Literature review on elections, political campaigning and democracy

Lack of privacy reduces our free will and takes away our freedom.

By OxTEC - 15. September 2019

Over the next century, politics will be transformed by three developments:

1) increasingly capable systems;

2) increasingly integrated technology which is becoming more pervasive, connective, sensitive (i.e., there will be more sensors), constitutive (i.e., there will be more robots), and immersive (i.e., AR and VR); and

3) an increasingly quantified society.

It suggests that, however, we should be looking at how a lack of privacy reduces our free will.

This takes away our freedom.

Alice Thwaite, founder of the Echo Chamber Club (, was asked by the Oxford Technology and Elections Commission (OxTEC) to produce a literature review on elections, political campaigning and democracy.

This literature review by Alice Thwaite looks at how scholars have theorised the influence of digital technology on democracy. It is the second publication in the OxTEC report series. The report summarises scholarly texts on a few key topics including: political communication theory in a digital age, surveillance and privacy, algorithms and bias, the attention economy and historical thought concerning information environments.

Download from the Oxford Internet Institute HERE


This is a literature review which answers the following research question:

‘How have past and recent scholars theorized how the digital influences elections?’

Each text was chosen either because it was requested by the OxTEC committee or because the author felt that it would help readers to develop an understanding of influence in elections. Many other texts and subtopics were considered for analysis.

When considering the research question, I sought to understand the difference between ‘influence’ and ‘manipulation’ or ‘influence’ and ‘propaganda’.

It is generally assumed that ‘influence’ attracts a positive moral value judgement and ‘manipulation’ attracts a negative one. However, this line of enquiry proves unfruitful. There are few satisfactory distinctions between the two.

Instead, the distinction is ‘unambiguously and unapologetically asymmetric. The user of the term purports to convey the truth in contradistinction to the untruths, half-truths, distortions, and omissions of the “other party”’ (Neuman, 2016, p. 31). This means that no communicator believes that they are seeking to manipulate rather than influence.

However, even if we reject the distinction between ‘good’ influence and ‘bad’ influence, the literature offers some answers about how the digital has shaped elections.

It suggests that, however, we should be looking at how a lack of privacy reduces our free will.

Zuboff’s analysis shows how surveillance by private companies moves quickly to ‘instrumentarianism’, which is defined as ‘the instrumentation and instrumentalization of behaviour for the purposes of modification, prediction, monetisation and control’ (Zuboff, 2019, p. 357).

External actors gather data about us so they can best predict what we may or may not do in the future – whether we will buy products or vote in elections, for example.

Given that it is more profitable to be absolutely certain about what a person may do in the future, external actors try to nudge a person into behaving in an easily predictable way.

This takes away our freedom.

Consequently, regulators should focus on protecting privacy in order to protect democracies. The Introduction goes into further depth with regard to this argument.

Download from the Oxford Internet Institute HERE