Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.
My name is Thierry Giasson. I am a full professor in the department of political science at Laval University. I am also the director of the Groupe de recherche en communication politique.
To start, I would like to thank you for your invitation to share with you the findings of some of my work on how political parties collect and use data from digital tools and media. I would like to recognize the importance of the study you began a few weeks ago further to the media reports about Cambridge Analytica and possible ramifications for Canadian citizens.
To avoid going over the same information that my colleague Colin Bennett will be sharing with you, I will limit my remarks to how political parties in Canada and Quebec currently collect and analyze digital data.
Many of you are of course familiar with these practices. However, as your proceedings are public, and the average Canadian citizen is less familiar with these practices, I thought it was worth explaining them for the benefit of the general public.
My presentation focuses on three areas.
First, I will talk about some of the current practices for collecting personal information that political parties use for electoral marketing purposes or political communications. I will then examine what types of personal data political parties use, and how they compile it.
Second, I will introduce the objectives associated with analyzing this data and the analysis methods preferred by the parties. I will examine why political parties analyze data on Canadian voters.
Last, I will go over some of the implications for Canadian democracy associated with using Canadians’ personal digital data.
To begin, what data is compiled by political parties, and how is it collected?
First of all, it is important to mention that collecting and analyzing Canadians’ personal data has been part of the political marketing process that political parties have used for more than 30 years, but it has increased dramatically in the last 15 years or so.
Political marketing involves an in-depth analysis of segments of the population so that election decisions can be made that will help the party identify the electoral districts and segments of the electorate to focus on during the election campaign in order to generate votes. The entire process is intended to help the party gain votes.
The purpose of political marketing is to create more targeted voter messaging and, ultimately, to win elections. The more accurate and extensive the data, the higher the quality of the analysis will be. For many years, election marketing was based on survey data and discussion groups. In the past 10 years, however, parties have also been using personal data collected online, primarily because that data is geotagged.
When a person has an account on a social media platform, they often provide their postal code, for instance, which pinpoints their location very accurately. This gives political parties a very precise, almost granular level of detail on voters. All these forms of data are added to analysis platforms and run through various mathematical procedures or algorithms. We will come back to this in a moment.
The political parties collect personal information in three main ways. First, several months before an election is called, Elections Canada and the other provincial election bodies give the parties access to all the personal information on the voter registration list. These lists provide citizens’ names and addresses and so forth. To this initial data, the parties then add aggregate data from national surveys carried out for the parties by market research firms, and from research reports produced by organizations such as Statistics Canada. In addition, for the last decade, parties have been mining citizens' personal information online. This data may be volunteered or it may be provided to political parties without the citizen’s knowledge.
Political parties collect information when voters provide their email address, postal code or phone number on the party website, when they attend a partisan event, or when they sign an online petition sponsored by the party on a specific issue.
This information is given willingly to the political parties by citizens. However, most people don’t know what the parties do with it. Moreover, as my colleague Colin Bennett pointed out, the parties are not required to tell them what exactly they will do with that information.
Next, parties can collect information on voters by studying users’ social media usage. All the major social media companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter offer their corporate clients various forms of aggregate data on how people react to the messages that political parties post on social media platforms. These companies also offer consulting services to political parties to develop targeted communication campaigns for specific sub-groups of users.
Lastly, and this is rarer in Canada, political parties can also purchase personal digital information on Canadians through companies specializing in that field. Those companies sell data on the consumption habits or debt levels of customers, for example. These data brokers are commercial intermediaries that generate databases using various methods, more or less legally, and sell the information, almost always without users knowing it.
For example, that is what AggretateIQ, the Cambridge Analytica intermediary, was doing. It harvested personal information on users through a digital application linked to Facebook, which Cambridge Analytica then resold to its clients to be used to target voters and certain segments of the population.
Why do parties collect data in this way, and how is the data analyzed?
As parliamentarians and active members of your respective political parties, you are well aware that Canadian political parties are seeing a drop in membership and funding, while at the same time voters are more flexible in their party loyalties and more critical of our political institutions.
Many of the strategists I interviewed as part of my research told me that the leaders of Canadian political parties now have to overcome major organizational hurdles to win an election. In the last 20 years, they have turned to political marketing and digital communication to try to generate new human and financial resources.
As political marketing integrates into contemporary campaign development in Canada, it does so in a context of major technological change. Election preparations and political marketing combine traditional approaches to political organization and emerging approaches that, as you know, involve a variety of online and offline platforms.
Influenced by the technological innovation used in the American presidential elections in 2008, 2012, and 2016, political parties now make digital tools a central part of their election preparation process. This has led to the emergence of a new category of political strategists specializing in social media, computer scientists, mathematicians, and software engineers, a whole cohort of data analysis specialists. These people did not work for political parties 15 years ago, or were responsible for creating websites or disseminating content at that time. They were not necessarily responsible for focusing specifically on election campaigns. These digital strategists are now at the centre of organizational processes and election campaigns.
In 2004, the Conservative Party of Canada was the first party to use a voter analysis system linked to a database with personal information on Canadian voters. Leading up to the 2015 election, the NDP and the Liberal Party also developed their own databases to target voters, and collected and analyzed citizens' information. Segment profiling is done using computer-based algorithms that identify the co-occurrence of socio-demographic and political characteristics among voters, whose information is aggregated in databases.
The parties now collect this information on voters in a permanent database, particularly through online advertisements and social media applications such as Twitter and Facebook. Political parties pay these companies to access the metadata of their subscribers. Geotagged information from social media provides the parties with information on users’ socio-demographic characteristics, how often they visit that social media platform, and what they like or share.
Using political marketing leads the parties to develop election platforms that are more targeted and tailored to individuals. The party’s position addresses the priorities of a select group of voters, their targets, who are identified during the market study and selected based on their potential for a positive reaction. For example, this targeted approach led the federal Conservatives to make niche commitments, such as the tax credit for tools for people in the trades, the universal child care benefit, and eliminating the federal long-gun registry.
Once again, digital technology is used for communicating these hypertargeted messages. Targeting election communications ensures that party messaging reaches the micro-audience that it is exclusively intended for.
Everything done online, including collecting and analyzing Canadians’ personal digital information, has the end goal of putting the parties in direct contact with individual voters and persuading them to get out and vote. You can appreciate that the obsession with winning the election will always be the driving force behind what political parties do, and that includes collecting and using personal information.
In conclusion, this brings us to the risks to Canadian democracy that these practices may pose. While they do help political parties overcome the strategic challenges I mentioned earlier, in my opinion and in that of various other Canadian researchers, these emerging election organization practices compromise the quality of our democracy and our civic duty. The growing use of political marketing and voter analytics is largely taking place behind closed doors, unbeknownst to Canadians. This restricts both the representation of interests and information sharing, thereby progressively eliminating the concepts of the common good and public debate.
Exercising citizenship and election choices...