keep pace with technology and how social media is used
for political and electoral purposes. Placing firm guidelines around a constantly evolving
communication tool may be impractical. (Electoral Matters Committee, 2014). In this
submission, we have shown how social media and micro-targeting have the potential to
negatively impact elections. Based on the experience of Québec and Canada, we have
also shown how new government regulatory actions may be insufficient.
In our opinion, the challenges imposed to democracy by social media and micro-targeting
will accelerate. Two factors explain this trend.
First, according to the VEC’s Report to Parliament (2019), for the first time in 2018, the
majority of voters did not vote on election day in their own constituency (ordinary vote).
Other types of voting, especially early voting, are steadily growing in popularity. Everything
indicates that this trend will not be reversed. From the point of view of political
communication, this implies that over the course of the electoral campaign, fewer and
fewer voters can be reached by candidates. It is clear that political parties will seek to
refine their methods of communication in order to target the right people at the right time.
This will certainly promote micro-targeting techniques. While the convenience voting
measures raise some concerns in the State of Victoria (see Laing et al., 2018), the
acceleration of this trend coupled with the potential democratic consequences associated
with social media and data-driven campaigns should hold the Committee's attention.
Second, it is possible that for some time, electoral practices will be impacted by the current
COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, due to the necessary social distancing and other public
health measures, election campaigns may happen differently (Dubois & Villeneuve-
Siconnelly, 2020). This will encourage online political communication, particularly on social
media using targeted advertising. The pandemic is also creating a number of concerns
among citizens that can easily be targeted as vulnerabilities by malicious actors. As Wolf
and Bicu (2020: 8) suggest, “it further amplified the impact of disinformation campaigns
on a public that hardly built a limited level of resilience against this threat. This creates an
increasingly favorable ground for malicious actors to escalate the already existing
polarization.” In short, COVID-19 will have effects on the flow of information and the ways
of communicating during the upcoming election cycles.
To face this reality, the electoral management bodies and regulators need more
responsibilities, but also more resources. The personalization and individualization of
political communication leads to its transfer from the public sphere to private
14
communication channels. The parties no longer conduct a campaign, but a multitude of
parallel micro-campaigns. While it is relatively easy to monitor advertising in newspapers
and on television, it is much more difficult to do so on the Internet and in social media.
Constant monitoring is therefore necessary, especially in a context of permanent
campaigning.
The fact remains that to preserve democracy from digital threats, it is still necessary to
identify and understand them. Partnerships should be established between public
authorities and researchers in order to document electoral practices and identify solutions
to emerging problems. In a constantly changing world, addressing this kind of problem
periodically is not enough. Long-lasting partnerships must be put in place.
Finally, it is important to bring awareness to voters, politicians and their staff regarding the
potential democratic risks posed by certain electoral practices. Politics is all about power,
and the best power you can have is being informed. The more people who know about
the opportunities and risks associated with social media and micro-targeting for
democracy, the more people will be able to recognize and speak out against potential
abuses.
15
REFERENCES
Baldwin-Philippi, Jessica. 2019. Data campaigning: between empirics and assumptions.
Internet Policy Review 8(4). DOI: 10.14763/2019.4.1437.
Bayer, Judit. 2020. Double harm to voters: Data-driven micro-targeting and democratic
public discourse. Internet Policy Review 9(1). DOI: 10.14763/2020.1.1460.
Bennett, Colin J. & David Lyon. 2019. Data-driven elections. Internet Policy Review 8(4).
DOI: 10.14763/2019.4.1433.
Bennett, Colin J. & Smith Oduro-Marfo. 2019. Privacy, Voter Surveillance and Democratic
Engagement: Challenges for Data Protection Authorities. Paper Commissioned by the UK
Office of the Information Commissioner for presentation to the 2019 International
Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners (ICDPPC). Retrieved from
https://privacyconference2019.info/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Privacy-and-
International-Democratic-Engagement_finalv2.pdf
Bodó, Balázs, Natali Helberger & Claes H. de Vreese. 2017. Political micro-targeting: a
Manchurian candidate or just a dark horse? Internet Policy Review 6(4).
DOI: 10.14763/2017.4.776.
Boulay, Sophie. 2015. Usurpation de l’identité citoyenne dans l’espace public :
astroturfing, communication et démocratie. Presses de l’Université du Québec.
Cadwalladr, Carole & Emma Graham-Harrison. 2018, March 17. Revealed: 50 million
Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian.
Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-
facebook-influence-us-election
Dubois, Philippe & Katryne Villeneuve-Siconnelly. 2020. La « politique autrement ». In
Catherine Girard, Guy Laforest, Isabelle Laforest-Lapointe, Félix Mathieu & Jean-Philippe
Warren (eds.), Penser l’après-COVID-19. Montreal: ACFAS.
Dubois, Philippe, Camille Arteau-Leclerc & Thierry Giasson. (Forthcoming). Micro-
Targeting, Social Media, and Third Parties Advertising: Why Facebook Ads Library isn’t
Enough to Prevent Threats to Canadian Democracy. In Holly Ann Garnett & Michael Pal
(eds.), Cyber-Threats to Canadian Democracy. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Ehrhard, Thomas, Antoine Bambade & Samuel Colin. 2020. Digital Campaigning in
France, a Wide Wild Web? Emergence and Evolution of the Market and Its Players. In
Ashu M. G. Solo (ed.), Handbook of Research on Politics in the Computer Age. IGI Global.
Élections Québec. 2019. Partis politiques et protection des renseignements personnels :
exposé de la situation québécoise, perspectives comparées et recommandations.
Retrieved from
https://www.pes.electionsquebec.qc.ca/services/set0005.extranet.formulaire.gestion/ouv
rir_fichier.php?d=2002
Electoral Matters Committee (Parliament of Victoria). 2014. Discussion paper: inquiry into
the impact of social media on Victoria’s electoral administration. Retrieved from
16
https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/images/stories/committees/emc/Social_Media_Inquiry
/Final_Discussion_Paper_-
_Inquiry_into_the_impact_of_social_media_on_Victorian_elections_and_Victorias_elect
oral_administration.pdf
Garnett, Holly Ann & Toby S. James. 2020. Cyber Elections in the Digital Age: Threats
and Opportunities of Technology for Electoral Integrity. Election Law Journal 19(2): 111-
126.
Ghazarian, Zareh. 2018. Victoria election: the scandals, sloganeering and key issues to
watch. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/victoria-election-
the-scandals-sloganeering-and-key-issues-to-watch-105495
Giasson, Thierry, Gildas Le Bars & Philippe Dubois. 2018. Is Social Media Transforming
Canadian Electioneering? Hybridity and Online Partisan Strategies in the 2012 Quebec
Election. Canadian Journal of Political Science 52(2): 323-341.
Giasson, Thierry, Vincent Raynauld, & Cyntia Darisse. 2011. Hypercitizens from a Distinct
Society: Characterizing Quebec’s Political Bloggers’ Online and Offline Political
Involvement. International Journal of Interactive Communication Systems and
Technologies 1(2) : 29-45.
Keller, Franziska B., David Schoch, Sebastian Stier & JungHwan Yang. 2020. Political
Astroturfing on Twitter: How to Coordinate a Disinformation Campaign. Political
Communication 37(2): 256-280.
Lalancette, Mireille & Frédérick Bastien. 2019. Enthousiasme et désenchantement. La
communication numérique des partis vue par des citoyens engagés. Communication
36(2). DOI : 10.4000/communication.10650.
Laing, Matthew, Narelle Miragliotta & Paul Thornton-Smith. 2018. A Review of
Convenience Voting in the State of Victoria. Retrieved from
https://law.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/2902152/Convenience-Voting-
Report-1-October-2018.pdf
Leerssen, Paddy, Jef Ausloos, Brahim Zarouali, Natali Helberger & Claes H. de Vreese.
2019. Platform ad archives: promises and pitfalls. Internet Policy Review 8(4). DOI:
10.14763/2019.4.1421.
Lees-Marshment, Jennifer. 2001. The Marriage of Politics and Marketing. Political
Studies 49(4): 692-713.
Lesman, Bella, Alice Petrie, Debra Reeves, Caley Otter, Holly Mclean, Marianne Aroozoo
& Jon Breukel. 2019. The 2018 Victorian State Election. Research Paper No. 2.
Parliamentary Library & Information Service, Parliament of Victoria. Retrieved from
https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/publications/research-papers/send/36-research-
papers/13892-an-analysis-of-the-victorian-state-election
Marland, Alex, Thierry GIasson & Tamara A. Small. 2014. Political Communication and
Marketing in Canada: Challenges for Democracy. In Alex Marland, Thierry GIasson &
17
Tamara A. Small (eds.), Political Communication in Canada. Meet the Press and Tweet
the Rest (pp. 229-246). UBC Press.
Miller, Micheal L. & Cristian Vaccari. 2020. Digital Threats to Democracy: Comparative
Lessons and Possible Remedies. International Journal of Press/Politics 25(3): 333-356.
Montigny, Eric. 2015. The Decline of Activism in Political Parties: Adaptation Strategies
and New Technologies. In Guy Lachapelle & Philippe Maarek (eds.), Political Parties in
the Digital Age: The Impact of New Technologies in Politics. De Gruyter.
Montigny, Eric, Philippe Dubois & Thierry Giasson. 2019. On the edge of glory (...or
catastrophe): regulation, transparency and party democracy in data-driven campaigning
in Québec. Internet Policy Review 8(4). DOI: 10.14763/2019.4.1441
Pal, Micheal. 2020. Social Media and Democracy: Challenges for Election Law and
Administration in Canada. Election Law Journal 19(2): 200-213.
Park, Sora, Caroline Fisher, Jee Young Lee, Kieran Mcguinness, Yoonmo Sang, Mathieu
O'Neil, Michael Jensen, Kerry Mccallum & Glen Fuller. 2020. Digital News Report:
Australia 2020. News & Media Research Centre, University of Canberra. Retrieved from
https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2020-06/apo-nid305057_0.pdf
Richardson, Janice, Normann Witzleb & Moira Paterson. 2019. Political micro-targeting in
an era of big data analytics. In Norman Witzleb, Moira Paterson & Janice Richardson
(eds.), Big Data, Political Campaigning and the Law. Democracy and Privacy in the Age
of Micro-Targeting. Routledge.
Small, Tamara A., Harold Jansen, Frédérick Bastien, Thierry Giasson & Royce Koop.
2014. Online Political Activity in Canada: The Hype and the Facts. Canadian
Parliamentary Review 37(4): 9-16.
Theviot, Anaïs. 2019. Big data électoral. Dis-moi qui tu es, je te dirai pour qui voter.
Éditions Le Bord de l’eau.
Van Onselen, Peter & Wayne Errington. 2007. The Democratic State as a Marketing Tool:
The Permanent Campaign in Australia. Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 45(1): 78-
94.
Victorian Electoral Commission. 2019. Report to Parliament on the 2018 Victorian State
election. Retrieved from https://www.vec.vic.gov.au/-
/media/4b68a71612424c22a28e48a0d9f3d835.ashx?la=en
Wolf, Peter & Ingrid Bicu. 2020. Covid-19 as an Accelerator for Information Operations in
Elections. Elections in Europe 15: 7-9.
Zuiderveen Borgesius, Frederik J., Judith Möller, Sanne Kruikemeier, Ronan Ó Fathaigh,
Kristina Irion, Tom Dobber, Balazs Bodo, Claes de Vreese. 2018. Online Political Micro-
targeting: Promises and Threats for Democracy. Utrecht Law Review 14(1): 82-96.
18
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Philippe R. Dubois*
Ph.D. Student in the Political Science Department at Université Laval (Québec City,
Canada), Philippe is a student researcher at the Groupe de recherche en communication
politique (GRCP). He is also a member of the Chaire de recherche sur la démocratie et
les institutions parlementaires (CRDIP), and of the Center for the Study of Democratic
Citizenship (CSDC). His research interests include political communication and marketing
strategies, the professionalization of local campaigns and the use of social media for
electoral purposes. Philippe also served as a political advisor for city councilors in Québec
City (2014-2017), and then as a media monitoring advisor in the Ministry of the Executive
Council of Québec (2017-2019).
https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1649-2746
Thierry Giasson, Ph.D.
Full Professor and director of the Groupe de recherche en communication politique
(GRCP), Dr Giasson is also the chair of the Department of Political Science at Université
Laval. He is a member of the Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship (CSDC). His
research focuses on political journalism, online technologies, and political marketing. He
is the codirector, with Alex Marland, of the series Communication, Strategy, and Politics
at UBC Press. His works as been published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science,
Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Journal of Public Affairs and Internet Policy
Review.
Eric Montigny, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at Université Laval, Dr Montigny
is the scientific director of the Chaire de recherche sur la démocratie et les institutions
parlementaire (CRDIP), and an associate member at the Groupe de recherche en
communication politique (GRCP). His research focuses mainly on the internal democracy
of political parties, political activism, parliamentarism and governance. In addition to his
publications on open primaries, the role of deputies, autonomist parties and electoral
behavior in relation to identity issues, he has published several articles, technical reports,
and books. Having worked for a dozen years in the National Assembly of Québec, he has
extensive practical experience.
www.grcp.ulaval.ca www.ulaval.ca
* Corresponding author: philippe.dubois.3@ulaval.ca
Chapter
Full-text available
Alors que le présent ouvrage a pour principal dessein d’explorer les rhétoriques entourant le déploiement des technologies numériques, le présent chapitre y contribue en examinant et en contextualisant l’évolution du discours médiatique et les cadres interprétatifs employés dans la couverture médiatique de la collecte et de l’utilisation des données sur l’électorat à des fins partisanes. Pour y arriver, nous présentons une analyse de contenu qualitative des textes signés par les journalistes des quotidiens québécois les plus lus de manière à déterminer les cadres interprétatifs présents dans la couverture médiatique. En outre, l’analyse révèle quelles sont les sources les plus citées par les journalistes afin de montrer qui profite de cette tribune pour faire valoir une vision des choses. La démarche empirique permet d’observer des inégalités significatives dans la couverture journalistique de l’enjeu, à la fois sur le ton, mais aussi sur les sources citées par les médias pour traiter de la question.
Article
Full-text available
This article argues that political micro-targeting impacts the fundamental right of the non-targeted citizens to receive information, and consequently, the democratic public discourse. The right to information is the passive side of freedom of expression, among other protected by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Freedom of political expression is also an instrument to create a diverse and free public debate; therefore, expressions that counteract this goal cannot avail of the protection.
Article
Full-text available
Online political microtargeting involves monitoring people’s online behaviour, and using the collected data, sometimes enriched with other data, to show people-targeted political advertisements. Online political microtargeting is widely used in the US; Europe may not be far behind. This paper maps microtargeting’s promises and threats to democracy. For example, microtargeting promises to optimise the match between the electorate’s concerns and political campaigns, and to boost campaign engagement and political participation. But online microtargeting could also threaten democracy. For instance, a political party could, misleadingly, present itself as a different one-issue party to different individuals. And data collection for microtargeting raises privacy concerns. We sketch possibilities for policymakers if they seek to regulate online political microtargeting. We discuss which measures would be possible, while complying with the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Article
Full-text available
While many, mostly American, scholars have recently conducted quantitative and qualitative investigations of the structure and content of political blogs, few have focused on the political involvement of their authors. Based on data collected through an online survey conducted in April 2008, this paper proposes the first detailed account of the sociopolitical profile of 56 members of the Quebec political blogosphere. The description of these bloggers' involvement in content dispersion and online social networks as well as their participation in offline political activities helps to better understand the particularities of an emergent community of active citizens. Additionally, the research draws contrasts with previous studies of the U.S. political blogosphere and argues for the production of more detailed analysis considering the specificities of different communities of North American political bloggers.
Article
Research into major party behaviour in Britain from a political marketing perspective finds that political marketing is broad in scope and offers fresh analytical tools to explain how political organizations behave. It is nevertheless a marriage between political science and marketing. It borrows the core marketing concepts of product, sales and market-orientation, and techniques such as market intelligence, and adapts them to suit traditional tenets of political science to produce an integrated theoretical framework. A party that takes a product-orientation argues for what it stands for and believes in. A Sales-Orientated party focuses on selling its argument and product to voters. A Market-Orientated party designs its behaviour to provide voter satisfaction. Exploring these three orientations demonstrates that political marketing can be applied to a wide range of behaviour and suggests its potential to be applied to several areas of political studies.
Data-driven elections
  • Colin J Bennett
  • David Lyon
Bennett, Colin J. & David Lyon. 2019. Data-driven elections. Internet Policy Review 8(4). DOI: 10.14763/2019.4.1433.