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Democracy’s Plight In The Age Of Political Microtargeting

In today's era of digital campaigns, the cloak of political microtargeting has draped itself over the fabric of democratic elections. The myriad and often ambiguous societal consequences triggered by this practice beg a pivotal question: Does political microtargetingdo more harm than good to democratic elections?


Political microtargeting, as characterized by Zuiderveen Borgesius and his research teamis a tailored communication strategy employing targeted political advertisements, meticulously crafted from collected individual data. According to Ryabtsev, this technique allows political candidates to anticipate and adapt campaign messages to align with viewers' existing opinionsWhile it initially pervaded the United States, several scholars like Bennet and Lyon highlighted itsgrowing influence within the European context, raising concerns about the impact of microtargeting on democratic processes beyond American shores.


Consider the Italian general elections of 2018—an exemplar outlined in the paper by Ryabtsev —where Luigi Di Maio's Five Star Party adeptly manipulated the party-owned political platform to tailor messages and promises, a strategy echoing the concerns surrounding political microtargeting's influence. Despite securing a spot in the Italian parliament alongside competing populist parties, this manipulation significantly rattled society, raising enduring concerns. 


Peering beyond this singular instance, a deeper exploration reveals the grave threats posed by political microtargeting to democratic elections. First, this technique poses the imminent danger of voter manipulation. As Zuiderveen Borgesius and fellows outlined in the paper, tailored messages could significantly impact voter engagement and even deter opposition turnout. SecondBodó, Helberger, and de Vreese argue the ability to present a party as a "one-issue party" tailored to individual preferences, akin to Di Maio's approach, can distort citizens' understanding of a party's comprehensive policies.


Moreover, the selective highlighting of issues through microtargeting creates a misleading assumption that these are the crux of a political campaign. However, this fosters a distorted perception of a party's agenda. Coalition politics often necessitate compromises, leading to the dismissal of previously highlighted issues when political alliances are forged, thereby undermining informed decision-makingThis information asymmetry, emphasized by Ryabtsevperpetuates a populace ill-equipped to navigate political microtargeting's persuasive tactics, culminating in a flawed electoral process bereft of informed choices.


Furthermore, the façade of political microtargeting as a cost-effective tool for smaller parties, as claimed by Bodó, Helberger, and de Vreesebelies the reality. In fact, it consolidates power among data analytics agencies, which can dictate pricing and even reject collaboration, rendering smaller parties on the periphery of the electoral battlegroundThis skewed information landscape undermines the core tenets of fairness and inclusivity essential to democratic governance.


In conclusion, the perils of political microtargeting are manifold—impacting citizens, distorting public opinion, and unsettling the political landscape itself. While regulatory frameworks might temper its excesses, the weight of these concerns demands immediate attention and action. The unchecked proliferation of political microtargeting threatens the very essence of democracy, undermining its fairness and integrity. Hence, a deliberate and urgent course of action is imperative to safeguard democratic elections and ensure that a seat in the Parliament is worth more than a successfully provided data analytics service.


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Tags: Technology Democracy Data Governance



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