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Do You Know The Candidates As Well As They Know You? Probably Not, Thanks To Big Data

Posted November 3rd, 2012 in Politics and tagged , , , , , , , by davecopeland

The unprecedented spending spending on the 2012 presidential campaign includes millions of dollars to track voters online. What do the campaigns know about you, how much did they pay to get it, and what will they do with that information come Wednesday morning?

I am male. I live in Massachusetts. I have voted in every presidential and midterm election since 1992, yet I remain undeclared. I read a lot and I have Facebook friends who are likely voters.

What does all that mean? It means that, combined, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have spent $23 to buy my vote, according to a new calculator from privacy software maker Abine. If I lived in Ohio or Pennsylvania, they would have spent $45 for my vote.

The calculator is based on Abine’s estimate that between 6% and 9% spent on the presidential election has gone to online efforts. Abine makes the privacy protection app DoNotTrackPlus and is using the calculator to show how much campaigns are relying on the bits of data we leave every time we go online to craft messages that appeal to us.

If 2008 was the election where candidates realized the power of social media to mobilize their supporters, and 2010 was the election where candidates realized they need to use social media or lose, 2012 is shaping up to be the election where campaigns figured out how to match online and offline data to precisely target voters and influencers, according to Abine Privacy Analyst Sarah Downey.

“The more the campaigns know about you, the more they’re willing to spend on you,” Downey said. “They know that most would be angry if they found out the campaigns were sending them ads based on their Facebook profile data, so instead they’re using, so they’re using apps and tracking to go through your friend work and see if you can be influenced or influence others with a direct appeal from the campaign.”

Putting A Price Tag On Your Vote

The cost per voter, based on Abine’s calculations, ranges from a low of $5 to a high of $50, with the average being $22. Downey said certain factors raise or lower the estimate, including:

  • Gender: Both campaigns are spending slightly more to target women voters online, as women tend to have mor einfluence in the household.
  • Voting History: Consistently voting as an undeclared or independent will raise the estimate, as will being a first-time voter. “The campaigns see those voters as being easier to sway,” Downey said.
  • Living In A Swing State: Although social media has made this factor slightkly less crucial than it once was. While I live in Massachusetts, I have been stalked by ROmney advertisements as I read both political and nonpolitical coverage, and last week I received a direct message from Michele Obama’s asking that I use my “Twitter influence to help turn out the vote.” While my vote has no chance of swaying the presidential election, my social media messages could influence people in states where their vote could be crucial.

“The campaigns are making sure they spend this money on the right people,” Downey said. “They want to make sure the spend it on people who are either capable of being swayed or capable of swaying other people.”

Bipartisan Privacy Breach

Downey’s has focused on the campaigns two major party presidential candidates, meaning there are scores of political action committee and lesser candidates who may also be tracking data. She said after reading the privacy policies on each campaigns Website and studying how they track potential voters, neither party gets points for privacy protection.

“They’re using social media and apps in way that’s never been done before, and they’re using trackers at magnitude that’s never been seen before,” she said. “Their privacy policies are not good – they basically say they own anything you do on their Website and anything you post on their Facebook wall.”

What is perhaps the biggest change from 2010 and 2008 is the ability to combine online and offline data to get detailed portraits of voters. In much the same way Facebook is trying to better target ads by matching offline shopping activity with online browsing activity, the campaigns have gotten sophisticated in combining the data mined online with public records, including demographic profiles, census data and voting history.

Downey worries that such a data set could be sold next week when the campaigns have to confront the massive debt the accumulated in the run-up to Tuesday.

“They’re going to have to answer to their creditors, and that data set they built is incredibly valuable,” she said.

I asked Downey what the good voter who wants to read up on the candidates, follow election coverage by checking blogs and news sites and make an informed decision to avoid tracking. After all, Abine estimates Americans are tracked about 11,500 times each week.

“Use pseudonyms, fake email address and anonymous social media accounts. use a privacy protection service. Do anything you can to make sure this information doesn’t get linked to your personal information,” she said. “There are a lot of unknowns about where this information will turn up later.”

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