Donald Trump. Emmanuel Macron. Boris Johnson. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). What do these people have in common? They all have used the online platform NationBuilder to organise political campaigns. In recent years, the technology developed by the Los Angeles-based company has become de rigueur for every politician hoping to start a grassroots movement, and piggyback on it to victory.
Launched in 2009 by Jim Gilliam – a developer and former film-maker who valued what he saw as the internet’s almost religious power to connect people – NationBuilder offers a simple proposition. Starting at $29 a month (or $199 for teams), it enables anyone to start a campaign website that includes a donation interface, bulk-email software, and tools to compile a supporter database.
From a single dashboard, campaign managers can build profiles of supporters and activists who subscribe to their website or interact on Twitter, integrate that database with information from social media and electoral rolls, rally their base using emails, texts and voice calls, and organise canvassing according to target voters’ location.
“When you’re trying to run a campaign, it’s difficult to cobble together website, communication tools and donation tools,” says NationBuilder CEO Lea Endres, who took over from Gilliam in 2017, one year before he died at 41, after a long battle with cancer. “The reason everyone was like, ‘Oh, thank God! We’re going to use NationBuilder’, was because it is an integrated system.”
The Economist has described NationBuilder as an “Obama startup”, one of a number of American companies offering an affordable, turnkey version of the data-based techniques that helped Barack Obama bag the presidency in 2008 and 2012. That is attractive enough for insurgent candidates in the US – from Trump to the Green Party’s Jill Stein – and even more so for politicians in countries like the UK or France, where campaign spending limits or the dearth of US-style deep-pocketed donors make it inadvisable to splurge on developing costly political technology from scratch.
The upshot is that NationBuilder’s way of winning elections has gone global. “It is becoming a conduit through which political tactics and innovations move,” says Fenwick McKelvey, a communication studies professor at Montreal’s Concordia University, who has researched the company. “You can say that NationBuilder is co-ordinating the flows of global politics.”
Granted, when a US product initially geared towards US activists starts powering campaigns across the planet, something can be lost in translation. A UK political consultant who has often used NationBuilder complains that the technology is too “opinionated”, straitjacketing campaigns with models that don’t necessarily work in every context.
Ethical conundrums abound. One of Gilliam’s tenets when launching the company was that NationBuilder would be nonpartisan. In the US, where parties relied on politically aligned companies – like the progressive-only web-hosting firm NGP Van – for technological firepower, NationBuilder’s no-questions-asked model was refreshing; it also dovetailed with the libertarian ethos popular in 2009 Silicon Valley.
But now, as all the major platforms are pushed by public uproar and state regulators to soften their free-speech stance, it is remarkable how NationBuilder has sailed through the techlash relatively unscathed and unchanged. NationBuilder has never banned a customer for political reasons: fringe figures such as Canadian alt-right commentator Faith Goldy, or British far-right activist Tommy Robinson – who has been kicked off Facebook and Twitter, and obscured on YouTube – have turned to NationBuilder to run campaigns, publish content, and receive donations. Endres says that the company is constantly working on figuring out a “peace-building strategy” to confront extremism.
Adapting a single platform to innumerable national regulations is another challenge. “It seems that often NationBuilder will sell in a country before knowing whether its technology necessarily complies with the regulatory context,” McKelvey says. Exhibit A: NationBuilder Match, a feature using supporters’ emails to retrieve public information from their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles. In 2017, France’s data protection authority banned the feature in the country. In Britain, the Information Commissioner’s Office warned about it in a 2018 report, although the feature remains available in the UK.
The company appears to be taking steps to get data protection right – both from a practical and reputational perspective. It says it is adopting a “privacy by default” approach, and has taken pains to be GDPR-compliant. One section on the company website, tagged “Myths”, underlines that NationBuilder is not associated with the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica accused of skewing the Brexit referendum. A new policy statement drafted in summer 2019 includes the sentence: “Your data is yours. We will not sell it, use it, or interact with it in any way unless asked to do so by you directly.”
There is still room for improvement. The UK consultant says that NationBuilder does not offer a two-factor authentication log-in option – problematic if you are handling sensitive voter data. A company spokesperson says that the issue is “on our radar”.
More great stories from WIRED
😡 TikTok is fuelling India’s deadly hate speech epidemic
🚀 The staggering power of Russia’s top-secret nuclear rocket
🍫 The foods you’ll really need to stockpile for no-deal Brexit
♻️ The truth behind the UK’s biggest recycling myths
🤷🏼 How is the internet still obsessed with Myers-Briggs?
📧 Get the best tech deals and gadget news in your inbox