Attention American citizens! Have you visited a porn website recently? Do you have any gay friends? Is your home in foreclosure? Do you drink Michelob or Samuel Adams?
None of my business, you say? Probably not – but Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have made it their business to know these and other intimate details of your personal life. Moreover, they may have already shared them with a host of your friends and colleagues, who in turn may have shared them with their friends and colleagues. What’s worse, you may be getting a phone call soon from one of them, armed with these and other facts about you, and intent at “shaming” you on Facebook and other social media sites for not voting in the past and to persuade you, through an adroit mix of social encouragement and opprobrium, into going to the ballot box next month.
Sadly but predictably, the very same data-mining techniques now being employed by large corporations to pry into your privacy have emerged as powerful weapons on both sides of the battle for the American presidency. As the New York Times recently reported, “consultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems.”
Of course, officials with both campaigns are admittedly doing their best to keep their sleazy practices secret and off the record. “You don’t want your analytical efforts to be obvious because voters get creeped out,” one unnamed Romney campaign official confessed to a Times reporter. “A lot of what we’re doing is behind the scenes.”
On the record, spokesmen for both sides naturally pledge allegiance to voters’ privacy, claiming they are committed to protecting it and that they are both “adhering to industry best practices on privacy and going above and beyond what’s required by law”, as Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman, put it, and “ensuring that all of our voter outreach is governed by the highest ethical standards”, as Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said.
How high are their standards? Not very – consultants to both campaigns admit to buying targeted demographic data from companies that creepily study our habits, preferences and problems. Both campaigns have planted software on voters’ computers, for example, to see what websites they frequent – “evangelical or erotic”. And both have experimented with the idea of embarrassing non-voters “by sending letters to their neighbours or posting their voting histories online”. One Democratic consultant wondered aloud if this is the year to start shaming. “Obama can’t do it,” he noted. “But the ‘super PACs‘ are anonymous. They don’t have to put anything on the flier to let the voter know who to blame.”
How bad is this hidden data-dumpster diving? Both the Democratic and Republican National Committees have already spent millions on data acquisition – often paid to companies that are undergoing scrutiny from Congress over privacy concerns or have been sued over alleged privacy or consumer protection violations.
With social media a key determinant in persuading supporters to actually turn out to vote, the new techniques of data-mining and social shaming could play a decisive factor in this year’s election. Both campaigns have been asking supporters to provide access to their profiles on Facebook and other social networks, so they can determine their connections to other potential voters in key “battleground states”.
Clearly the Obama camp, with a long head start in the social media arena and a heavy 2012 emphasis on digital campaigning, is leading on this front. But as the Times noted, both Obama and Romney campaign officials “increasingly sound like executives from retailers like Target and credit card companies like Capital One, both of which extensively use data to model customers’ habits”.
Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, explained it best. “Target anticipates your habits, which direction you automatically turn when you walk through the doors, what you automatically put in your shopping cart,” he said. “We’re doing the same thing with how people vote.”
For the record, then, I drink Samuel Adams beer, never eat at Red Lobster or Olive Garden, don’t shop much (and certainly not at the Burlington Coat Factory,) and both smooth jazz and college football leave me cold. Does that make me an Obama or Romney supporter?
I’m not telling… after all, I cherish my privacy!
Rory O’Connor is the author of Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima, and most, recently, Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media.