Mass Precision in Digital Lobbying – a Myth or a Fact?

Bade Kızılaslan, Fréderic Christoph Heymans, Florian Baronyai, Ibtissam Amri, Lilia Kaberova, Margaryta Makovetska, Nevena Nedeljkovic, Omar Djedidi, Raquel Del Ri, Vera Sordini

How Does Lobbying Change with the Digitalization?

Lobbying, a persuasive form of action towards policy and decision makers, has changed over the years. Institutions, corporations, and interest groups with immense resources and well-skilled activists have used lobbying as a powerful way to push legislation in their favour. With the development of computing technologies, often referred to as ‘Big Data’, lobbyists today are better equipped than ever before.

Not only is there more information available, but it is also more easily accessible – regardless of time zones or location. We are only a few clicks away from accessing huge data banks that we can use to back up arguments with proficient facts and figures.

What is the Role of Big-Data in Lobbying?

Lobbying through Big Data analytics holds a legitimate position in appearing during political campaigns and decision-making processes to criticize the policies and to define an effective way which can help the lobbyists’ interests. It is, as well, an analytic study that collects data from public opinion in order to adapt the political campaign to the public’s behaviour and interests. Moreover, it aims to gain more supporters and to successfully complete the campaigns. For instance, there is a successful platform called “Quorum”, created by Harvard and Cambridge undergraduates, which works with algorithms. It is especially useful for public affairs sectors in managing their relationships with stakeholders by helping them present their policies in a few clicks.

Certainly, we can witness the undeniable influence of the lobbyists on the European Union policies, especially in Brussels, which is considered to be the “lobbying capital’ of Europe. However, as in most of the digitalized sectors, digital lobbying has its bright and dark sides. So, which uses of digital lobbying can be considered for the good of the Union? Is it possible to draw a clear line between the good and bad sides? Last but not least, is digital lobbying, in fact, regulated for the benefit of citizens in the European Union?

Lobbying Improves the Decision-making Process But, How Do the Politicians Use This Tool?

Lobbying is an activity that is often considered infamous in the collective sub-consciousness. It consists of a series of actions conducted to influence all types of public office holders, elected officials, or civil servants, in order to steer a political decision in their interest. This type of action can be beneficial to the political decision-making process provided it is, of course, regulated.

In addition to pushing for beneficial political decision (beneficial for them first, and then for the rest of the actors of the society), lobbyists can also help unresolved problems to resurface in the political scene and heavily influence the public as well. Lobbying of non-governmental organizations holds a power that goes beyond mere political influence. For instance, the reason why Europe is irreproachable in the agri-food sector is largely due to these campaign groups and there interactions with Europe Corporate Observatory, food multinationals, agri-traders and seed producers have had more contacts with the Commission’s trade department than lobbyists from the pharmaceutical, chemical, financial and car industry put together. Having said so, the presence of lobbyists has a relatively positive impact on the quality of European products and it imposes a qualitative requirement on potential investors.

In 2017, new regulations concerning transparency and efficiency of the EU entered into force. Among these new regulations, we can find the prohibition for all members of the European Parliament to carry out the paid activity as lobbyists. “No EU country and institution has a satisfactory framework for the traceability of public decision-making, the integrity of trade and fair access to public decision-making processes” tackled transparency.
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These new regulations helped in the revealing of special interests of each actor or member of the EP, but some areas of uncertainty still exist. This promotes a better relationship between political actors and lobbyists, forcing politicians to work for the general interest or otherwise risk attracting the wrath of public opinion. A study of the London School of Economics on the Effects of Transparency on Behaviour suggested that increased transparency of activities in the EP has affected the way that the members of the European Parliament behave. Greater transparency has made a difference in the EP. The first two years after the launch of VoteWatch.eu, MEPs became more active with higher attendance rates, more questions, more motions, and more speeches, but also more loyalty to the party principals which control their career progression inside the EP. The study also suggests that responsiveness in a parliamentary system, especially one filled with lobbies like in the EU, is enhanced by the public’s access to legislative decision records.

EU-lobbying backed by big data?

On one hand, Big Data on the political level can be utilized to determine critical policy or to analyze law-makers’ standpoints in order to better understand their actions and to find an effective way of approaching and influencing their decisions. On the other hand, analytic institutions collect data from the public and from the potential voters to tailor political campaigns based on people’s behaviour, location or interests.

Using data to influence someone’s decisions is a well-observed tool in marketing and it is found to be useful for lobbying as well. Latest since Cambridge Analytics, which potentially contributed to Trump’s election, data-driven approaches are known to have a huge impact in political elections and can influence thousands of voters. Data backed decisions can bring huge benefits for political candidates during their campaigns. Focusing on specific locations, adapting their political messaging, or planning their rallies based on collected data about the voters are just a few ways how big data can be used in their favour.

The power lies not only in analyzing historic data and meeting people’s interests but further in making predictions on how people will behave in the future and then acting accordingly to influence and lead voters in a certain direction, potentially against the voter’s will.

Despite the opportunities Big Data can provide for lobbyists and politicians, it is also a threat to people’s privacy and it requires regulations. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), introduced by the European Commission, provides measures regarding collection and use of people’s data in order to ensure citizens’ rights, which might be the first step to more effective data protection.

Recently, Facebook started to implement more transparent advertising. The company now requires political parties (running ads on their social media platform) to go through an authorization procedure and to provide clear details about the targeting and profiling of their advertisements. This definitely is a result of the Cambridge Analytics scandal and recent data protection discussions.

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The Future Belongs to the Citizens and Lobbying must Guarantee Privacy Policies

Therefore, it can be said that lobbying has undeniable social and political efficiency. The technological development and the one related to digital skills have caused these pressure groups to multiply in quantity and to gain more strength. For instance, some professions related to mass media have drastically changed due to the digitalization, and as Van Thillo, De Pesgroep Chief Executive Officer, argues —  lobbying has done the same.

Platforms as Facebook, known as ‘multi-layered’ by businessmen, have allowed making this pressure activity more accessible to every citizen. Moreover, the decision-making process has become even more democratic.

We can observe that this professional revolution has lots of advantages to lobbying like more participation, and easier access to information. However, it also has negative consequences: misinformation, excessive expressions of personal opinions, lack of professionalism, etc. Still, undoubtedly, the greatest challenge facing the new era of digital lobbying is intimately related to big data and privacy policies.

 Therefore, as confirmed by Cambridge Analytics, digital lobbying is one of the most useful tools in political processes and to regulate it is mandatory. The European Union has started doing so with the new GDPR, but it has to be improved until becoming an effective law. The future belongs to the citizens and that is why we must not only guarantee the efficiency and transparency of this activity but also ensure the participation of civil society in legislative decisions. All citizens must understand Lobbying as a form of activism in which each and every one of us has to participate. The digital era has increased this way of doing policy without politicians and does it in a more precise way.

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