Social media, data mining, and retail campaigning form a triangle of power in the 2012 election, each shaping and informing the other. Campaigns use social media to reach prospective voters, after gleaning behavioral information from data mining, and having been influenced by retail organizing by outside groups. Campaigns then use all of this in an “online/offline” strategy to target events and calls-to-action to specific regional demographics and pyschographics… the ultimate call-to-action in an election being the call to show up and vote.
As an article by Lois Beckett of journalism nonprofit ProPublica put it:
The Obama campaign has hired a corporate data mining expert, Rayid Ghani, to serve as the campaign’s “chief scientist.” Ghani has previously researched how to use a retailer’s record of customer purchases to predict what a particular customer will buy during a given shopping trip — the same kind of data crunching that Target has apparently used to predict whether shoppers are pregnant. The campaign is continuing to hire “analytics engineers” and other data experts.
In fact, both state and federal campaigns can and do buy information from commercial databases. Although the Presidential campaigns aren’t keen to talk about these type of expenditures, you can reasonably expect that both the Obama and Romney campaigns as well as super-PACs will have the resources to buy proprietary data. Froe example, a 2010 scholarly article, “New Challenges to Political Privacy,” details some of the ways that affinity cards — like a supermarket loyalty card — can not only track your spending but produce a log of your shopping behavior that could be sold to campaigns and inform political messaging about issues including economic security. As the authors explain:
Even as there is little in the way of transparency with respect to data practices, much suggests that very few people have the expectation that campaigns will collect records of their grocery store purchases to profile them ideologically. Yet, the linkages between our credit card purchases, demographic profiles, and voter registration records are increasing as is the use of this information by actors we do not know for purposes that we cannot control (Clark, 1994; Howard, 2003). For example, credit card records about contraceptive, gun, and magazine purchases are valuable data for lobby groups working on abortion, firearm control, and other political issues (Howard, 2006; Carr, & Milstein, 2005; Sides & Karch, 2008). Even if citizens know about the information that has been collected on them―exceedingly rare, given the lack of transparency―there is no clear way for them to “opt out” of political datasets or manage the circulation and use of their private data.
Cross-hatch this 2010 analysis with a more recent article about how Target knew a teen was pregnant before her parents did, based on her purchases, and unwittingly tipped them off, and you have a sense of how deeply campaigns could mine our consumer behavior for information our lives, finances, and families.
Over the course of this semester, I taught a seminar course on the intersection of social media, data mining, and retail campaigning/organizing. Guests included:
- Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation, State Department. His work on “digital diplomacy” has set a new standard for integrating social media and tech into US decisionmaking about how to address the Arab Spring and other pro-democracy movements.
- John Keefe, Senior Editor for Data News & Journalism Technology at WNYC. A longtime journalist and newsroom manager, he taught himself to code and now uses API mashups and data visualizations to demonstrate everything from changing voting districts to disproportionate police enforcement of drug laws in communities of color.
- Baratunde Thurston, bestselling author of How to Be Black; political pundit; stand up comic and analyst of domestic and international political satire, who somehow squeezes in a high-level job at The Onion. His work demonstrates the viral power of charismatic players in a social media world where satire is both viral and sticky.
- Lisa Replogle, a member of the Steering Committee of the Colorado River Tea Party. Her organization, like many of the broad-based and independent Tea Party chapters, uses a mix of online and offline organizing to stay in constant touch with members; champion challenges; and reach sitting politicians.
- Jason Rzepka, Vice President of Public Affairs at MTV. He helped construct the network’s “Power of 12″ fantasy political league. It’s a gamification of politics that relies on the power of social media.
Each of these people represent different parts of the triangle of power — some in politics, some in media, some data experts (or two or three of the aforemetioned). Over the course of the 2012 campaign, we can expect social, data mining, and retail politics to influence the nature of the race and its outcome. One of the biggest questions is: how much of the action will we see, given the few proddings towards transparency of money or data? That’s a question we should, as citizens, spend more time thinking about.