How much algorithm can democracy take?

Communication scientists study the effect of microtargeting in political campaigning

Democracy can only work if citizens are able to take informed decisions. But what happens if a news feed is so incredibly personalised that nobody really knows what is actually presented to us, and from whom. Sophie Lecheler and her team at the University of Vienna are using experiments and 'data donations' to see what users see – and to understand political discourse in times of digitalisation.

Today’s electoral campaigns have been shifted to the digital realm and political parties are using social media deliberately. Based on social data, such as age, gender and place of residence as well as pages we liked or posts we shared, we receive tailor-made electoral ads directly in our news feeds (such as on Facebook) due to algorithms. This type of political advertising is called microtargeting. How citizens are addressed by which political parties in which way in the digital realm has, however, become a black box for academic research due to new developments. Therefore, researchers have to rely on so-called data donations, i.e. donations by users who submit screenshots of their news feed and answer questions, or who install data donation apps allowing the team to follow ways in which users are targeted during times of electoral campaigns.

Sophie Lecheler and her 15 team members at the University of Vienna are conducting political communication research. "We are looking at how humans or organisations in the public sphere communicate topics of social policy and which role this plays in the development of democracy", explains the media expert Lecheler. The research is aimed at paving the way for a "democratically healthy" media communication that may not only disseminate news based on conflict but also initiates solutions.

The good side of microtargeting 

"You should of course not consider microtargeting a 'silver bullet' that changes our perspective, i.e. our electoral behaviour by 180°," says Sophie Lecheler, "But from advertising research we know that repetition works, and in social networks ads often ‘hit’ us in unexpected moments, in which we might be more open." Algorithm-based advertisement strategies are mainly used to reach people who have not yet taken a political decision.

This certainly also has a good side: Microtargeting on social media also allows smaller political parties that cannot rely on millions of euros to effectively run electoral campaigns. This allows to increase the diversity in the landscape of political parties. Moreover, microtargeting allows to address groups that are 'often forgotten' and inform them about political agendas. This includes migrants, the youth and the elderly. "Digital technologies have a huge democratic potential since they allow all citizens to participate in political discourse," says Lecheler. She continues, "But you have to use this first."

Experts give a – preliminary – all-clear against manipulation through microtargeting

What is particularly clear is that citizens need new digital competences to deal with microtargeting, as the project leader emphasises, "for example, by learning which browser settings influence targeting or how social media are selling their data to political parties."

The topic microtargeting is accompanied by many fears and still little specialist knowledge, especially with regard to the potential manipulation of voters before elections. The first results obtained by Sophie Lecheler and her team, however, give a – preliminary – all-clear signal: We are far away from perfect targeting. If it is done well, it does not fail to have the desired effect, but the ads are often matched in an imprecise or rough way. If citizens perceive that they are wrongly addressed, e.g. if a confirmed conservative voter receives an ad of the social democrats or an ad about a topic in which they are not interested, the ad might even be counterproductive. "This may result in voters abandoning their party or becoming demobilised and no longer wanting to go to elections," explains Sophie Lecheler.

For the current large-scale project DATADRIVEN the team of the University of Vienna is putting their heads together with colleagues from Amsterdam, Wageningen, Manchester and Sheffield. Lecheler and her colleagues are investigating the desired and undesired consequences of data-based electoral campaigns for democracy – for the first time in international comparison.

More information on the project and the work of Lecheler and her team here

Picture: Sophie Lecheler (© Barbara Mair)

Scientific contact

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Sophie Lecheler

Institut für Publizistik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft
1090 - Wien, Kolingasse 14-16

Further inquiry

Theresa Bittermann, BA

Media Relations, Universität Wien
1010 - Wien, Universitätsring 1