Friday, April 6, 2018

Campaign Claim-jumping

“Looking at it objectively, one could fear that any candidate with a good enough data mining consortium (Obama used the Washington-based Analyst Institute) could not be stopped from manipulating his way to election. But this distortion of the electoral process will be self-correcting. In 2012 Mitt Romney’s data science unit was one-tenth the size of Obama’s. You can be sure that will not be true of 2016’s Republican nominee.”
—A post on this blog on June 18, 2013
Sometimes I go back and re-read my old posts on this blog. This is not something I do frequently because it is an exercise that mostly makes me cringe. Observations that seemed wise at the time may be seen as hopelessly naive with the benefit of hindsight. A recent survey of past posts, for example, has convinced me that I was too hard on President Obama during his two terms in office. On the other hand, every criticism was motivated by a sincere desire to see him succeed and for the country to be better for it. Given the tumult of the Trump presidency, Obama’s eight years now seem like a blissful period of calm. But only if we forget how bad the economy actually was during much of that time. The financial crisis that coincided with his election was not his fault, but it is fair to criticize him for policies that, for many anyway, starved the recovery and paved the way for a candidacy like Trump’s.

My review of past writings did not always anticipate events flawlessly, although in fairness the trends I tend to highlight are pretty long-term. In some cases, though, I am amazed at my prescience. Almost five years ago in a post titled “No Place to Hide,” I wrote about the data mining of citizens’ personal data on the internet by political campaigns and how it could distort the electoral process. This was spurred by an article I had read in the January/February 2013 issue of MIT Technology Review by Sasha Issenberg. It was called “How Obama’s Team Used Big Data to Rally Voters.” The issue’s cover is now a tad ironic given the current hysteria over Cambridge Analytica and its data mining hijinks with Facebook. The cover features a head shot of rock star Bono (who else?) staring out thoughtfully over the headline “Big Data Will Save Politics.” Further down are subheads like “Bono: Data Can Fight Poverty and Corruption,” “Sasha Issenberg: Data Makes Elections Smarter” and “Joe Trippi: Data Puts the Soul Back into Politics.”

Issenberg’s article described glowingly how the Obama team’s data mining techniques were able to pinpoint citizens’ concerns and thinking right down to the individual level. “[A] Web platform called Dashboard gamified volunteer activity by ranking the most active supporters,” he wrote, “and ‘targeted sharing’ protocols mined an Obama backer’s Facebook network in search of friends the campaign wanted to register, mobilize, or persuade. But underneath all that were scores describing particular voters: a new political currency that predicted the behavior of individual humans. The campaign didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be.”

In other words, people working on behalf of Obama team were pretty much doing the same thing as people working on behalf of Trump would be doing four years later. And I predicted it, as seen in the quote at the top of this blog post. The funny thing is that, while the data mining done for the Obama campaign was known and discussed at the time, I do not remember anyone raising a concern about Facebook users’ personal information being used for purposes of a political campaign. Compare that with the current hoopla over Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. You would think that Mark Zuckerberg had been caught red-handed stuffing ballot boxes in precincts across the nation. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, in the eyes of Democrats and the Washington press corps anyway, data mining is only now a problem—and was not four years ago—because in 2016 the wrong person won.

To be clear Cambridge Analytica violated Facebook’s terms of use which, to be honest, were not being enforced with much vigor. To the extent that anyone actually violated the law, they should certainly be sanctioned, and Facebook needs to answer for the way it has handled its users’ data. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that the data mining itself—which happened in 2014 and was not used because even better data was available from other sources—actually changed the outcome of the election. Let us not lose sight of how the data mining is actually used. It is used for advertising. Yes, it is advertising that is extremely targeted and often sneaky, but at the end of the day it is not so much different than advertising has ever been. It’s funny how some people can get so freaked out by creative and new uses of the First Amendment.

The result will probably be that companies like Facebook will have to submit to some sort of regulation—either governmental or, if their lobbyists are earning their money, self-imposed—and that may calm people down—at least until the next new and creative use of technology in a presidential campaign by people whom Democrats and the mass media do not like.

There you go. Another forecast that may or may not come true. I will end this post the same way I ended the one five years ago: “Unfortunately, while these new techniques have now been shown to work with incredible efficacy, there is no sign at all that they contribute in any way to making the successful candidate, once in office, a better leader or president.”

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