WASHINGTON — It used to be that if a candidate wanted to ask for votes, one efficient way to do it was to pay for advertising in the newspaper, where many would see it. Or maybe they’d give a stump speech to a large crowd. Or they’d share their ideas during a televised or radio-broadcast debate.
While those 20th Century approaches still dominate, 21st Century technology has made it possible for campaigns to ask for votes one at a time, and tweak their sales pitch to fit many specific, niche audiences. Targeted advertising from Internet behemoths like Facebook and Google is in some ways a return to the retail politicking that was the norm before the ascent of mass media.
And it’s making its way to Hawaii.
Example: Former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle‘s campaign for U.S. Senate has been built on the idea that she’s politically moderate, able to work across the aisle and a viable choice for Democrats who are planning to vote for President Barack Obama‘s re-election. Lingle’s made that pitch in a variety of ways, including a much-maligned commercial originally titled “Democrats For Lingle.”
Now she’s taken her case online. And rather than using testimonials from public figures who may or may not really be Democrats, she’s enlisting endorsements from your friends and family to show you she’s not a crazy mainland Republican.
That’s what happened to Aaron Landry, who was surfing on Facebook and saw a sponsored ad on the right side telling him to join his big-D Democratic friends supporting Lingle’s campaign. That the ad uses “Democratic” instead of “Democrat” is evidence that Dems are the intended target audience. The spot was personalized even further for Landry with a blue thumbs up below Lingle’s photo with the text “Ryan K. Hew likes this.” (A screenshot of the ad, provided to Civil Beat by Landry, sits atop this article.)
Micro-targeting campaigns on social media services are part of Landry’s day job as a director of market engagement for Olomana Loomis ISC. The firm advised Democrat Neil Abercrombie during his run for governor in 2010 and is advising Honolulu mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell this year, though Landry said he’s not involved with that effort.
“Being able to target people on Facebook and being able to look at these are people in this age demographic, these are people interested in X, Y and Z, it’s an opportunity for the campaign to target niche markets,” Landry said in an interview last week.
“It seems like most of the ads that Lingle’s doing are designed to make people click ‘Like,'” he said. “It’s smart, and it’s something we do too. We do ‘Like’ campaigns, and target people who have a friend who already ‘Like’ us. They don’t even have to go to the page to click ‘Like.'”
What’s the benefit of having more people like you on Facebook?
“You can obviously market saying that ‘We have three times as many Facebook likes as our opponent,’ but the other piece of it is that you have 7,000, 8,000 pepole that when they open up their Facebook and look at their newsfeed, the chances of them seeing something from the Linda Lingle campaign is much higher,” Landry said. “It’s basically building affinity and building an audience for later messaging.”
The Ryan K. Hew Facebook page referenced in the advertisement served to Landry is actually not Hew’s personal page but instead the one for his law practice. Hew told Civil Beat that his decision to like Lingle’s campaign page shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of her candidacy.
“I just follow every candidate’s page,” he said in an interview. “As that legal entity or that business, I go and like a lot of business and political campaigns as a way to learn and share information.”
Hew understands why Lingle’s ad did what it did — he’s got a lot of Democratic friends and has worked in politics before. But he doesn’t appreciate being used that way.
“Them targeting me and using me in that way, I probably would tell them that I’d have to unlike their page if they continue to do that type of thing, because it’s me as my professional self,” he said. “It’s a very interesting kind of, ‘How does all this new media work with traditional campaigning and what are the acceptable boundaries?'”
Lingle’s Facebook ad is really just the tip of the iceberg. She’s got others, as does Democratic opponent Mazie Hirono.
Political campaigns aren’t the only organizations following users around and using their browsing and purchase histories to their advantage. Slate technology journalist Farhad Manjoo wrote in August about the “creepy” targeted ads that followed him from site to site after he considered, and then decided against, buying clothes from one retailer.
“Today’s Web ads don’t know enough about you to avoid pitching you stuff that you’d never, ever buy,” Manjoo wrote. “They do know just enough about you, though, to clue you in on the fact that they’re watching everything you do.”
The surveillance doesn’t even stop at the end of your computer’s power cord. Mega-retailer Target (and many other stores) send you coupons and special offers based on your shopping history, and can even know what’s happening in your life before family members do.
Charles Duhigg shared this anecdote in a February article in the New York Times Magazine titled “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.”
About a year after (Target statistician Andrew) Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.
“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”
The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.
On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”
Purchases that could have tipped off Target’s algorithm? Cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. And once they hook a new mother with special one-time offers, she’s likely to continue shopping for clothing and food and other supplies for her children for years.
Political campaigns aren’t selling you maternity clothing, but they are selling you a candidate.
Journalist Sasha Issenberg’s new book “The Victory Lab” looks at what he terms a scientific revolution in political campaigns. In an interview on PBS’ Newshour, Issenberg says modern campaigns maintain huge databases to track not just if voters actually vote, but their past interactions with campaigns, their credit histories and even warranty forms or magazine subscriptions.
“A lot of it is first gathered by people who are creating credit ratings,” Issenberg said. “They obviously want to know as much about you as possible and develop predictions. What has happened in the political world is people are doing statistical models with the same goal. So, instead of predicting whether you are likely to default on your loan or pay off your bill on time or run up $500 on your credit card in a given month, they’re trying to predict how likely are you to vote in November, who are you likely to vote for, what issues are you likely to care about.”
The campaigns have also taken steps to add to those databases directly — by soliciting small donations that do little to fund billion-dollar campaign operations but come with valuable troves of personal information.
“The money is not peanuts, but the email address and information is worth much more than the few bucks,” Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, told Politico recently.
Ultimately, campaigns separate voters into distinct pots. These groups include those who are likely to vote, but can be convinced to change their choice; those that are likely to support the preferred candidate, but may not turn out; and those who are likely to support the opponent, but may be convinced to stay home. These groups are served specific messaging designed to get them to move in a desired direction.
People who have been determined to have already made up their minds are left alone. To target them with further messaging would be a waste of time, effort and, most importantly, money.
The new paradigm provides a challenge to the news media that has traditionally served as a filter for campaign messaging and as a watchdog to make sure voters aren’t being sold a phony product.
Issenberg, writing for the New York Times last month, says political journalists have fallen behind the curve and can no longer keep up with how modern campaigns are actually carried out.
Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes. It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either “grilled” or “broiled.”
Mashable this month launched a project it’s calling “Politics Transformed: The High Tech Battle For Your Vote,” complete with a mechanized donkey and elephant doing hoof-to-trunk combat. Initial coverage areas include how targeted advertising could save campaigns millions of dollars; the data campaigns have collected about you; and the importance of social media in both voter turnout and local politics.
One local example of media still trying to keep up with 20th Century politicking is Civil Beat‘s ongoing series sharing the public files that all television networks need to keep on hand to show how many ads they sell to candidates. That’s a public resource that shows how campaigns spend some of their money, but it’s not the whole story.
Similarly, on a national level, fact-checking organizations have focused their energy on public statements in television commercials, stump speeches and debates and not on small-scale communications like micro-targeted advertisements or campaign emails.
In a panel at the National Press Club in Washington last month titled “The Role of Journalism In Debunking Deception and Holding Campaigns and Donors Accountable,” PolitiFact creator and editor Bill Adair said simply that “You don’t know about the ads you didn’t see.”
“I think our challenge is to find out what those messages are,” Adair said. “If the campaigns are using social media in very targeted ways, it’s not being seen by us. … That’s an aspect where I think we can build a crowdsourcing network that highlights those things.”
Public interest journalism nonprofit ProPublica is trying to change that by asking readers to share the personalized emails they receive from campaigns. The project, called Message Machine, has the stated goal of tracking the subtle differences between the messages and cross-referencing them with the recipients’ demographic profiles to “reverse engineer the 2012 campaign.” So far, about 2,000 emails have been submitted, according to ProPublica’s website.
FactCheck.org has also asked readers to help round up examples of targeted mailings, robo-calls and emails — with limited success. FactCheck.org Director Brooks Jackson said at the National Press Club panel that the campaigns aren’t sending all of those things to reporters.
“It’s not like they’re putting it on a television station where it can be monitored, and where we can see every ad that goes up,” Jackson said. “We’re pretty good on screening the TV ads, but there is a huge potential for flying under the radar and telling targeted groups of voters things that aren’t true.”
Jackson said targeted mailers really flood in during the final weeks of the campaign, which “makes it very, very difficult for us to parse through all this stuff and do any useful pushback before the election.”
He believes many targeted messages are repetitions of falsehoods that have already been debunked. That means fact-checkers are saved by the “limited imaginations” of those who work for campaigns, he said. But it also means voters are being lied to in the days leading up to the election.
Landry made clear that Lingle’s Facebook ad didn’t work on him. Like Slate writer Manjoo and the clothes he already decided not to purchase, Landry’s made up his mind and won’t be voting for the former Republican governor.
“They sent me an ad that kind of pisses me off, so I don’t think they’re doing very good in terms of targeting,” Landry said.
But that doesn’t mean the approach won’t work on others.
“For all the people who are less engaged than someone like you or I, that are just going to peripherally see that they have friends who might be left-leaning, they’re going to get a message that people who aren’t Republicans are going to support Lingle,” Landry said. “As crass as it is, I think it’s smart maneuvering. If you don’t actually care about offending all of these actual Democrats who aren’t going to vote for Linda Lingle, if you don’t care about them, and you want to utilize them to convince Barack Obama voters or Democratic-leaning voters, then it’s smart. But it’s really bothersome.”