Media and product consumption by political views

This article looks at how political campaigns are using media and production consumption data to make appeals to voters and also includes some interesting charts that map out the differences between those with different political leanings:

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…

All of these online movements contribute to what Gage calls “data exhaust.” Email, Amazon orders, resume uploads, tweets — especially tweets — cough out fumes that microtargeters or data brokers suck up to mold hyper-specific messaging. We’ve been hurled into an era of “Big Data,” Gage said. In the last eight years the amount of information slopped up by firms like his, which sell information to politicians, has tripled, from 300 distinct bits on each voter in 2004 to more than 900 today. We have the rise of social media and mobile technology to thank for this.

What I like about this analysis is that it starts to get at an understanding of different lifestyle behaviors or groups that underlie both consumer choices as well as political choices. Voting decisions are not made in a vacuum nor are consumer choices: these are guided by larger concerns that sociologists often talk about such as class, education level, race/ethnicity, and two factors that doesn’t get as much attention as perhaps they should, where people live and who they interact with on a regular basis (not necessarily the same things but related to each other). While the microtargeting may help tailor individual appeals, it might also obscure some of these larger concerns.

While the article suggests this data collection is all very creepy, this is made tricky because of one fact: some of this information is offered voluntarily by users.

Both Obama and Romney’s sites allow, if not encourage, visitors to login to their campaign websites with a Facebook account, thereby unveiling a wealth of information: email address, friend list, birthday, gender, and user ID. Obama’s team, in accordance with the president’s call for greater transparency, details his campaign’s privacy policyin an exhaustive 2,600-word treatise. It begins like an online Miranda Rights: “Make sure that you understand how any personal information you provide will be used.” Then things get a little weird.

Among other points, the policy says the campaign can monitor users’ messages and emails between members, share their personal information with any like-minded organization it chooses, and follow up by sending them news it deems they’d find worthwhile. In other words, target anger points. Then there’s something called “passive collection,” which means cookies — lots and lots of cookies. Obama’s campaign, as well as third-party vendors working with, spray trackers so other websites can flash personalized ads based on knowledge of the trip to And finally, near the end of the policy, comes one more caveat: “Nothing herein restricts the sharing of aggregated or anonymized information, which may be shared with third parties without your consent.”

Romney’s site apparently wants even more from its visitors, asking users who login with Facebook to “post on (their) behalf” and “access (their) data any time” they’re not using the application. You can deny both functions.

Perhaps at the least, users should be made more aware upfront of how their information is going to be used. This could be similar to the new boxes included on credit card statements: the consumer should be able to clearly see what is going to happen rather than have to dig through online user agreements. At the same time, making users aware is different than stopping companies from using information in certain ways. I also wonder how these online companies, like banks and credit card providers, will find other ways to collect data and money if these avenues are closed off. For example, would the average internet user rather give up some of this personal information for the sale of targeted advertisements or pay a small fee to access a website each year?

One thought on “Media and product consumption by political views

  1. Pingback: Google Street View, machine learning, and social patterns | Legally Sociable

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