Kami Phuc / (CC BY 2.0)

Excessive reliance on data could influence even well-meaning politicians to lose sight of small-d democratic goals, writes Farai Chideya at The Intercept.

Chideya’s piece raises the question of just what — when we vote — are we voting for? Sincere people with new policy ideas born out of sensitivity to society’s problems? Or the status quo, which many of us hope to escape?

In 2012 the two major parties spent about $13 million on data mining (while the individual campaigns spent untold millions more), with larger outlays predicted this time around. And while we can’t opt out of being a part of political data any more than most people can opt out of having a credit score, we can be aware of how we’re being measured; how our social media behavior and contacts are being used; and how to pay attention to our own interests in a world rife with political messaging. “The more people understand how people are being marketed to through their stuff is important,” says Frank Pasquale, a University of Maryland law professor and the author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information. “There is a problem of context collapse,” he says. “Someone may be a shopper at Whole Foods [and consent to having the store track their data], but doesn’t want to be pegged as ‘an organic shopper’ by political organizations.” We should also question whether all this data collection works — or benefits the democratic process.

Particularly starting in 2008, the campaigns honed the use of microtargeting — reaching out to individual voters with specific appeals based on their demographics. The evolution continues. In the 2016 cycle, according to Tom Bonier of TargetSmart and Ken Strasma of HayStaqDNA, both firms that work with Democratic clients, the changes in data mining will be more incremental. A lot of the work today is being done on social media integration and ad buying in an age of fragmented audiences. Strasma, who served as the targeting director for the 2008 Obama campaign, expects the biggest changes to involve increased speed — updating messaging in real time as volunteers move door to door through a neighborhood, say — and sophistication in dealing with what he calls the “tsunami of data” from social media. “We’re teaching computers to perceive sarcasm,” he explains, in order to gauge opinions posted online. (Right now, for instance, at least as many liberals as conservatives may be posting “I just love Donald Trump.”)

For his part, Bonier sees “actual person-to-person digital targeting” coming online later this summer. “The voter will be matched to Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft” — linking your real-world identity to your online logins. …

Focusing on the data can also mean the experts — and their politician clients, and the voters — lose sight of small-d democratic goals. For instance, campaigns may tend to push the buttons they think the voter wants pushed, and by doing so they may not be giving us a full or true picture of their policies. Says Bonier: “Campaigns are in a position to have more meaningful discussions with voters. We can talk to people where they are — for example, to parents about schools and universal pre-K. If you do it right, it’s a two-way conversation, and people are talking back.” But if you do it wrong, you’re just telling folks what you think they want to hear, or crossing into the “uncanny valley” of campaigning, where voters realize they’re being deliberately messaged in a slightly — or extremely — off-putting way. …

Voters who may be considered low-value targets for outreach may still offer valuable insights to leaders about the direction of the country. If data modeling pushes them — and their core issues — further from the campaign cycle, that could distance politicians from addressing key societal concerns. Data without that kind of context, says Christian Madsbjerg, partner at the global consultancy ReD Associates and author of the forthcoming Sensemaking, is a sort of false idol. “We end up with the kind of political programs that are technocratic — measuring everything. And that’s deadly to democracy,” he says. “The understanding of people’s lived experience is critical to democracy.”

Read more here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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