Ebru Erdem-Akçay
Nov 13 2017

Google data expert signals new era in Turkish elections

Taylan Yıldız, a former specialist in consumer profiling at Google Inc. with a Phd from Stanford, may be setting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan up for a shock election defeat in 2019.

Despite coming from a social-democrat family, Yıldız has left his career behind to join right-wing Turkish politician Meral Akşener – whom he calls Meral Abla – and the brand new political party she leads – the İYİ Parti (Good Party), and now sits on the board along with many much more seasoned politicians.

With Yıldız firmly in place at the party's HQ in Ankara, the question of just how far modern marketing methods and targeted ads can sway an electorate under difficult conditions looks set to be put to the test again. Parliamentary and presidential elections are due to be held in 2019 at the latest.

Soon after U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 election win, journalists started to investigate the role of data mining and voter targeting in the Trump campaign. Reports converged on Cambridge Analytica and its founder, the conservative hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer. Cambridge Analytica’s big data-driven political marketing for the Trump campaign had a big influence on the outcome; it likely delivered Trump the presidency, just as it likely won Britain's referendum for the Leave campaign earlier that year.

What does Cambridge Analytica do for politicians? The short answer is: it tailors a different political message for each and every voter, based on an analysis of the voter’s personality. 

There are three steps to big data-driven campaign operations. In the data-mining stage, the political marketing company collects and harvests the available data about individuals. Mined data may come from credit agencies or digital footprints such as the online tests an individual might take. At the profiling stage, it uses big data analysis methods to produce a personality profile of each voter based on the mined and individually matched and assigned data.

At the micro-targeting stage, the company helps the campaign deliver a personalised ad to voters to trigger them to act in the way that is best for the campaign’s goals. These ads are usually delivered through social media, especially Facebook. In the United States, the ads and canvassing targeting Republican-leaning voters had a “get-out-the-vote” effect. Furthermore, the effect of negative ads targeting Democrat voters was practically voter suppression. 

Another critical role Cambridge Analytica played in the U.S. elections was helping the Trump campaign use its resources very efficiently, especially in the final stretch before election day. Why waste money advertising in states or precincts that the big data confirmed to be Republican dominated? Why waste resources campaigning in areas where Democrats dominate by high margins? Thanks to big data analytical suggestions, the campaign was able to zero in on narrow-margin areas where the majority could be won by influencing only a few thousand voters.

CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix
CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix (Pedro Nunes, Reuters)

Yıldız recently drew public attention with an interview in Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper. The interview tells the story of a prodigal son returning home to help an ailing loved one back to health. 

What we do not learn from the Hürriyet interview or other media reports about Yıldız are details of how exactly he intends to help İYİ Parti win. He admits that he will not be making speeches to galvanise the millions and he rightly notes that İYİ Parti is effectively prevented from holding meetings. 

“Now that we cannot march in the streets, we’ll march on Twitter and Facebook,” Yıldız said of their campaign plans. That sounds very much like the third step, micro-targeting, of Cambridge Analytica’s political campaign strategy.

Although I know Yıldız from Stanford, I do not know whether he intends to bring Cambridge Analytica's methods to Turkey. However, if that is indeed his plan, he is among the few qualified Turks who can pull it off. Turkey is a fertile ground for such an operation.

Based on his LinkedIn profile, Yıldız’s job at Google was to carry out micro-targeting based on individual user profiles. It is no secret that Google collects data on users’ online activity and engagement. Yıldız has worked with executives from top companies like P&G and Unilever to ensure that their ads across Google’s various services are seen by users who fit their marketing profile and to make adjustments depending on the user engagement with the ad. In simple terms, he helps a company selling shampoo spend its marketing dollars on a user searching for hairbrushes rather than a user searching for toupees.

Taylan Yildiz
Taylan Yıldız

Data privacy and security are very lax in Turkey, both in legislation and practice. Laws and regulations regarding personal data are far from adequate and the state itself is the source of the worst breaches. For instance, identity data belonging to more than 50 million citizens, including National ID Numbers, full names, birthdates and addresses, have been hacked. The so-called citizenship database was made available on the internet in early 2016.

Internet penetration in Turkey was 61.2 percent in 2016. People are spending time on social media, ordering food, shopping, booking flights, carrying out internet banking and making hospital appointments online in greater and greater numbers, much like in the West. The National ID Number is required for most of these online activities, as well as many offline transactions with state and private entities. Identifiable individual-level data leaks, inadequate public knowledge of online security and the widespread and often non-secure use of the National ID Number allow an experienced data miner to use the number as a unique identifier for extensively detailed profiles of Turkish voters.

Even in the current repressive political environment, Turkey is fertile ground for somebody of Yıldız’s calibre to carry out a campaign like Trump’s or that in favour of Brexit in the UK. With eyes fixed on the 2019 presidential elections, the closely-fought April 2017 referendum on presidential powers has reminded all political actors that the margins will be small and results may be determined by a small number of voters in a small number of critical districts, much like in the U.S. presidential elections last year. 

How Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party and its campaign machine might respond to these innovative campaigning methods is an intriguing question, which I will address in another article.