Democracy in the Age of Big Data

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0713gaz_dataIf all politics is local, nothing is more local than the computers in homes and offices. These devices double as our electronic alter egos and repositories of the most personal kind of information. Much of that information is transmitted via Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other Internet-based platforms. Accessing and analyzing that information, known as data mining, is the fuel for online behavioral targeting, the practice of creating micro-niches of consumers, sending them messages, and evaluating their reactions. Think of it as a focus group without the group, a telephone survey without the telephone—or the questions. Online data miners gather information without asking voters anything, including their permission.

Anyone with Internet access sees enough ads to realize that online exchanges enable the buying and selling of access to narrowly targeted individuals in real time [“Phantom Privacy,” Sept|Oct 2010].  Did you just search for a cookie recipe? Here’s an ad from Williams Sonoma. Were you looking at vacation spots in Jackson Hole? Here’s an ad for fly fishing rods.

In politics, what’s known about data mining is what voters see online and in their in-boxes: the ads and emails raising funds, seeking volunteers, selling candidates’ positions and attacking those of their opponents. But data mining also allows campaigns to micro-target their messages. One example brought up by several conference participants: New Jersey residents who Googled “breast cancer” were shown ads for Governor Chris Christie’s reelection campaign that touted his work on women’s health issues.

Is that a violation of people’s privacy? What information do data-miners have about the electorate? Answers to those nagging questions are vault-locked secrets protected by the omerta code of campaign advisors. As was made clear at “Data-Crunched Democracy: Where Do We Go From Here?,” a conference held in May at the Annenberg School for Communication and co-hosted by the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, campaigns are not legally required to divulge their data-mining strategies—and they have no intention of doing so.

“I don’t see any possibility ever, in my lifetime, of regulations or legislation about how campaigns use information,” stated Ethan Roeder, executive director of New Organizing Institute and the director of data for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “There are big issues around the Internet and privacy, and how information is used on a larger scale. But I don’t see a conversation around how campaigns are specifically engaging with this information having any relevance.”

Many of the academics in attendance strenuously disagreed.

“I think this is a turning point in politics—as important as the advent of television and the development of the printing press, because it is a new form of political communication,” said Michael X. Delli Carpini C’75 G’75, dean of the Annenberg School.

“Data mining is power,” said Micah Sifry, co-founder and editorial director of Personal Democracy Forum, “and that power violates commonsense norms about how politics should work.”

“Data mining is not changing how politics works,” countered Alex Lundry, vice president and director of research at TargetPoint Consulting and director of data science for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, expressing the common view of the political operatives present. “The components of voter modeling—gender, race, age, income level, geography, past voting history—have been the same for centuries.”

Lundry maintained that campaigns’ get-out-the-vote strategies are even more important than data mining. And more important still is the actual candidate and his or her message. “It’s the candidate who inspires people to go to the polls and to volunteer to get other people to the polls,” Lundry said. “In the past two presidential elections, hope and change trumped data mining and micro-niche targeting.”

Micro-niche targeting has only a micro effect on voter behavior, agreed Brent McGoldrick, managing director of FTI Consulting Strategic Communications and an advertising and analytics advisor to Romney’s presidential campaign and that of George W. Bush in 2004. “What we do is a very small part of a larger campaign,” he claimed. “Our systems aren’t even that good. We work around the edges, affecting small percentages of voters.”

But margins matter.

“Efficiencies in affecting those margins matter very much and those systems are going to get better and better,” cautioned Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at the Center of Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. “Perhaps you are just nudging people, but you will be able to nudge them slightly more accurately. Are there regulations that should be installed before those things are baked-in and damage has been done?”

What those regulations might look like was a subject taken up by a panel of legal scholars, all of them wary of consultants who mine the matrix for political treasure. Data mining qualifies as political speech because campaign money funds it, they agreed, yet that doesn’t make the underlying Constitutional conundrum any easier to resolve—namely, whether voters’ rights to privacy outweigh politicians’ freedoms of speech.

“There are First Amendment rights on both sides of the equation,” remarked Felix Wu, an associate professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. “The voters have rights and the candidates have rights.”

Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University who consulted on online privacy rights for Presidents Clinton and Obama, said that consent is also a factor. Are voters aware that their online behavior is being observed, acquired, and used for political purposes?

“Campaigns get a huge safe zone about speech—but not about campaign donations.  And I think data is somewhere in the middle,” said Swire. “Perhaps there should be regulations that campaigns have to at least disclose what they are doing.”

Sifry suggested three solutions: explicit opt-ins attached to every political communication, clear disclaimers when campaigns are using personal information, and what he called a “show me my data” rule. “Voters should be allowed to say to campaigns, ‘Tell me what you know about me,’” Sifry said.

That last suggestion received a round of applause from some conference attendees, but was later derided by the political technology advisors. “Campaigns don’t care about telling you what information we have on you, but we’re not going to share with you what we are doing with it,” Roeder said.

In reality, the advisors emphasized, their interest is in acquiring data about large groups of people—not individuals’ information. “I love everyone in this room, but I don’t care about any individual,” McGoldrick said. “The best, most efficient methods are to group people into data sets.”

Roeder also deflected concerns about data mining’s effect on democracy. “There seems to be a concern that politicians will use the information to manipulate, and you know … that’s what politics is,” he said. “Politicians exist to manipulate you. That is not going to change, regardless of how information is used. ”

But that shouldn’t be accepted or enabled, Delli Carpini countered. “There is the potential for positive change from the use of technology, but historically, politics has had counter-productive effects on the democratic process,” he said. “It has created voters who are less educated, lowered voter turn-out, and created a polarized electorate. If all that’s happening is that technology is allowing politics to get more efficient at those bad things, that is important and it is not to be trivialized.”

So, what to do? Political technology advisors put the impetus on individual citizens to stop posting private information on social media sites.  They also said that journalists should stop dressing up political technology in Big Brother vestments.

“The media is often unnecessarily scaring people around the use of personally identifiable information,” McGoldrick said. “While there are legitimate privacy concerns, the media is making it seem as though every moment of their life is being tracked. Is that responsible?”

But campaigns can’t have it both ways, Delli Carpini noted. “Journalists’ roles in society is to get at the truth,” he said. “Sometimes you do that by revealing facts, and sometimes you do that by revealing what you don’t know. If campaigns refuse to reveal what they are doing with data-mined information, and that scares the public, well, don’t blame journalists for asking the questions and raising the issue.”

Delli Carpini volleyed the ball back into the campaign operatives’ court. He wants to see more transparency in politically oriented data mining.

“Let people know that their information is being collected and used,” he said. “Perhaps they will change how much information they want to disclose.”

—Melissa Jacobs C’92
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