Communications in the age of digital elections

Recent elections in the US and the UK have yielded more questions than answers about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to messages and tactics designed to persuade audiences. Targeted political adverts, unofficial memes, psychographic profiling and giant datasets will all be in play during upcoming elections on both sides of the pond with tech platforms increasingly providing the battlefield for mass communications combat.

Over the last two years I’ve been exploring how technology will affect politics in the near-future through my podcast Government Vs The Robots. In that time I’ve spotted five shifts in the information ecosystem which demand a response from people interested in communicating ideas and values. The current UK election and the democratic primaries will provide a chance to scrutinise what the best political campaigners in the business think is the right way to win hearts and minds in the age of the algorithm. So what should we be looking for?


Today’s voters each have a completely unique flow of information into their laptops and smartphones. The information we consume is based on the choices we make and algorithmic interpretations of those choices which drive us deeper into our filter bubbles. It’s easier than ever before to find like-minded communities brought together by niche interests. This is reflected in the rise of identity politics and call out culture. How candidates seek to set different groups against each other and win the backing of others will be a significant part of their strategies.  

Contested Realities

Facts have been established as secondary to emotions when it comes to forming political opinions. People have always held up competing versions of events as truths which inform their political judgements but at the warp speed of social media, ownership of the facts is less important than plausibility of narrative. Watch out for the short-lived vacuums after live events and breaking news where various ‘outriders’ and opinion formers are not yet in receipt of the party line. These will most likely occur after nocturnal presidential tweeting, outspoken left-wing candidate gaffes and episodes of Boris Johnson bluster or buffoonery. 

In addition it is now easier than ever to manipulate digital media and harder than ever to spot something which is fake. Where people unknowingly consume fake memes or they travel across mainstream media before being debunked there is a risk that debate becomes warped. Initiatives like Who Targets Me or Sky News’ Under the Radar are good ways of monitoring these. 


The advent of ‘live’ channels on social media has precipitated an increasing amount of content from politicians that is broadcast straight to social. Just a few weeks ago the UK Prime Minister held a people’s Question Time where he pre-recorded a question and answer session and streamed it on Facebook. The Brexit Party also has its own online TV channel. These channels present a challenge to media covering elections who risk losing their role as interlocutor but by watching how it’s done there’s plenty for communicators to learn from.

The proliferation of data

In the era of GDPR (and the wake of Cambridge Analytica) many voters are much more savvy about who has their email address but there’s still much lower understanding of the role that consumption and location data can play in targeting voters. Expect to see evidence of highly targeted adverts (by geography, social class and gender to name a few) and increasingly quizzical eyebrows raised by an electorate not always aware of exactly what data they may have  signed away and to who. For people committed to raising awareness of consumer consent and the future of data ethics this is an important one to watch.

Post-text content

Whilst smartphones form the backbone of our media consumption there’s an increasingly vibrant scene of podcasters and You Tubers providing independent commentary on the election. Some of the best analysis could well come from these audiovisual pundits operating outside of mainstream media. Expect to see savvy politicians courting cult shows and maybe even producing their own materials to tap into a technological trend which is steering us away from screens and towards accessories.

It will take a braver or more confident person than me to predict the outcome of the next 12 months electoral politics but i’m already certain there’s going to be lots to learn for communicators. This blog doesn’t even touch on the role of foreign states in creating and fostering disinformation designed to influence opinion. Perhaps that’s one for another day. 

Power and Politics in Pakistan: A Limited Access Order

Pakistan Political Economy Foreign Aid

The Limited Access Order (LAO) conceptual framework is an excellent way to understand why developing countries work the way they do, analyze their political and economic dynamics, and formulate policy ideas appropriate to their context. Its focus on power, violence, rents, and elite bargains provides far greater explanatory and predictive power than the standard template that uses developed countries as a model for how countries ought to work. As such, everyone in the development field working in a policymaking role should make use of it.

Created by Nobel Prize winner Douglass North, John Wallis, Steven Webb, and Barry Weingast, the LAO framework argues that:

No one, including the state, has a monopoly on violence . . . An LAO reduces violence by forming a dominant coalition containing all individuals and groups with sufficient access to violence . . . The dominant coalition creates cooperation and order by limiting access to valuable resources – land, labor, and capital – or access [to] and control of valuable activities – such as contract enforcement, property right enforcement, trade, worship, and education – to elite groups . . . The creation and distribution of rents therefore secures elite loyalty to the system, which in turn protects rents, limits violence, and prevents disorder most of the time. Continue reading

Do development indicators deceive us? Here is a better approach

Measuring politics and Political Development indicatorsMeasuring how countries perform is all the rage. Everyone from the World Bank to Bertelsmann to Africa’s most famous entrepreneur does it, producing indices on things like how competitive economies are, how hungry populations are, how free the press is, how risky investments are, and how corrupt public sectors are.

Many of these indices are directly relevant for people working in development. They help countries determine how they compare with other states and where they ought to improve their performance. And they help aid agencies decide where and how to invest their resources.

Indicators tracking everything from GDP per capita to poverty to governance are ubiquitous across the field, especially among international professionals. Such numbers are used to determine need, priorities, and strategies (such as whether a government ought to be funded directly).

But do the indicators that have the greatest influence measure the right things? Are they focused on the issues that are most important to development? Can they predict how governments work or how countries will evolve in the future?

Too often, developing countries are assessed on a very narrow set of indicators, leading to an overemphasis on certain programs and “results” that have little to do with their prospects. Reducing poverty and hunger are worthwhile goals but may not reflect how well a country is doing (aid can reduce both without helping a state function better). “Good governance” may indicate good prospects, but bad governance certainly does not point to the reverse, as a long string of countries can attest to (including China, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam). GDP per capita is widely used to assess how well countries are doing (not least by the World Bank and many leading poverty analysts), but may actually be saying very little about the subject (such as when only elites benefit from natural resource wealth, as in Nigeria, Libya, and Angola).

Indicators on state fragility can easily miss the mark. The Failed States Index, for instance, completely failed to pick up the fault lines that threaten many Middle Eastern countries before the Arab Spring brought them into the open. The 2011 FSI ranked Syria as the 48th most fragile state in the world, but its complex ethnic and religious landscape has always made it far more fragile than it appeared. In 2012, Syria plummeted down to 23rd in the FSI. Next year, it will inevitably be much worse. Bahrain and Libya did not even make the ranking before 2011.

Many of the most important development issues are not included in major indices because they are not easily measured or are simply not considered as important as they ought to be.

In Fixing Fragile States, I wrote:

Development describes a complex process that transforms both the way people think and behave and the system of how they work together. Although economics drives development, politics plays a far greater role in the key take-off stages, with social, business, and government modernization inextricably linked as the process advances.

Do we ever measure how well a people work together? How institutionalized politics is (something quite different than democracy and “good governance”)? How cohesive a population is?

Assessing a country’s political dynamics may not be easy—especially if the goal is to measure it numerically—but is arguably more important than the majority of the indicators we currently use. The right kind of assessment ought to better gauge how resilient a country is, how prone to conflict it is, how stable its current political system is, how likely its elites are to work together to promote progress. All these things help us understand a country’s overall prospects in a way that few existing indicators can.

Measuring politics and political development requires creating a set of indices that reflect—or at least depend upon—the nature of sociopolitical dynamics, the degree of social / political / economic inclusiveness, the institutionalization of the state, the robustness of the rule of law, the level of social capital, the capacity of societies to create wealth (separate from natural resources), and the ability of government to get things done (which may not reflect existing governance scores).

What would these indicators look like? The new assessment criteria would seek to answer questions such as:

1) How great are group-based (ethnic, religious, caste, clan, etc.) economic, political, and cultural horizontal inequities?

2) How equitable is public spending?

3) How equitable are markets?

4) How equitable is the rule of law? Do elites or particular groups have systemic advantages over others?

5) How effective is public authority and the rule of law (taking into account a variety of mechanisms to achieve these)?

6) How inclusive is the concept of citizenship?

7) How equitable is the system of property rights?

8 ) How inclusive and poverty reducing is growth?

9) How diversified is the economy and exports (which depends on the robustness of institutions)?

10) Is political succession institutionalized and predictable?

11) How much does politics revolve around political parties and policies (rather than ethnicity and patronage)?

12) How much do political leaders depend on group identities to gain, hold onto, or compete for power?

13) How well do formal institutions (such as laws) reflect informal institutions? How widely accepted are these? How well do they penetrate society (as opposed to existing above it)?

14) How much investment is going into large factories (which are more risky than other investments)?

15) What is the level of political risk to invest in labor-intensive businesses (which require more effort and are more beneficial to a population)?

16) Is the economy producing an adequate number of jobs for young people?

17) How well can the government implement the policies it puts into place (if a road is supposed to be built, does it? How good is it?)?

18) How well can the government project authority across distance (is it as effective in outlying districts as it is in the capital)?

19) Are the government’s capacity and the country’s economic prospects keeping up with increases in education, urbanization, and the expectations of the population?

20) Are levels of dissatisfaction/frustration rising among powerful out of power actors (elites, identity group leaders, youth leaders, religious leaders, etc.)?

Some of these questions could be turned into indicators very easily (the data is available). Others could be turned into indicators by substituting another data source (for instance, tracking how well a government delivers public services at various distances from the capital will give a decent account of how well it projects authority). Many may be hard to assess, and require a more a concerted effort involving more spending on research and analysis.

If politics and political development mattered as much as they should, more effort would be made to create and use such indicators. Without these, we are flying blind, trying to understand the terrain using the wrong instruments.