You Will be Targeted at the Most Personal Level by Big Data and Political Ads

May 17, 2016

Using iPads, campaign volunteers go door-to-door and plug your responses into an app used to target you for ads.

Political campaigning and ads are getting more personal than ever, thanks to big data. In Ohio, the Senate campaigns of Rob Portman and Ted Strickland have volunteers whose job is to go door-to-door with iPads and collect data that will be used to create ads specifically targeting you this fall.

The Beacon Journal’s Doug Livingston has been researching big data's role in political ads.  He says the way campaigns approach voters has become even more tech-savvy and intimate this election year. 

The roots of big data
Livington says the emergence of big data in campaigning started about 10 years ago, when former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean said each state needed to build a unified strategy at the grassroots level. 

That led to state parties developing and maintaining voter files by compiling a sketch of all the likely Democratic and swing voters with information about how they behave and how they’ve voted in the past. "It’s much more than what you can download from the secretary of state’s database," he says. 

He says that with each campaign, this approach got a little more tech savvy.

In 2008, it really came to a head. Then-Sen. Barack Obama found ways to reach voters in a more cost-effective manner.

"They found ways to look at the data about what [voters] watch and read, so they could send ads to them in the off-peak markets. You’re spending half the price to send twice as many ads to people who really matter," Livingston says. 

Going digital door-to-door
In 2012, this tactic starting going digital. Now, volunteers collect information door-to-door with iPads and software apps. 

Livingston followed a couple of Kent State University college Republicans who are Rob Portman volunteers.

"They would ask, 'Who are you voting for: Ted Strickland, Rob Portman or don’t you know?' If they say Ted Strickland, the interview’s over.

"If they say Rob Portman, the next thing they want t know is, 'What issue matters to you most?' And with that piece of information, they can then ensure they don’t lose you as a voter between now and November because they can send you targeted ads. 

Solidifying the base and reaching swing voters
The goal is to find those voters who are really on the fence and identifying the issues that are likely to attract them to your candidate. The information is gathered and cataloged into a software program called i360.

Americans For Prosperity, an organization backed by the Koch brothers, put $50 million into the development of this software program sometime between 2010 and 2014. Others have been using it too: John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush.

And Livingston says Democrats use similar programs that use third-party data constants to sketch a prototypical voter. 

i360 apps collect data of voters and put it into a huge database to create ads

"Let's say out of the 1,000 people we have information for, we know that these 400 are going to vote for Ted Strickland. This is how they behave, this is how they voted, and these are the TV shows that they watch -- all the way down to the cars they drive.

"They take that information to build and sketch a model of the typical Ted Strickland voter. Then, they take that model and they overlay it on the other 600 folks who they don’t know who they’re voting for and they say, 'Well this looks similar to these 300 people.' So those 300 people they know are potentially swing voters they could draw to their side."

Then, Livingston says, they'll start targeting those voters with  digital ads on their Twitter and Facebook feeds and other platforms.

"Maybe you’ll get an ad for Rob Portman on your Pandora app and you’ll wonder why it’s dealing specifically with heroin -- something that is specifically an issue for you because you know people suffering from it. Well, it’s because you told a campaigner that heroin is a concern of yours and they use that information some moths later to target you."

Is the big data model effective?
"I think the numbers speak for themselves. If it wasn’t effective, they probably wouldn’t be ramping up efforts to do even more of it.

"Some of the folks who answered the door and divulged some information unwittingly understand that when they go online, they’re tracked. You have a digital footprint that someone is watching. Depending on the (respondents') age, most folks know that this is happening. (But) I don’t think that they fully understand or are aware of how much the political campaigns are taking advantage of it."

HOW TO CONSUME POLITICAL ADS WITHOUT THEM CONSUMING YOU

About those political ads: Stop! Look! Don’t go crazy! 

You can’t stop political attack ads from invading your personal space. Millionaires and billionaires have made sure of that with court decisions and friends in Congress. But you can render them harmless – even make them useful. 

Follow these steps: 

  1. Political advertisers know when and how you’re vulnerable. When exposed to an attack ad, shut off your political persuasion and become keenly aware of the moment. What day is it? Time? What are you doing? Is this a station or show or web site that attracts specific incomes, or gender, or race, or age? They know. Do you? 

  1. Don’t listen for the message. Instead, dissect the production. Identify techniques likely to stir emotion and cause you to disregard logic. This is fantasy chaining, building on one gimmick after another to increase the chance of mind manipulation. Listen to the sounds, the tone of voice, look at the lighting, the way the images are played to suggest an admirable quality or to repulse. Are there patriotic or unpatriotic images? 

  1. Fact check. Watch the ad again, noting key phrases or claims. Check the internet for reliable journalistic sources that have examined the claims. See below for details. 

  1. Share your thoughts. Go to the Your Vote Ohio Facebook page www.facebook.com/yourvoteohio and leave your comments. There, you can watch an attack ad, go through the steps above and share thoughts with others. The page will be maintained by the Jefferson Center, a non-partisan civic engagement group working with Ohio news organizations this year to give voice to citizens in the election process. 

Who came up with the four steps?  

David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. In conversations with Ohio journalists, his organization has challenged Ohio media to help citizens identify a campaign process that works better. Find a model you like? Make a suggestion on the Your Vote Ohio Facebook page and media will explore it. 

Here’s how to fact-check the message 

  1. Ask who is responsible for the ad. If it’s a candidate, the ad will say so. If it’s a super PAC, you can find help on such sites as http://www.opensecrets.org/http://www.followthemoney.org/, the Sunlight Foundation’s http://politicaladsleuth.com/ and http://mediaproject.wesleyan.edu/

  1. Focus on substance. Explains Travis Ridout of http://mediaproject.wesleyan.edu/ “If we peel back the scary images, the scary music, all of those elements of the ad that are designed to make you feel a particular way, what is the actual message in that ad? Is there any message beyond, ‘You should be scared of this candidate?’” One way to take a look at the range of claims being made is to compare: https://politicaladarchive.org/

  1. Find good help. Political fact-checking is a cottage industry of its own. Some that have been doing it for a while are http://www.factcheck.org/ (They pay attention to more than just ads; debate and speech rundowns are available as well) and http://www.flackcheck.org/. Both are associated Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Another option: http://www.politifact.com/  

  1. Pay attention to who is paying attention to you – and how. There are people gathering detailed information about every American, hoping to influence votes and gain control of government. Because Ohio is a large swing state, we are a top target. News media don’t know when you’ve been micro-targeted for negative ads on your computers or in your mailbox. So…. 

  1. Take action: With a cell phone,take a photo or video of a negative internet ad or mailer and send it to negativeads@yourvoteohio.org  Or you can do the same with a screenshot of your computer screen. The ads will be catalogued by The Ohio Media Project, a collaborative of major news organizations in Ohio, the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, and the Jefferson Center, a non-partisan civic engagement group. The effort is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.