Of Course It Has Come to This

The Atlantic reports on “microtargeting” in campaigning: the practice of using the “Big Data” to profile ever-more discrete segments of voters.

Inside microtargeting offices in Washington and across the nation, individual voters are today coming through in HDTV clarity — every single digitally-active American consumer, which is 91 percent of us, according to Pew Internet research. Political strategists buy consumer information from data brokers, mash it up with voter records and online behavior, then run the seemingly-mundane minutiae of modern life — most-visited websites, which soda’s in the fridge — through complicated algorithms and: pow! They know with “amazing” accuracy not only if, but why, someone supports Barack Obama or Romney, says Willie Desmond of Strategic Telemetry, which works for the Obama reelection campaign.

Here’s the thing: this stuff doesn’t actually reveal the “why.” For example, the article reports that Diet Dr. Pepper in the fridge predicts Republican voting. “Relatively uninterested Republicans go for Busch Light.” It’s information that helps them target their advertising more precisely: Cracker Barrel versus White Castle. (Guess which is which!) But it doesn’t explain the connection between choosing Diet Dr. Pepper and choosing Mitt Romney.

However, it does offer fodder for partisan warring.

Internet and radio fuel engaged conservatives, while newspapers and television do the same for engaged liberals. But nothing correlates as well with high turnout as newspapers, which predicts leftward voting. (Not that newspapers are inherently liberal. I suspect the opposite: conservatives don’t trust newspapers for news because of their perception of bias). Internet use skews with center-left attitudes, while sports with center-right.

It’s all very interesting! And campaign teams don’t need the “why” behind any of it. They can create very precise voter profiles based on purchase and media habits, and go to town marketing to them.

Yeah, people are worried about their privacy. But it doesn’t stop Facebook, Google, Target, or our candidates from collecting the Big Data and using it. It doesn’t stop us from using these services, paying for groceries with the same card, typing our updates into the social networks, or doing any of the other commonplace things that make our lives nicer and more convenient. And it’s not like we will stop doing these things upon learning that Romney and Obama (or Target or Google) will be using it to pull the dollars or votes from us. As this article and the Target article linked here clearly state, customers want personalized ads and deals, as long as they don’t know what companies are doing to accomplish that level of personalization.

It seems that our willful ignorance is exactly what these companies and candidates depend on.

Case in point: Obama’s privacy policy is “an exhaustive treatise” that buries the lede at the very very end. After you read a lot about how much they value your privacy, you’ll see that they’ll use cookies, and they’ll use your and your friends’ information on Facebook, and they’ll sell your information to third parties without your consent. Romney’s site calls for users to keep their Romney/Facebook app open so that they can access your personal info, even when you’re not using it.

It makes all those conspiracy stories from the 70s onward seem like children’s books. Remember the X Files? The truth that scares us is no longer “out there.” It’s right in here now: in our homes, in our pockets, in telling our friends and family where we took our children last weekend. But who’s scared of that? Who’s scared of a li’l status update on Facebook?


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2 thoughts on “Of Course It Has Come to This

  1. Howard Uliss says:

    I drink regular Dr. Pepper and hate light beer-so they know me really well.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    And I read newspapers on the Internet, so who knows which bubble I’d be in for that one.

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