Last Thursday I had an opportunity to host a group of foreign journalists at the Law School for the purpose of discussing politics and democracy. This group was part of a program funded by the State Department for the purpose of fostering greater understanding of democratic institutions. When my pal, Val M., who is frequently called upon to organize visits for these groups, called me about this last week, I was delighted to help. They are always interesting people, and it is fun to share ideas and insights with people from other countries.
We invited David Kramer and Steve Achelpol to speak with this group over lunch. Kramer is a former U.S. Senate candidate and chair of the Nebraska Republican Party, while Achelpol is the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. Both are fine men who represented their party well. Despite passionate political beliefs that are often at odds with one another, one also got the sense that they liked each other. It was a civil, yet spirited, discussion which covered the range of issues that divide Republicans and Democrats.
Yet perhaps most interesting was a topic that did not divide them at all, but instead drew them both together. Politics may be about values and convictions, but unfortunately (in my view) it may be more about the values and convictions of the voters than the candidates these days. Science plays a significant role here, and the availability of electronic resources to manage and mine significant amounts of public data is at the heart of modern political campaigns.
Both parties maintain databases that take into account various public information available about the registered voters in their respective parties. The information may include things like voting history, contributions, and personal data like name, address, and telephone number. But it goes beyond that to include other information that might be gathered from other sources, like your magazine subscriptions (are you an American Spectator reader, or a New Republic reader?), religious memberships (Catholic or Unitarian? It’s all in that church directory), and perhaps other items, such as membership in pro-life or abortion rights groups. If InfoUSA (an Omaha database company) has your information, you can guess that the parties have access to it.
How is this used? It can be used to target messages to you, known as "microtargeting." If, for example, you are a member of a pro-life group, you may get a targeted mailing before the election touting the candidate’s views on the right to life. If you are a contributor to Emily’s List (a reproductive rights group), you’ll get a different message – hopefully from a different candidate.
All of this may simply make it easier for politicians to find supporters who will be receptive to their message. However, one wonders whether a targeted message is as genuine as one which would have to be pitched to the public in general.
Moreover, this practice of microtargeting struck some of the foreign journalists as somewhat troubling. Privacy concerns are significant, yet in the modern world we have little of this given the ubiquitous availability of our personal data.
I don’t think we can go back to those days when data was more difficult to assemble. However, we can think twice about those political messages we seem to be getting these days. I'm sure many of us will be glad when election day is history. (Though the ka-ching in the coffers of advertisers will surely be missed.)