Just My Imagination

      3 Comments on Just My Imagination

So. I was reading and article about voter information and voter mapping (Do You Know What Your Voter Wants to Hear?, by Abby Rapoport over at the American Prospect) and I started wondering about tailoring the political message to the amazing amount of available information.

That is—y’all know that (unless you act to prevent it) Google knows your life in incredible detail: your telephone number, your street address, your workplace, what roads you drive on, what movies you like, what books you read, what sports team you root for, and so on and so forth, as well as all that information about your friends and family, too. Right? And they are scarcely the only ones with much of that information. It’s out there.

So. If a political campaign wants to have that information about voters (and other people), it can get it. Our Only President’s committee to re-elect knows plenty about me just from what I have told it, enough I’m sure to put me into a quite specific category of male forty-ish web-savvy political junkie and father of two, owner of a house in a heavily Democratic suburb, and should be able to guess our household income to within twenty percent, at worst. It might get some of that wrong, but probably not wildly wrong: I imagine an algorithm that shakes down the millions of us into a couple of hundred categories and I’m a P7 or something, and maybe I should really be a P6 or a Q7, but I’m within one or two. And maybe it knows that I share the household with a C8. Why wouldn’t it? A lot of that is just taking my name and address (from when I asked them to send me a free bumper sticker) and correlating it with some public information about me; they wouldn’t even have to dig through my internet history for most of it.

Now, presumably they are going to send me the P7 emails, and they will send my Best reader the C8 emails, and some of you will get H6 emails, and some of you will get D3 emails, and so on and so forth. Why not? So if Eric Cantor says something terrible, the campaign may send me an email to try to raise money off the idea that Eric Cantor must be stopped, because I know who Eric Cantor is. But it may not bother sending me the email that it would send to a current AFSCME member based on something that the head of AFSCME said, or something about women’s rights, or something about the decline of our urban centers, or something about being in a swing state or an open congressional district. And all of this makes perfect sense, right? Does it make you uncomfortable at all?

What if—and I am sure that the committee to re-elect is not doing this at this time—they send out an email that is mostly the same, but perhaps my email says We will never waver from the vision that unites us and yours says We will never retreat from the vision that unites us and my Best Reader gets one that says We will hold firm to the vision that unites us. Because they have found that P7s really like that term, while C8s are very sensitive to things phrased in the negatives, and D3s respond well to subtle references to the military. Does that make you uncomfortable at all? Remember, the software exists to do all this stuff, and lots of people think that kind of word-level stuff is important in persuasion.

OK, now—what if they tailor the web page? They could put a cookie on my browser that tells them I’m a P7, and when I go to the web page, the banner picture that randomly comes up happens to be of a father and kids in a suburb, and the three issue boxes on the top happen to be about Net Neutrality, the intransigent House caucus of the Other Party, and the Mortgage Exemption. When my Best Reader goes to the site, though, the banner picture that randomly comes up happens to be of a group of professional women meeting with Our Only President, and the issue boxes are about the ACA’s coverage of contraception, and the Mortgage Exemption, and the plan to make college affordable. And it’s not random, of course, it’s that P7s see different things than C8s. Does that make you uncomfortable? Or is that just smart campaigning?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “Just My Imagination

  1. Chris Cobb

    The need for coalition-building in politics places limits, I think, on how far you can go with that kind of thing, as does the fact that the campaign does not control all the information citizens receive about the candidate. Eventually, campaign rhetoric has to be translated into policy after the election is over, and you can’t effectively tell a hundred people a hundred different things about the policy, or hide one policy from this guy but not from that guy. And, if you want a strong coalition, you need to get the coalition members supporting each other and not acting as single-issue special interests.

    But I suppose I’m also not too concerned because I ignore all that e-mail, and if they know I’m an X-10, they wouldn’t bother, as they know it only annoys me, and that I don’t trust campaign literature, even when it comes from candidates I support.

  2. Michael

    None of the customization really bugs me except for two things: I can’t see what their basis was for deciding that I was a J4, and I can’t choose to see the D7 customization instead. More transparency, please.

    Also, remind me to figure out whether my German citizenship gives me any protections under European data privacy laws…


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