How operatives use ‘dark tech’ to sway voters

Campaigns weaponize data for political gain

July 1, 2020 4:30 am

Sen. Cory Gardner speaks before the arrival of President Donald Trump at a Keep America Great rally on Feb. 20, 2020, in Colorado Springs. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

With the 2020 general election underway, voters once again can expect to be inundated with ad hominem attacks for the next four months. But gone are the days of mass adverts and generic robocalls. Today’s political marketing is far more sophisticated. While campaigns have always relied on targeting voters, no election has ever been more ripe for the systematic weaponization of your personal data to be used against you. This is 21st century politics, after all.

Data tracking may feel innocuous, if you notice it at all. As we shop online or use our favorite apps, we often forget that our every interaction is being tracked: name, demographics, health, location, queries, purchases, likes, dislikes, comments, reviews, voice commands and so much more. Children and adults alike are monitored with little hesitation, every click a notch in our personalized databases. Over time, data is accumulated to create robust user profiles with phenomenally revealing insights. In a capitalistic economy, direct marketing from this data is arguably an effective form of streamlining a customer base. Yet many companies sell data to third- and fourth-party entities for profit, at times indiscriminately, and political operatives on both sides of the aisle have taken note. Microtargeting for shoes is one thing, but systematically honing an individual’s views and actions for political gain crosses the line from marketing to manipulation.

This extreme tactic, referred to as “political microtargeting,” was advanced by Brad Parscale during the 2016 Trump campaign after analytic firms such as Cambridge Analytica were speculated to have been involved in high profile political races (e.g. in Colorado, Cory Gardner’s 2014 upset win). The tactics, which vary greatly, generally make use of comprehensive data sets to create a series of targeted ads to sway voters. Combining behavioral neuroscience and computer and political sciences, political operatives amass, sort and analyze user information to create hyper-specific voter profiles and subpopulations. These subpopulations are then targeted repeatedly with tailored messages to reshape the voter’s mind on issues, persons, groups or parties. Without disclosures of microtargeting, recipients often remain unaware the ad they see is different than what others see. Over time, your views are reshaped for political gain.

Political microtargeting is insidious. With short- or long-term deployment, a wide range of psychological strategies can be employed, including voter suppression, voter turnout, disinformation or confusion campaigns, negative ads and more. Strategies often focus on exacerbating political fringes, thereby accelerating political chasms, diluting power, muddying truths and causing general unrest. These dark political strategies run antithetical to democratic principles yet remain some of the most effective campaign strategies to date. When used by foreign entities, data interferences are prime examples of 21st century warfare.

The price of technological advances is steep, and policymakers have yet to fully rein them in. The Federal Trade Commission has broad authority, however there are no sweeping data privacy laws, only privacy laws per sector. With little action by the current federal administration, some states have taken independent action. In Colorado, 2018 legislation featured additional data protections, such as disposal requirements for personal identifying information (PII) and security breach notifications. Other states, including the home of tech-hub Silicon Valley, continue to expand PII protections with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). This bill expanded consumer rights to include the right to know what PII is collected, who it is shared with, and the right to refuse third-party sale without penalty. Additional laws have also been enacted in states like Maine and Nevada, but it’s not enough, particularly to address political microtargeting.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. (

In lieu of federal action, Colorado has an opportunity to lead in setting new national standards. Minding First Amendment rights, strategies to combat extreme microtargeting might include microtargeting restrictions via marketing platforms (e.g. Google, Facebook), limiting third-party sales, strengthening enforcement of breaches on third-party sales, additional disclosures in political ads, and digital-age antitrust laws. In Colorado, such antitrust laws are already in question as Attorney General Phil Weiser joined a multistate investigation of Google and Facebook for possible breach (results are pending). 

Legislators preparing for the 2021 session would be wise to explore additional PII protections, such as the CCPA, as well as avenues to protect data privacy and limit data profiling and political interference. Until then, the onus remains on individuals to critically examine all political information they receive. Finally, in the height of a perilous election year, Colorado voters are cautioned to the likelihood that they are being, and will remain, microtargeted by political entities.

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Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation's top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.