One thing that struck me throughout the 2012 presidential contest was the Obama campaign’s novel use of Big-Data and targeted communication to mobilize voters. Many of these trends I found somewhat disturbing, namely, the practice of micro-mobilization through fear, the application of manipulative techniques created in commercial advertising and behavioral economics to spur voter mobilization, and the invasion of privacy opened up by the transparency culture and technology of social media.
These doubts and criticisms were made despite the fact that I am generally an Obama supporter, would ultimately cast my vote for the man, and was overall delighted by the progressive victories in the election, not least the push back against voter suppression which had been attempted, and only at the last minute thwarted, in my home state of Pennsylvania.
The sheer clarity of the success of the Obama campaign’s strategy makes me think that these techniques are largely a fait accompli, and will be rapidly picked up by Republicans to the extent they can. Political commentators have already turned their eyes to the strategy’s success, completely ignoring the kinds of critical questions brought to our attention, for instance, by,Charles Duhigg, in The New York Times only a few weeks ago.
Given their effectiveness, there might be very little push-back from liberal voters regarding the way the 2012 campaign was waged, and such push-back might be seen as demands for unilateral disarmament on the part of Democrats should they come from Republicans- in which case the demand might quite rightly be seen as just another example of the GOP’s attempts at voter suppression. Or, should such push back against these techniques come from a minority of progressives in, or allied with, the Democratic party who are troubled by their implications, such complaints might be written off as geriatric whining by out of touch idealists who have no clue on how the new era of networked politics works. And this would largely be right, the campaigns of 2012, and the Obama campaign most especially, have likely brought us into a brand new political era.
A recent article in Time Magazine gives a good idea of how the new science of campaigning works: it is data driven, and builds upon techniques honed in the world’s of advertising and psychology to target both individuals and groups strategically.
Like the world’s of finance and government surveillance it is a new ecology where past, and bogus, claims by individuals to be able to “forecast the future” by ” gut-instinct” has fallen before Big Data and the cold brilliance of the quants.
That data-driven decision making played a huge role in creating a second term for the 44th President and will be one of the more closely studied elements of the 2012 cycle. It’s another sign that the role of the campaign pros in Washington who make decisions on hunches and experience is rapidly dwindling, being replaced by the work of quants and computer coders who can crack massive data sets for insight. As one official put it, the time of “guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars, saying ‘We always buy 60 Minutes’” is over. In politics, the era of big data has arrived.
One can feel for a political pundit such as Michael Gerson who attacked the political predictions of the data savvy Nate Silver in the same way one can feel sympathy for the thick-necked, testosterone heavy, Wall Street traders who were replaced by thinner-necked quants who had gotten their chops not on raucous trading floors but in courses on advanced physics. And, at the end of the day, Silver was right. Gerson’s “observation” about the nature of American politics in his ridiculous critique of Silver- given the actual reality of the 2012 campaign- is better understood as a lament than an observation:
An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.
Put another way: The most interesting and important thing about politics is not the measurement of opinion but the formation of opinion. Public opinion is the product — the outcome — of politics; it is not the substance of politics. If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates, not in “scientific” assessments of public views.
My main objections here are that this is an aspirational statement- not one of fact, and that the role Gerson gives to pundits, to himself, is absolutely contrary to reality- unless one believes the kind of “clarity” found by paying attention to the talking heads on Fox News is actually an exercise in democratic deliberation.
Yet, there are other ways in which the type of political campaign seen in 2012 offer up interesting food for thought in that they seem to point towards an unlikely outcome in current debates over the role and effect of the new communications technology on politics.
In some sense Obama’s 2012 campaign seems to answer what I’ll call the “Clay Shirky- Evgeny Morozov Debate”. I could also call it the Shirky-Gladwell debate, but I find Morozov to be a more articulate spokesman of techo-pessimism (or techno-realism, depending upon one’s preference) than the omnipresent Malcolm Gladwell.
Clay Shirky is a well known spokesperson for the idea that the technological revolution centered around the Internet and other communications networks is politically transformative and offers up the possibility of a new form of horizontal politics.
Shirky sees the potential of governance to follow the open source model of software development found in collectively developed software such as Linux and Github that allow users to collaborate without being coordinated by anyone from above- as opposed to the top-down model followed by traditional software companies i.e. MicroSoft. Although Shirky does not discuss them in his talk- the hacktivists group of Anonymous and Wikileaks follow this same decentralized, and horizontal model. As of yet, no government has adopted anything but token elements of the open source model of governance though they have, in Shirky’s view embraced more openness- transparency.
In an article for the journal Foreign Affairs in 2011 entitled The Political Power of Social Media, an article written before either the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street movements had exploded on the scene, Shirky made a reasoned case for the potential of social media to serve as a prime vector for political change. Social media, while in everyday life certainly dominated by nonsense such as “singing cats”, also brought the potential to mobilize the public- overnight- based on some grievance or concern.
Here, Shirky responded to criticisms of both Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov that his techno-optimism downplayed both the opiate like characteristics of social media, with its tendencies to distract people from political activity, along with the tendency of social media to create a shallow form of political commitment as people confuse signing an online petition or “liking” some person or group with actually doing something.
I do not agree with all of what Morozov has to say in his side of this debate, but, that said, he is always like a bracing glass of cold water to the face- a defense against getting lost in daydreams. If you’ve never seen the man in action here is a great short documentary that has the pugnacious Belarusian surrounded by a sort of panopticon of video screens where he pokes holes in almost every techo-utopia shibboleth out there.
In his The Net Delusion Morozov had made the case that the new social media didn’t lend themselves to lasting political movements because all such movements are guided strategically and ideologically by a core group of people with real rather than superficial commitment who had sacrificed, sometimes literally everything, in the name of the movement. Social media’s very decentralization and the shallow sorts of political activities it most often engenders are inimical to a truly effective political movement, and, at the same time, the very technologies that had given rise to social media have increased exponentially the state’s capacity for surveillance and the sphere of a-political distractions surrounding the individual.
And in early 2011 much of what Morozov said seemed right, but then came the Arab Spring, and then the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the former at the very least facilitated by social media, and the latter only made possible by it. If it was a prize fight, Morozov would have been on the mat, and Shirky shaking his fist with glee. And then…
It was the old-school Muslim Brotherhood not the tech-savvy tweeters who rose to prominence in post-Mubarak Egypt, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement faded almost as fast as it had appeared. Morozov was up off the mat.
And now we have had the 2012 presidential campaign, a contest fought and won using the tools of social media and Big Data. This suggests to me an outcome of the telecommunications revolution neither Shirky nor Morozov fully anticipated.
Shirky always sides with the tendency of the new media landscape to empower the individual and flatten hierarchies. This is not what was seen in the presidential race. Voters were instead “guided” by experts who were the only ones to grasp the strategic rationale of goading this individual rather than that and “nudging” them to act in some specific way.
Morozov, by contrasts, focuses his attention on the capacity of social media to pacify and distract the public in authoritarian states, and to ultimately hold the reins on the exchange of information.
What the Obama campaign suggests is that authoritarian countries might be able to use social media to foster a regime friendly political activity- that is to sponsor and facilitate the actions of large groups in its own interests, while short circuiting similar actions growing out of civil society which authoritarians find threatening. Though, regime friendly political activity in this case is likely to be much more targeted and voluntary than the absurdities of 20th century totalitarianism that mobilized people for every reason under the sun.
The difference between authoritarian countries and democratic ones in respect to these technologies, at least so far, is this: that authoritarian countries will likely use them to exercise power whereas in democracies they are only used to win it.
If 2012 was a portent of the future, what Web 2.0 has brought us is not Shirky’s dream of “open-sourced government” which uses technology to actively engage citizens in not merely the debate over, but the crafting of policies and laws, an outcome which would have spelled the decline of the influence of political parties. Instead, what we have is carefully targeted political mobilization based on the intimate knowledge of individual political preferences and psychological touch- points centrally directed by data-rich entities with a clear set of already decided upon political goals. Its continuation would constitute the defeat of the political model based on Linux and the victory of one based on FaceBook.