Tuesday, January 10, 2012

More about political microtargeting as data science

Two interesting articles about how campaiging is being influenced by data science.

From Slate: Anatomy of a narrow victory: Romney's Iowa win took a lot more than money

And from BusinessWeek (HT Dad): OBAMA Campaign’s Secret Weapon: Geeks.

(Photo from BW.  Love the github ref.)

A few observations on data versus money, data-driven decision making, and whether we really want more data in politics...

First, according to Slate, Data > > Money.  I wish that were more true.  As a grad student, I have a lot of data, but not so much money.

Second, it's interesting that the Obama article dwells on culture clash between the geek-wizards doing the data mining, while the Romney article paints it as a seamless strategic component of the campaign.  I don't want to make too much of this, but are the Republicans more at home with data?

Third, political microtargeting is decision-ready.  Look at home many decisions about messaging, media strategy, and resource allocation flow from

Finally, for those of you who care about quality of democracy, this is a really interesting development.  It's not much of a stretch to say that campaigns now know more about your political preferences than you do yourself.

Quasi-proof: can you guess what message would be most persuasive to yourself?  Not really, especially since you don't know the whole set of messages.  Microtargeting puts that information in the hands of campaigns.  They can't answer perfectly for every individual, but they can maximize the impact of their messages within clusters of voters.

So what do we make a democracy where the campaigns know more than the voters?  It seems like we *want* politicians to know more about us -- what we believe, what we want, what our priorities are.  But at the same time, microtargeting feels a little creepy.  It makes me worry about privacy and  information asymmetry.

What do you think?  Is microtargeting a tools that helps politicians listen better, making them more accountable and better able to bring the messages that matter to the public?  Or does microtargeting turn elections into a farce, where candidates sell snake oil and blow smoke with maximum efficiency?

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