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ECPR Rising Star Award

Micro-Targeting as a New Form of Political Claim Production

Social Media
Big Data
Jeanette Hofmann
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Jeanette Hofmann
WZB Berlin Social Science Center

“Making present (…) of something which is nevertheless not present literally or in fact” epitomises Hanna Pitkin's classic definition of representation. Over the last decade, a path-breaking discussion has evolved around the process of "making present". Following Saward's proposition (2006) to understand representation as a creative and interactive form of "claim making", the political concept has been opened up, partly decoupled from its narrow context of elections and linked to other, non-parliamentary notions and practices of representation. As a result, political representation has acquired a much broader meaning, which can be made fruitful also in other areas of research such as that of political campaigning.

As yet, the focus on claim-making has been mainly of a theoretical nature and hasn't really covered on its material manifestations. I would like to explore the analytic value of the concept of claim-making for studying digital innovations in the area of political campaigning. My article seeks to combine two types of literature, which rarely if ever speak to each other: the literature revolving around the "constructivist turn in democratic representation" (Disch 2015) and the literature on micro-targeting, which addresses the use of big data for identifying, persuading and mobilizing voters.
If representation is to be understood as a process rather than a static product, a process that constitutes a constituency rather than merely aggregating its preferences, the question is if micro-targeting should be recognised as an evolving form of co-producing the electorate. If this question can be answered in the affirmative, a subsequent question would be how to interpret and assess this form of doing representation from a democratic point of view.
I will argue that micro-targeting indeed constitutes a new form of data analytics-based claim production. Interestingly, neither the proponents nor the critics of micro-targeting support such a against the background of the traditional concept of representation. Data-backed claims about the voters' preferences and future voting behaviour are either condemned as manipulation and violation of the voters' autonomy or celebrated as an effective method of mobilising political supporters.
Based on a recapitulation of the claim-making argument, the next part of the paper will describe the techniques of micro-targeting as a specific form of "reading in" the audience (Saward). The third part will assess the democratic quality of data-based claim production by discussing the following points:
1. Conditions of claim-production: Can voters "read back" to data analysts?
2. Claims on individual behaviour: Does micro-targeting actually create a collective self? (Brieto Vieira 2015)
3. The exclusive logic of micro-targeting, which neglects non-voters, core voters of opposing parties, etc.
4. The intimate, tête-à-tête conversations between campaigners and voters, which prevents the public contest between competing claims

It will be argued that micro-targeting questions what Rosanvallon identified as a source of democracy: the public "field of contest", which reflects the fact that "the people cannot be accurately represented". By targeting the voter individually and secretly, big data-based campaigning undermines the crucial experience of variety and contingency in but also the possibility of collective identity through public discourse.
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