Home > data science, modeling, rant > Tailored political ads threaten democracy

Tailored political ads threaten democracy

October 31, 2014

Not sure if you saw this recent New York Times article on the new data-driven political ad machines. Consider for example, the 2013 Virginia Governor campaign won by Terry McAuliffe:

…the McAuliffe campaign invested heavily in both the data and the creative sides to ensure it could target key voters with specialized messages. Over the course of the campaign, he said, it reached out to 18 to 20 targeted voter groups, with nearly 4,000 Facebook ads, more than 300 banner display ads, and roughly three dozen different pre-roll ads — the ads seen before a video plays — on television and online.

Now I want you to close your eyes and imagine what kind of numbers we will see for the current races, not to mention the upcoming presidential election.

What’s crazy to me about the Times article is that it never questions the implications of this movement. The biggest problem, it seems, is that the analytics have surpassed the creative work of making ads: there are too many segments of populations to tailor the political message to, and not enough marketers to massage those particular messages for each particular segment. I’m guessing that there will be more money and more marketers in the presidential campaign, though.

Translation: politicians can and will send different messages to individuals on Facebook, depending on what they think we want to hear. Not that politicians follow through with all their promises now – they don’t, of course – but imagine what they will say when they can make a different promise to each group. We will all be voting for slightly different versions of a given story. We won’t even know when the politician is being true to their word – which word?

This isn’t the first manifestation of different messages to different groups, of course. Romney’s famous “47%” speech was a famous example of tailored messaging to super rich donors. But on the other hand, it was secretly recorded by a bartender working the event. There will be no such bartenders around when people read their emails and see ads on Facebook.

I’m not the only person worried about this. For example, ProPublica studied this in Obama’s last campaign (see this description). But given the scale of the big data political ad operations now in place, there’s no way they – or anyone, really – can keep track of everything going on.

There are lots of ways that “big data” is threatening democracy. Most of the time, it’s by removing open discussions of how we make decisions and giving them to anonymous and inaccessible quants; think evidence-based sentencing or value-added modeling for teachers. But this political campaign ads is a more direct attack on the concept of a well-informed public choosing their leader.

Categories: data science, modeling, rant
  1. October 31, 2014 at 8:21 am

    Good on the bartender for doing this. How much responsibility do you think mathematicians have in explaining the role of algorithms to the general public? You are certainly doing your part here, with your blog and your work, but what about in general? I am thinking back at the quote from Thomas Hales about privacy:

    “If privacy disappears from the face of the Earth, mathematicians will be some of the primary culprits.”


  2. October 31, 2014 at 8:48 am

    I use Social Fixer to filter out most of the ads and other nuisances on Facebook.


  3. October 31, 2014 at 9:05 am

    We live in a Democracy?


    • appliedmathguy
      October 31, 2014 at 10:04 am

      Exactly. You can’t threaten something that doesn’t exist. Majority rule is (arguably) the single most defining quality of a democracy, that’s nothing like what we have for a long, long list of reasons even in a purely procedural sense. In practical terms our oligarchic consensual state is back up by pervasive structural disenfranchisement (among other things).

      What’s the evidence? Look at the Constitution. Beyond that, remember that FDR was elected in ’32 with a Congressional Democratic landslides approaching 70% in many districts and even then FDR could NOT get all the parts of the New Deal he wanted, e.g., the final stimulus spending needed to end the Depression had to come from the war.

      Of course, back then all this conflict lead to the “Court packing” crisis where the Supremes appeared to back down, but the crisis did not really change anything legally or structurally. And personally, I suspect the disproportional representation in the Senate is more of a barrier to reform than the S.C.


  4. October 31, 2014 at 9:45 am

    I’m guessing this will backfire for some campaigns when screen caps of their targeted ads are posted for everyone to see – not just the person they intended.


  5. mrgeocool
    October 31, 2014 at 9:49 am

    I’m thinking money is already a huge and corrupting influence, and this might actually help counterbalance that to some degree. Right now at least, I feel that Democrats have the advantage in terms of social media savvy. Do you agree, and if so do you think it will hold for a while?


  6. October 31, 2014 at 9:54 am

    “There will be no such bartenders around when people read their emails and see ads on Facebook.” On the other hand, the recipients wouldn’t have to secretly record it. A single misjudged recipient, and the tailored message can go viral.


    • Auros
      November 3, 2014 at 6:45 pm

      Yeah, I was going to say exactly this. Screen-caps of poorly-tailored messages will get out. Promise to go both ways on the same policy, and you WILL get caught.


  7. October 31, 2014 at 11:09 am

    If the tailored messages, (political spam), exhibit the same characteristics of ordinary spam we don’t have much to worry about. Every other day I clear out my blog’s spam queue and I am constantly amazed at how shallow and unimaginative it is. Writing credible spam is apparently more difficult that one would expect. The most typical is a naive appeal to vanity. If a politician tried to appeal to me with such garbage I would downgrade their status from pond scum to toxic sewage.


  8. October 31, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Q: How can you tell if a politician is lying?

    A: When he moves his lips!

    Politicians have been lying to us forever. Obama promised transparency! Fat chance!

    Lots of people make a living from elections. The only thing that has changed is that they are now more educated and have better tools.

    Let both sides duke it out.


  9. October 31, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Republic democracy is completely fucked as is. Politicians can mislead an epsilon more effectively in the future, oh no.


  10. October 31, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Holy crap you guys are even more cynical than I am.


  11. November 1, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    As a computer science major and software/data warehouse developer who has done the kind of data mining Mathbabe’s article speaks about in healthcare I have this to say to each of you:

    Be afraid. Be very afraid. Stop worrying about what Kim Kardashian’s ass looks like or whether or not you have Ebola. The enemy is in office and is cementing its hold over the country while the rest of us are watching Real Housewives.

    YOUR DATA ARE BELONG TO US. We know everything from your driving habits to your eating habits to your entertainment habits to your working habits.

    Take this stuff seriously. Start writing your Senators and Representatives to get the appropriate privacy laws passed NOW. Don’t wait until you have had to change your identity four or five times to maintain even a modicum of dignity before you finally figure out what is being said to you today.

    Based on the comments I’ve seen to this post so far, your understanding of how serious this situation is borders on non-existent at best.



    • November 1, 2014 at 7:26 pm

      As a computer scientist (yes, that’s one of the hats that I wear), I can be plenty paranoid, but I also know that no matter how many laws we pass the cat is out of the bag. I take some solace in knowing that some of the data they have on me is incorrect, but otherwise why should I care if they know what toothpaste I use? As long as they are not stealing from me … We live in a new world and we need to get used to it.


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