Politics and Privacy, Part II

October 2nd, 2008 by Grace Meng

Last week, I wrote about how political data collection has shown that data collection doesn’t have to be a completely one-way street, but rather, can involve individuals’ active and sometimes almost enthusiastic participation.  Part of the enthusiasm comes from a belief that this is what democracy is about—we have the right to try to persuade our fellow citizens, whether from a soap box in the town square or by calling a voter list through a phone bank.  But the data collection by political campaigns encompasses a lot more than name, occupation, and email address.  Karl Rove revolutionized it, with his famous use of consumer preferences to identify and target likely Republican voters, but the Democrats have worked hard to catch up, Catalist being one of the big players in this effort. It’s one thing to compile donor lists; another to cross-reference “beer versus wine” preferences to voter lists.  How is democracy affected by intense, data-based voter profiling?

As Solon Barocas pointed out during his talk on voter profiling at the recent DIMACS workshop, researchers have found that micro-targeting voters can increase polarization and divisiveness.  As candidates are able to air one radio ad for the Latino voters in one state and a different one for the white voters in another, they’re able to espouse more extreme positions than they would if forced to appeal to a more general audience.

If true, this is a serious problem.  But I like to believe that in the long run, and done right, political data collection and analysis could actually enable new kinds of consensus and coalition-building.  For one, in an era where blogs monitor political campaigns hour-by-hour, a local radio ad can be made available to a national audience no matter which micro-audience was originally targeted.  (Update: we can even find out about “telephone” calls to the deaf community!)

But more importantly, I can imagine that if voters and not just campaigns were able to see who else felt the way they did on major issues, many might be surprised.  Solon mentioned that despite the headlines, the algorithms by which likely Democratic or Republican voters are identified is not as simple as beer = conservative, wine = liberal.  Yes, campaigns believe they can figure out who in a community might lean in their direction, but it’s a much more complicated calculation.

So if people chose to share and know who else felt similarly, in ways that were more fine-grained than national polls, really interesting things could happen to our political discourse.  The Left Coast environmentalist might learn the hunter in South Dakota shares a commitment to conservation.  The pro-choice atheist and the pro-life Catholic might learn they both oppose the death penalty.  I’m not advocating that we throw open the curtains on the voting booth.  But knowing how our fellow citizens feel about the issues facing all of us—it almost sounds like that old-fashioned American democratic institution, the town hall meeting.

After all, democracy is the ultimate social activity.  We’re supposed to be making decisions together.

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