Voter data is popular with everyone

Losing friends on Facebook can be a perplexing experience: What prompts a person to press the unfollow button?

Facebook losing friends among Canadian politicians these days is equally baffling, especially in light of how passionately the politicos in this country have embraced this large-scale collector of support and voter data.

There’s a lot of pots calling kettles black in the current political furor over Big Data’s impact on democracy, the theme in this week’s international “grand committee” meetings in Ottawa.

Big Data has been a big friend to MPs in many political parties for some time now, and it will be in the 2019 election, too. In fact, for more than a decade, Canadian political parties have been building huge databases with no rules or oversight on the voter information being collected and stored.

Moreover, much of that information has come from Facebook.

And while MPs have been quick to remind everyone this week about all the ways that Facebook has been openly flouting warnings from privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien, their political parties have been doing the same thing.

For seven years now, successive privacy commissioners have told political parties to bring their voter databases in line with privacy laws that govern the public and private sectors. In response, there’s only one, anemic reference to privacy codes of conduct — a suggestion, really — in the electoral-reform legislation passed last year.

So it’s not just Facebook that should be standing accused this week of stockpiling data for its advantage.

It’s been interesting to watch how Facebook has gone from being the darling of the political class in 2015 to yet another shadowy, big corporation trampling on the little people in 2019. A populist tool has become a populist target.

There’s a good reason that the parties became such big fans of Facebook over the past decade. Actually, there are many good reasons.

Where once political parties, especially in the United States, collected consumer data to reach voters — magazine-subscription lists and the like — Facebook gathered up information that gave much better clues to how people would vote.

You can only tell so much about people’s voting intentions from the kind of magazines they read or cars they buy; Facebook tells you where people live, who their friends are, where they work and their interests. This is gold to political strategists.

Even better, Facebook reaches people who are non-political — the very kind who will be open to changing votes or voting for the first time.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal majority in 2015 was built on outreach to these kind of Canadians, and Facebook was a huge help. Trudeau was the first Canadian political leader to launch his platform exclusively on Facebook.

In 2019, I’m not sure that any of the political parties are going to be as openly adoring of Facebook, even if they’re still using it to hoard all that data.

The NDP’s Charlie Angus, who was one of the most vocal MPs speaking up against Big Data this week at the committee inquisition, has at least acknowledged that he’s lost that loving feeling for high-tech politicking.

I ran into Angus on Wednesday and asked how he felt about the party databases in this context, including the NDP’s own (which was called Populus in the last campaign). He said the databases are democratically necessary to help parties connect with people who don’t answer their phones or their doors anymore.

But Angus also said the databases should be subject to some kind of audit by the privacy commissioner, to make sure they’re not collecting information that would set off alarms to any voter.

Would that help me see what the NDP has stored about me in the database, I asked. Probably not, Angus said.

Democracy’s current woes won’t be fixed by shutting down Facebook, or even “unfriending” it.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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