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ECPR Virtual General Conference 2020

Scientific or Subversive? Exploring the Implications of Data-Driven Campaigning for Democratic Systems

Andrea Römmele
Hertie School of Governance
Andrea Römmele
Hertie School of Governance
Rachel Gibson
University of Manchester

This paper sets out the case that democracies are now entering a 4th era of Political Campaigning. Building on the existing campaigns literature, we identify several key shifts in practice in the early twenty first century that signal movement into the new phase. Specifically we identify: (1) an organizational and strategic dependency on digital technology and ‘big data’ ; (2) reliance on viral online networks for message dissemination, and finally (3) a new micro-precision and accuracy of message targeting at the individual level, as the trademarks of this 4th phase. Departing from prior studies, we also argue that the new phase is distinguished by bifurcation into two variants – the scientific and subversive. While sharing a common core these two modes differ on key aspects of their operational and communicative logic. The major division between them being that the former retains a focus on the traditional goals of campaigning, i.e. to mobilise and inform voters while the latter subverts these aims, by focusing on demobilization and the spread of misinformation. While we consider them currently as ‘ideal’ types, we present evidence of their emergence in recent campaigns among the mainstream and newer populist parties in the U.S. and Europe. We conclude by discussing the implications of these trends for the longer term future health of democracy.

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