April 19, 2024

My NYT Op-Ed: "Beware the Smart Campaign"

I just published a new opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “Beware the Smart Campaign”. I react to the Obama campaign’s successful use of highly quantitative voter targeting that is inspired by “big data” commercial marketing techniques and implemented through state-of-the-art social science knowledge and randomized field experiments.  In the op-ed, I wonder whether the “persuasion score” strategy championed by Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, is on balance good for democracy in the long run.

Mr. Messina is understandably proud of his team, which included an unprecedented number of data analysts and social scientists. As a social scientist and a former computer programmer, I enjoy the recognition my kind are getting. But I am nervous about what these powerful tools may mean for the health of our democracy, especially since we know so little about it all.

For all the bragging on the winning side — and an explicit coveting of these methods on the losing side — there are many unanswered questions. What data, exactly, do campaigns have on voters? How exactly do they use it? What rights, if any, do voters have over this data, which may detail their online browsing habits, consumer purchases and social media footprints?

You can read the full article here.

The argument in an op-ed is necessarily concise and leaves out much of the nuance but I think this is an important question facing democracies.  The key to my argument is that big data analytics + better social science isn’t just the same old, same old but poses novel threats to healthy public discourse.  I welcome feedback and comments as we are just starting to grapple with these new developments!


  1. Benjamin Mako Hill says

    You point out that the problem for democracy is that campaigning is more about about manipulating people than some largely unspecified alternative. Presuambly this is some form of winning votes fairly. The mass media approach to this (negative ads, spinning issues, photo ops, promoting likability, etc) are not particularly less scary to me, even if they are not as effective as new more data-driven approaches. The problems you cite are bad. But they don’t seem particularly bad as executed by data scientists except that they might be more effective. And I’m not completely convinced that they are that much more effective. Maybe that’s what I think the missing piece is for me.

  2. Jeff Tignor says

    I agree that we are entering new territory as better social science + big data takes its place alongside money as major factors that influence the outcome of elections. However, I am not sure that we have reason to worry too much yet about the distorting influence of social science + big data on our democracy.

    Having spent a month going door-to-door full-time for the Obama campaign in Virginia in ’08 and running my own local campaign in Washington, DC previously, I see data, even in the advanced forms the Obama campaign used this year, as complimentary to the personal interactions generated by dedicated volunteers in the field. While it is extremely important that people in the field know who to visit, it’s the one-on-one in-person conversations that turn supporters into volunteers and insure that other supporters get to the polls on election day. A candidate who inspires people to take time off from work and time away from their families to work to get him elected can win elections, particularly with assistance from social science and great data analysis. But, I do not expect a mediocre candidate without grass roots support to win the Presidency, even with the best targeted marketing campaign.

  3. That was a thought-provoking article.

    Maybe one way of looking at this is that candidates have always tried and used such techniques for manipulation. It’s only now that we have the tools to systematically understand them.

    I understand that the Kennedy-Nixon debate was won by Kennedy because he was better-dressed and better-looking! Both of these attirbutes really say nothing about either of these politicians regarding their ability to lead the country. I feel like American presidential elections both today and in the past (i.e., in the pre-big data era) are hugely dependent on the personal charisma of the candidates, an attribute which I argue should be largely irrelevant. Other cultures almost surely have other “irrational” attributes that decide elections.

    I think this is just another expression of one of the fundamental problems with democracy. Not everybody (should that be almost nobody?) votes based on a careful understanding and appreciation of the issues at stake and the candidates stances on those issues. Instead we tend vote based on our “gut feelings” and this is almost surely an irrational choice.