Unbeknownst to most voters, the email inbox is the new Election 2012 battleground. Sophisticated data mining tools allow political campaigns to compile detailed information about individual voters and then send them precision donation pitches. Tech Tuesday explores how much the campaigns know about each of us and how they’re using our preferences to woo us.
- Lois Beckett Reporter, Pro Publica
- Clay Johnson Author, "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption" (O'Reilly)
- Eitan Hersh Assistant Professor of Political Science, Yale University
Compare Presidential Campaign Emails
Message Machine images courtesy ProPublica:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. It's a high-tech political experiment, and you're the guinea pig. Democrats and Republicans are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to blanket the airwaves with attack ads, but the Obama and Romney camps are also investing millions on high-tech operations you'll never see, conducting experiments at the forefront of data science.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey're mining public voter rolls and private email lists using sophisticated algorithms to better understand specific groups and craft the perfect campaign pitch. They already know more than a thing or two about you. In fact, if you've ever voted, they probably have more than 700 different pieces of information about you. This Tech Tuesday, we're exploring the data race within the presidential race with Clay Johnson.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is the author of "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." He did some of the early groundbreaking work on campaign data with Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, and he co-founded Blue State Digital, a leading Democratic-affiliated Web operation. Clay Johnson joins us in studio. Good to see you.
MR. CLAY JOHNSONHey. It's great to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios in New York is Lois Beckett, reporter with ProPublica who covers politics and data. ProPublica has launched a project called Message Machine, an online database of emails sent by the major political campaigns. Lois Beckett, thank you for joining us.
MS. LOIS BECKETTGreat to be here.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Boston, Mass. is Eitan Hersh, professor of political science at Yale University. His research focuses on how today's political campaigns use voter data. Eitan Hersh, thank you for joining us.
PROF. EITAN HERSHThanks for having me.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation you can join at 800-433-8850. How do you react to pitches from candidates over email and Web advertising? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using #TechTuesday, you can email us to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, joining the conversation there. Election Day, 105 days away, two presidential campaigns will be blanketing the Washington area with ads and volunteer appeals.
NNAMDIBut, for now, they're fast at work trying to mine data sets and identify potential voters and donors. Eitan, I'll start with you. I saw one estimate that the campaigns have already about, oh, 700 pieces of information on every person who has voted in previous elections. I've voted, and I don't know 700 things about myself. I'm not that interesting. What do campaigns already know about me? And where are they getting this information, and what are they doing with it?
HERSHThat's a great question. So probably one of the more fascinating parts about this is that most of the data that they have is data that is publicly subsidized, data that we all pay for because it comes from the voter registration system, from the Census Bureau or from the campaigns filling out freedom of information requests from states.
HERSHSo many of things that they know about you are about your neighborhood, how, you know, what are the demographics of your neighborhood, or what are your own demographics, or some predictions that they make using statistical models about your behaviors based on those root public data.
HERSHAs far as what they're doing with it, they are mostly figuring out a couple of characteristics about you, how likely are you to vote in a given election and how likely you are to vote for them. Those are the main things, the main variables they're interested in measuring, and most of the data that they collect is to feed into those model behaviors.
NNAMDILois, according to a poll by the Annenberg School of Communications out today and reported in The New York Times, 86 percent of people do not want tailored political ads to be sent to them, but it seems like that horse has already left the barn, so to speak. Can you tell us a little bit about the data operations taking place right now, specifically the Message Machine? It's a tale of two emails. This made donors to President Obama's re-election campaign received a special email. Tell us the rest of that story.
BECKETTSo when you're getting emails from the Obama or Romney campaign -- and some of the listeners out there are probably getting a lot of emails -- what you might not realize is to the extent to which campaigns are testing these emails to see what works in them.
BECKETTEverything from testing different subject lines with a smaller group of voters before sending out the full emails to trying different messages inside the emails, trying different phrasings, trying different links and seeing what gets the best response and testing to see what kinds of language and what kinds of messages they should use to get the most people to sign up or to donate or to register for a certain program, and really anything that can be tested, certainly, the Obama campaign is testing to see if they can make a little bit more money or get a couple more people involved.
NNAMDITo be more specific, the donors to President Obama's re-election campaign received a special email offer with the headline Not Too Shabby. If they contributed a couple of hundred dollars, they'd be entered to win an all-expense-paid trip to New York to attend a fundraiser with Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress from "Sex and the City" fame. On the same day, a different email went out to a different group of donors. What did that say?
BECKETTSo what's really interesting here is that we -- our programmers at ProPublica built a program that allows people to forward their emails, and then we sort them into different piles to try to see if there's a correlation between different people getting different versions of the same email. So for the Sarah Jessica Parker emails, it was very interesting. Some versions of the email advertising the same event, you know, dwelled on the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker was a mom, saying she's a great mom, and she's for Obama.
BECKETTOthers dwelled on the fact that she was a really ambitious woman and often mentioned that Anna Wintour would be at the same dinner. And so, you know, you have to wonder -- and we're trying to figure out -- is there a correlation? Is the mom email going out to moms? Is the email -- the other email going out to single women who are Democrats? Still, other email -- versions of the same email mentioned that Mariah Carey would be involved.
BECKETTAnd so what we're seeing is that there's definitely a difference, different messages being sent out to different people very subtly in ways that may be targeted to different demographics of voters.
NNAMDIClay Johnson, nobody knows exactly what's happening in the data labs at the Obama and Romney camps, but we can speculate from the outside about where that data is being put to use. One area is email. Once upon a time, eight years ago, you were working for the campaign of Howard Dean, widely seen as the first campaign to figure out how to use the Web effectively. How has email evolved?
JOHNSONWell, email is the chief method of fundraising online if you're a candidate and you're running for office. It's not social media. It's not Twitter. It's not Facebook. It's not text messaging. It is email. It is the Holy Grail. It's the jackpot. It is ATM machine of the online campaign. And that's why, I think, you know, once you sign up for a candidate's list, you're sort of opting your email inbox into a permanent public radio telethon fundraising week.
JOHNSONThe interesting thing about this targeting, I helped build some of the software, even some of the software that the Obama campaign is using. They're a client of Blue State Digital. The targeting is a lot more sophisticated than, I think, is turning out than what ProPublica is doing. So, for instance...
JOHNSON...one tactic that was used in 2008 was, I believe, the campaign found that if you send a donor an email asking for twice the amount of money that they've ever donated in the past, they're more inclined to donate, right? So they're very sophisticated, and even the actual number of dollars that they're asking people to donate. They're very sophisticated and, you know, down to the sentence, almost every sentence is tested, especially the most important thing here is the subject line.
JOHNSONThe subject line is the thing that triggers you into opening that email, to provoking you into opening that email. And inside of that email, once you've opened it, they feel like, OK, we've got you. And so a lot of the technology and targeting is based around that subject line and how that subject line can provoke each individual person receiving it.
NNAMDIEitan Hersh, it seems like we're dabbling in psychology here because a lot of parents will tell you that's the same technique their children use when they want money to ask but double the amount that you gave them the last time.
HERSHThat's right. I mean, on the stuff that the campaigns can test, they are doing a very sophisticated job with it, so they can test different kinds of messages on lots on different people. But it's also worth remembering that a lot of their limitations have to do not with their ability to test but with their ability to collect good data.
HERSHSo, for example, they might know how to raise $100 versus $50, but they still might not know who a persuadable voter is because that's just a harder problem, and the data that they have don't lend themselves to helping the campaigns figure out who is persuadable or who has certain characteristics, like a racial or religious ethnic characteristic that the campaign wants to target. So the limitations, I think, are on the data side rather than on the testing side.
JOHNSONWell, one of the reasons why that's one reason why they build a whole suite of tools on their websites is to actually collect that data, so that's why you can go on barackobama.com, and, you know, sign petitions or network with your friends or do all kinds of other -- employ all kinds of other functionality on barackobama.com or mittromney.com is really that all that software is a data collection machine.
JOHNSONSo they can get a lot more data out of you and build a sophisticated user profile. That's why they're really working harder integrating with Facebook, so they can start scraping your data out of Facebook and using that as targeting information.
NNAMDILois Beckett, you had a piece on how is Mitt Romney following me around the Internet? Tell us about that, please.
BECKETTSo I was on Grooveshark listening to a "Glee" song, and up pops an ad from Mitt Romney. And obviously, I was pretty surprised because I didn't think that Mitt Romney was interested in targeting people who listened to "Glee." If you look at online advertisements, you'll sometimes see a little blue triangle in the corner are the words ad traces. That means that ad isn't placed there on a particular website, but the ad is targeted to you in particular based on your browsing habits where online ad companies have been tracking you and what they think you're interested in.
BECKETTAnd so I took this ad and went back to the company that served the ad and to Mitt Romney and tried to understand, OK, why did this ad come to me? And it turns out that Mitt Romney's campaign is tracking people who visit Mitt Romney's campaign website using a company called ShareThis, and they will send ads after you if you visit Mitt Romney's campaign site. So Mitt Romney is doing the same things that airlines do if you search for airline tickets.
BECKETTIf you've ever gone to a shoe store and then seen that online and then seen that same pair of shoes follow you later around the Internet, Mitt Romney is doing the exact same thing.
NNAMDIAre your email boxes beginning to feel cluttered with campaign misses from the Democratic or Republican presidential campaigns? Call us and let us know what your inbox looks like, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Lois, when Sasha Issenberg profiled Project Narwhal, he included an interesting anecdote. Well, let me go back for a second here, so I can tell you exact -- so you can tell us exactly who he is.
NNAMDIWhen the Obama campaign in 2008 had an email list of 30 million people and it was widely seen on the outside as the most Web savvy operation in American political history, on the inside, however, many of the data engineers were extremely frustrated with that list because they didn't know very much about the people in it. This campaign is said to be different. Sasha Issenberg, a journalist with Slate, has done extensive reporting on the sophisticated operation at Obama headquarters, which is said to be known as Project Narwhal. What are the Obama folks trying to do this time?
BECKETTSo, as Clay pointed out earlier, campaigns are trying to do a lot to collect information online, so when you visit a campaign website, you're not just getting information about the candidate. A candidate is also getting information about you. That's especially true if you sign in to a campaign site using Facebook. That's true really across the Web. But one of the big challenges for campaigns is that they're getting data about voters from a lot of different places, from online increasingly now, from voter lists, but also when voters show up at your door asking you questions, writing them down.
BECKETTThose questions don't disappear. They're not just used for the campaign. They're saved for later, saved for future campaigns for that political party. But the challenge is, if you're getting information from all these different places, getting information from, you know, checks in the mail from donors, online, from canvassers knocking on people's doors, how do you integrate all this information into the same place? How do you make it into one database, not three separate or four separate databases?
BECKETTAnd so this is what Sasha has been writing about, the challenge to really be -- for the Obama campaign to be the first campaign where anything that one part of the campaign knows -- on the ground, online, a check in the mail -- that everybody else in the campaign will know about this so that they're really going to know a lot about individual voters. There's not going to be silos of information, but totally fluid information sharing between every part of the campaign.
NNAMDIHere is Marsha in Annapolis, Md. Marsha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARSHAHi. Well, I get tons of campaign email every day, like maybe 50 or 100 from all different emails, sometimes three or four times a day. And all of it is, shall I say, my own fault. I mean, I knew they were sharing lists. I've been involved in -- as a volunteer and a political activist for years. But it's, I gather, listening to your guests, a lot more sophisticated than it ever was, and now I'm starting to get stuff from some local candidates.
MARSHAThere's a Democratic woman on the Eastern Shore running for a district seat, the congressional District seat that Andy Harris now sits in, and I would love to see her win. But I can't find out where the district lines are, but -- so that I can send -- forward her stuff to other people.
NNAMDIBut they found you.
MARSHABut they found me. And I really do get stuff from all over the country from all kinds of obscure campaigns, and I gather this sort of sharing of information has just gone on like crazy.
NNAMDIAnd Marsha has been a volunteer and an activist. That makes her a prime target?
JOHNSONYep, absolutely. I mean, one interesting thing to track is this idea that campaigns are sharing lists with one another. They're actually not sharing it. It's not a free transaction. They're selling it. They're taking that information and rent -- you rent a list. So if you're, you know, a candidate who didn't win but did well on the email and you need to, like, maybe get your campaign back in the green because you spent a little bit too much money, one thing that you can do is rent your list out to other campaigns to make some cash.
JOHNSONAnd you can actually track fairly -- I built a piece of software to actually just randomly subscribe to political email lists online. And you can actually track relationships between candidates this way because you can start to see the, you know, Bob Menendez is -- who Bob Menendez is friends with through who is renting his list out. Bob Menendez is a senator, too.
JOHNSONAnd I think that's, you know, some really interesting ways to identify political relationships. And, of course, you know, they track the activists the most because those are the ones that have the most energy to provide. A lot of this is about stepping someone through a ladder of engagement, you know? Campaigns develop elaborate software to get you to give them their email address.
JOHNSONAnd then they try and take you through a ladder of engagement such that, you know, from getting your email address maybe you sign a petition or write your member of Congress, and then they know, because you've written your member of Congress, that you're more inclined to donate within the next seven days. So, within that seven days, you'll get a fundraising solicitation. And because you've gotten a fundraising solicitation, they know, OK, we need to send 30 days from now another fundraising solicitation that has this kind of messaging. There's -- this is very sophisticated stuff.
NNAMDIMarsha, you're on the grid. We got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation. If you have called, the number is -- if you have called, stay on the line. We'll get to your call. The number is 800-433-8850. How are you reacting to pitches from candidates over email and Web advertising? You can also join the conversation at our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation that we're calling the election in your inbox, and we're talking with Lois Beckett. She is a reporter with ProPublica. She covers politics and data. ProPublica has launched a project called Message Machine, an online database of emails sent by major political campaigns. Clay Johnson joins us in studio. He is author of "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption."
NNAMDIHe did a lot of the early ground-breaking work on campaign data with Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, and he co-founded Blue State Digital, a leading Democratic-affiliated Web operation. Eitan Hersh is a professor of political science at Yale University. His research focuses on how today's political campaign use voter data. You can call us at 800-433-8859 if you have comments or questions. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIOr you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. From a campaign perspective, these new tools are challenging old assumptions in campaign operations that used to operate on hunches and gut feelings, Eitan, but it also raises bigger philosophical questions. Is the rise of data and micro-targeting good for our Democratic process?
HERSHIt's a good question. It's a hard question. On the one hand, if you talk to the campaign data folks, they'll tell you this -- and I think it's a genuine statement of belief -- that it's really hard to learn about voters when you're running for office. A politician wants to do a good job representing the needs and interests of his community.
HERSHAnd, you know, in a congressional district that has 400,000 people in it or a U.S. electorate that has 200 million -- nearly 200 million registered voters, that's really hard. So collecting data gives campaigns new information about what voters care about, and that's a good thing. On the other hand, there are few reasons we could be concerned this data collection.
HERSHOne is that we don't want -- collectively, we don't want the data collection to move over to the governmental role where when you want to get a pothole fixed on your street, your legislator is going to first check your records in the database and see whether you're a supporter or not. That kind of old-world machine politics is something we don't want to see or turn to, but the data does allow, so we need to make sure there are checks. Another...
NNAMDIIn The New York Times piece today, one respondent, an elderly gentlemen, said, "The question is, are they keeping a file on me?" But go ahead, please.
HERSHWell, the last thing I want to say about this, the last kind of real question that collectively Americans need to think about is, what are the -- what's the rule of public policy in regulating data? Since a lot of the data is really coming from public sources, there is this opportunity to say, hey, wait a minute. What does, not a politician, but what does the government collect about me, and how is that information used in the political process?
HERSHSo just a quick example, in many states, including Virginia, a campaign can request records of, you know, which voters have hunting licenses or fishing licenses or teaching licenses or physician licenses, and they can merge these with their campaign databases. That, in a sense, is no different from what happened in the news this week in D.C. except that it's done in a legal context. And so whether that kind of publication of administrative data is a good thing or a bad thing or a thing that voters want is really important question moving into the future.
NNAMDIFor those who are unfamiliar with it, The Washington Post is reporting this week that the campaign of Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray managed to get data from the Department of Housing that it used about people who are living in public housing.
NNAMDIData that cold only come from that source and allegedly used that data to help with getting to voters and with voter turnout on Election Day is just one of the allegations being made about how the mayor's campaign and a shadow campaign that it also had may have corrupted the process. But, Clay Johnson, what do you think this all portends for the future? And feel free to comment on what happens here locally.
JOHNSONWell, you know, the first thing to realize is that during an election season, a politician's job is not to inform you. A politician's job is to persuade you, right? And when we start looking at this technology, everything that you do is tracked. Let's just take email as an example, right, when you open an email. Every time you open an email, it sends a signal back to a server, to the campaign, that says that this email has been opened, right?
JOHNSONAnd so that signal goes, OK, we should write more emails like that. We should write more subject lines like that 'cause that gets people to open. That's called an open rate. Now, that's a binary choice, right? You either open that email or you don't. And, to an extent, that's like a spam filter, right? You say, like, this is spam, or it's not spam. And so after a while, a machine, just like a spam filter, can learn what is going to be successful and what is not going to be successful.
JOHNSONI've heard tell of some organizations beginning to develop predictive models based on email to, say, figure out how much money this is going to raise for us before we click the send button. So it starts to predict how successful the language is going to be and helps coach people who are writing these emails to write more provocative, more manipulative -- I'll go out and say it -- subject lines so that people can get it.
JOHNSONNow, what happens when we live in a world where it's not the -- where the software is what is persuading us rather than the politician, where we're not even -- where a politician doesn't even need any skill to persuade or manipulate us into voting for them that they can rely on the equivalent of a very advanced grammar checker in Microsoft Word that, you know, that maybe underlines with a yellow wavy underline and says, would you like more rage with your email, you know?
JOHNSONThat gets to be a little bit more terrifying.
NNAMDILois Beckett, we got this email from Harlan Lang, who says, "I was the chief staff fundraiser for the DNC in 1973. Same ideas, just a new method." Have you been talking to anyone who's been saying anything like that to you?
BECKETTWell, yes. This idea of micro-targeting online using data online is really based on direct mail, one of those things that Karl Rove was a real pioneer in. And, actually, going back to 2004 in that election, that was when micro-targeting really took off because the Bush campaign was able to do research on voters in key areas like African Americans in Ohio and research what those voters wanted to hear, what they cared about.
BECKETTAnd, in fact, then the Bush campaign sent African-Americans in Ohio different messages, messages focused on health care and education rather than broader Bush themes of the Iraq War staying the course. And in several different states they did this, and the results seemed to show that, yes, this kind of micro-targeting, sending people messages on the theme that you already know they're interested in, does pay off.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones now. Here is Brian in Hagerstown, Md. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANHi. How are you?
BRIANGood. I just had a question. I frequent many different news sites and stay very informed in the political aspect of things. However, I do not receive political emails. What am I doing right? I've also resisted social media. So, I mean, I do Google. And I figured they can still track me, and I don't...
NNAMDIGo ahead, Clay.
JOHNSONThe number one way that candidates get your email -- there's really two ways where a candidate can get your email address. The first way is by renting an email address from somebody else, and they just can, you know, get it that way or doing a shared list so that, you know, like candidate X will get candidate Y to send out an email on his behalf, that kind of thing. But the other way and the biggest way is petitions, online petitions.
JOHNSONSo, you know, there's a company out there, for-profit corporation called Change.org, and they give people the ability to create new petitions to petition the government, to petition companies, to petition whatever to do X, Y and Z to change for, you know, lack of a better word. And then those email addresses are actually used -- sold to an extent. They're sold to other organizations who may want them on an opt-in basis.
JOHNSONSo if you haven't signed any online petitions or you haven't ever, you know, written your member of Congress through some advocacy website, it's likely that you haven't gotten, you know, on the grid, or you're really good at unsubscribing for things or your spam filter is fantastic and, please, send it to me.
NNAMDIBut, Lois Beckett, it's my understanding that Yahoo and Microsoft email services sell information to campaigns. Is that correct?
BECKETTThat's true. But they're not selling your email address. So in this case, if you're a really active reader of news sites, if you read a lot of political sites, I'll bet you're receiving targeted political ads. And if you are, you should take screenshots of them and send them to us. We're collecting them.
BECKETTAnother part of our project. And -- but the interesting thing with Microsoft and Yahoo is that what they did is both Microsoft and Yahoo get names and zip codes of people when they sign up for free email services, like Hotmail or Yahoo Mail. And it turns out that they're using these names and zip codes sometimes to match their users against campaigns' own voter lists. So say a political campaign wanted, you know, had a long lists of Republicans who donated more than $100 in certain swing states and they wanted to send those people targeted ads.
BECKETTMaybe they didn't have their email addresses. Maybe -- and so they could go to Microsoft and say, here are our lists of names. And Microsoft would take their lists of names and zip codes. Both lists are given to a third-party matching service, one of these big data companies like Acxiom or Experian. And then what comes out of that process is a list of the Internet users that Microsoft is going to target with a particular ad. All of this goes on behind the scenes.
BECKETTIf you get one of those ads, there's no way to know because these companies don't disclose that they're doing these kinds -- kind of behind-the-scenes matching. So if we're talking about the big picture of political targeting, one of the big questions to ask is how companies are deciding what kind of targeting is appropriate or not appropriate. Microsoft and Yahoo think that this kind of matching is totally OK. Google won't do it. Facebook won't do it.
BECKETTGoogle says that your political beliefs are sensitive information, and so they limit the ways that those are used for targeting. And so as we're discussing this topic, I think one of the real questions is, you know, how do we, as a nation, want to create public policy laws about what kinds of targeting we think are great and what kinds of targeting we might want to limit, but also how are businesses viewing their responsibilities, to what kind of targeting they're willing to sell.
NNAMDIEitan Hersh, I have to have you weigh in on this, the extent to which we can create public policy in order to achieve this.
HERSHWell, let me just weigh in on one point before in response to the callers because the callers really exemplified that -- the two callers -- this new consequence of this new style of politics, which is this great disparity that's going to exist, that does exist already in the experiences as a voter with the campaigns. If you are, you know, one of the millions of non-registrant -- non-registered voters and, you know, you don't follow politics very carefully, you will not see any -- you won't see ads, and you won't be contacted. And the campaigns won't have your email address.
HERSHAnd even though, of course, you're an eligible voter and you're a voter that campaigns will buff to get to, part of the reason they're not contacting you is 'cause, very simply, they don't know who you are. And as you kind of go up the food chain to the really involved activists, the campaigns know a lot about those people, and that can be useful for fundraising and for organizing petitions and things like that.
HERSHBut, of course, the problem there is that those people are already very likely to vote and very likely to vote for a particular set of candidate. So one reason that this debate is important or this discussion is important is because we might be uneasy about this very fabricated experience voters are having depending on their involvement and level of trust in the campaign season.
JOHNSONAnother thing to point out is that people have different levels of media literacy when it comes to this particular subject. Some people are -- you know, the Tech Tuesday listener, for instance, might be particularly well adept at technology, whereas the non-Tech Tuesday listener might not be. And so some of these emails are, I think, deliberately taking advantage of that. For instance, you know, I have an email in front of me from Green America that says, your membership has expired.
JOHNSONSay it ain't so with -- renew your membership. I've never been a member of this organization, right? And so I'm -- you know, I'm literate enough to know that and to remember that and stuff like that. But some people, you know, may not know that. In fact, this isn't just something for, you know, some small organizations. The Democratic senators -- Senatorial Campaign Committee does this.
JOHNSONThey'll send an email out that says, we noticed that your account is past due. Please contribute $5 today, right? This, I think, is really taking advantage of some people online who may not know that they're not being sent a bill.
NNAMDIYeah. They think it's -- they just think it's a bill. You mentioned earlier Change.org, which allows people to create and sign on to petitions for liberal and progressive causes. But you say organizations like Change.org should be seen as more than just do-gooder organizations. What do you mean?
JOHNSONWell, they're for-profit organizations, right? And...
JOHNSON...you can be a for-profit organization and do good, you know? Change.org is a B Corporation. And I think they intend to do well while they're doing good. However, at the same time, I don't think that they do a good enough job of disclosing that they have an economic incentive to getting your email address.
JOHNSONThey don't tell the user, for instance, that once they receive that email address, they might share it with a partner or might -- they might be involved in something that is a -- what's called cost per acquisition, which means that they -- Change.org is getting paid, you know, a dollar every time that their email -- that they collect an email address. And I think that that gets a little shady because it leads to the wrong kinds of incentives.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Here is Stephanie in Manassas, Va. Stephanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEPHANIEHello. I was wondering -- as an independent voter who does not want to go out and find out and go to the presidential candidate sites to research because I know a lot of that is skewed in their favor, I was wondering, is there a site that one could go to to see what their record is without being tracked and without receiving some of these emails that...
STEPHANIE…you're talking about?
JOHNSONAbsolutely. If I could prescribe -- I talk a lot about this in my book, the "Information Diet." But if I could prescribe you some sites, that would be great. The first one would be OpenSecrets.org. They're a great nonprofit, and what they do is they take FEC campaign contributions and start telling you a story about who is behind this candidate, what kinds of special interests are around this candidate. It's not really the record...
JOHNSONOpenSecrets.org. It's not really the record of a candidate. It's more like a mandatory Facebook for them. The second one, if you're looking at a congressional candidate, is a website called opencongress.org, which tells you about the different bills and the different votes that they've had and the different roles and committees that they're playing in Congress.
JOHNSONIf you're looking at a state legislative candidate, OpenStates.org is starting to build -- I'm sorry, it's OpenGovernment.org -- is starting to build a -- and it's called the Open States Project -- is starting to build a state legislative database that does the same thing as you're -- as OpenCongress.org does.
JOHNSONAnd finally, Project Vote Smart is a database of candidates that have been requested to fill out surveys, and a lot of candidates do fill out those surveys, and none of these websites, to my knowledge, actively track you across the Web.
NNAMDILois, I know you're too shy to say this yourself, so I'm going to force you to say it. ProPublica is one of the places that that person can go, right?
BECKETTYes. We have done some profiles of both candidates on the record, on different issues, and we'll be continuing to do that, especially we've got a bunch on President Obama's record on different things like the housing crisis.
NNAMDISee, I had to drag it out of her. Eitan, are there any sites that you would suggest?
HERSHNo. I sympathize with the caller, especially, you know, the presidential race is one thing. But, you know, I think everyone, even the most involved voters, have, you know, tried to look up things about their local candidates and be able to find nothing about the candidates. And the best I can say is I think that the data revolution seems to be giving candidates generally -- general parity.
HERSHSo when I've investigated different races at different levels of government, the opposing party seems to have pretty similar data, which means that -- the best we can say about the independent voters is that, hopefully, maybe both campaigns will go after you, and they will both give you biased information, and from that you might be able to figure out who to vote.
NNAMDIStephanie, thank you very much for your call.
JOHNSONOne other thing...
NNAMDIYou can find a link at our website, kojoshow.org, to the ProPublica project Message Machine. Clay?
JOHNSONOne other thing for Stephanie is go meet your local candidates, right? That's the best way to understand them. Your local candidates will meet with you if you just email them or call them.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Tech Tuesday conversation on the election in your inbox. If you've called, stay on the line. You can still call us, however, at 800-433-8850. Tell us how you react to pictures from candidates over email and Web advertising. And just how many are you getting? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Tech Tuesday, and we're talking about the election in your inbox with Eitan Hersh. He's a professor of political science at Yale University. His research focuses on how today's political campaigns use voter data. Lois Beckett is a reporter with ProPublica who covers politics and data. ProPublica has launched a project called Message Machine, an online database of email sent by the major political campaigns.
NNAMDIYou can find a link to that project at our website, kojoshow.org. And Clay Johnson is the author of "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." He did some of the early groundbreaking work on campaign data with Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. He also co-founded Blue State Digital, which is a leading Democratic-affiliated Web operation.
NNAMDIWe got this email from John, who says, "I have a background in database management. And reading the recent stories about the Gray campaign acquiring a list of public housing residents, it's not clear whether the D.C. public housing survey was the direct source of that list. It would be very easy to reverse-engineer building such a list by taking voter lists and simply pulling out the residents of the 40 public housing addresses, and you could easily do a telephone match for those residents.
NNAMDI"It's of no value of a campaign to contact voters who are not registered to vote, and The Post never stated that the Gray campaign used the list in question for voter registration, only for voter turnout of already registered voters." Well, my own inquiries, John, indicate that that list had the kind of information that could only come from the public housing authority, involving things like what portion of their salaries people were paying towards their rent in public housing and the like.
NNAMDISo, apparently, it's pretty sure that the D.C. Housing Authority itself has acknowledged that the data had to come from it as a source. But, Clay Johnson, does this Vincent Gray incident, if you will, illustrate the hazards of expanded use of data?
JOHNSONAbsolutely. And, you know, there are some safeguards in place. You know, for instance, it's against the law for a candidate to use your publicly available campaign contributions to solicit you for donation. So the FEC has a law against that. And to protect people, what the FEC does is they do what's called salting the data. So they'll put some random contributions and some random names that go to some P.O. Boxes inside of the FEC database.
JOHNSONAnd so if they get solicitations in those P.O. boxes, they go and arrest those people who send them those P.O. boxes or at least find them. But they're, you know, they take that relatively seriously for the FEC. You know, what Vince Gray has done here -- what the Gray campaign has done here is effectively stolen governmental information for the purposes of campaigning, and this is a really dangerous thing because, you know, you want campaigning to be fair.
JOHNSONYou don't want people to use governmental power too much to convince you to vote for them. And, you know, and we certainly -- this would be the equivalent of Mitt Romney -- the Romney campaign getting a database of everyone that's under investigation at the Securities and Exchange Commission and sending them reminders to vote for him or sending them campaign contribution solicitations, which is against the law. And it's stealing, it's hacking, and it's also just incredibly unethical.
NNAMDIEitan Hersh, this one is for you. You may have recognized the music we went into the last break with. It's called -- it's by the band Pantera, and we chose that for a specific reason. Campaigns have been looking at information about our musical preferences and our voting preferences. It turns out that metal is one of the only types of music that is not identified directly with right or left-leaning people. Does this really tell us anything at all, Eitan, our music preferences?
HERSHIt might. But if it does, then that preference is probably correlated with other preferences that we already know about. So, you know, we know what kind of stuff is well-correlated with your propensity to vote or your propensity to be a Democrat or Republican, you know, based on your demographics and where you live and so forth. A lot of the commercial data that's available, either through marketing databases or through this kind of music match, it will already be correlated with stuff that we know about, or it just won't be relevant to political outcome.
HERSHSo I've investigated many of these marketing data points that click campaigns have, you know, whether someone is likely to own a dog or a cat based on their marketing profile, and most of these things just really are not correlated with the things that campaigns care about, which is actually kind of intuitive. But I think it sometimes gets lost in the desire to portray campaigns as these, you know, very, very sophisticated organizations.
NNAMDILois Beckett, it's my understanding that the Romney campaign, for some reason, is not targeting jazz aficionados.
BECKETTNo. This is really interesting, and everything Eitan said, I think, is really correct. But the Romney campaign was talking to The New York Times about their targeting tactics and about the online ads that they had. Now, when you put out an online ad, you can often track who clicked on it, who, you know, moused over it and who didn't.
BECKETTAnd so the Romney campaign found that when they did that, people who were likely to engage with the Romney campaign ads, like watching the videos or tweeting after they saw it or clicking through to a page, were people who liked online quizzes or like to share photographs, were interested in home repairs or child care. And they could find out these things because they're working with online data companies to correlate the people who are seeing their ads and look at profiles of information that these online tracking companies have collected about them.
BECKETTSo they, you know, wanted to understand what kinds of people were clicking on their ad so they could spend more money targeting those kinds of people and, you know, save money elsewhere. But it was also really important for them to know whom not to target. And so that when they look at engagement with their ads, they found that Internet users who liked martial arts, who liked video or casino games, people who liked bowling and people who listen to jazz were more likely to ignore Romney ads.
BECKETTSo the Romney campaign might have concluded from that, like, let's not spend money targeting these people. Let's, you know, as we're, you know, building audiences of Internet users based on what the tracking companies know about them, let's exclude jazz listeners because those people aren't going to click on our ads.
JOHNSONA local company here in Washington called Engage D.C. has been collecting data, and they're actually beginning to be able to target people. They have this infographic called "Politics of the Social Web," and they're able to predict, you know, that Republicans are -- if you're using FarmVille, you're more likely to be a Republican, and if you're using Reddit, then you're more likely to be a Democrat. If you're using PayPal and eBay, you're more likely to be a Republican. If you're using Quora or Wikipedia or BuzzFeed, you're more likely to be a Democrat.
NNAMDIWell, here's this. We got an email from John, who says, "I've been seeing a lot more ads for Obama than for Romney. Is that because the president and the DNC are more active in online marketing than their opponents? Or is it because of the sites I visit? I'm an independent, and I read from a wide variety of news sources, including a lot of NPR."
BECKETTI think the thing that the Democrats have learned that the Republicans haven't quite figured out yet is that an online strategy and a media strategy and a direct-mail strategy all have to be integrated into one thing. I think what Romney is doing and the Republican campaigns are really doing is treating them as separate silos whereas, you know, David Axelrod has a hand in both buying television advertisements for the President and also buying online advertisements for the President.
JOHNSONAnd so because they're more integrated, I think you see a more -- and they're actually -- I believe -- I haven't checked the latest records, but I think they're spending more money on online advertising than the Romney campaign is. The last time I checked the expenditures of the Democrats, they were -- their ad -- their online ad firm Bully Pulpit Interactive was one of the top recipients of money from the Obama campaign.
NNAMDIEitan, political scientists have begun to question many of the underlying assumptions made by campaigns about what works and what doesn't to get people out to the polls or changes their mind about a candidate. How does technology or the medium of messages end up influencing that process of study?
HERSHWell, for one thing it's become a lot easier to do rapid testing of different strategies so -- a new technique that's been championed by scholars like Todd Rogers, who's now at the Harvard Kennedy School, than to, you know, put tests into the field very quickly, try a message out after a few days and then see which kind of message works very well in the test group and then apply that lesson to a general audience. So try 10 messages out, see which one works best, and then use the best one for a larger group of voters.
HERSHAnd that's the technique that he campaigns, the sophisticated campaigns, at least, are using all the time. The other general lessons that the political scientists, especially my colleagues at Yale actually Alan Gerber and Don Green, have championed -- have been -- just had used randomized experiments to test some really basic assumptions. For example, does robo-calling work to increase turnout?
HERSHThe general answer is no. Recently, I've used these techniques in the context of survey experiments, along with a colleague Brian Schaffner from the University of Massachusetts, to test how much people do not like getting mail that's not targeted to them, in other words, that's accidentally targeting them. So using experimental techniques in a survey environment to figure out, well, if you're, say, not a Latino, how much do you not like getting an advertisement geared to Latinos?
HERSHSo the use of experiments and more rapid testing through easy tools like surveys have -- I think have already and will continue to change what political campaigns decide to do.
NNAMDIAnd, finally, there's this from Douglas in Arlington, Va. Douglas, you only have about 30 seconds, but go ahead, please.
DOUGLASGood. I'll be fast. Anyway, so when we get mail, we just throw it out, unless there's a dollar bill or a nickel in it and we keep that. When we get recorded phone calls, we just hang up. When we get live voices recommending a particular candidate, we tell them, you do this one more time, and I'm not going to vote for him. What happened, though, consequently, is they all come back again, and there's nobody we can vote for anymore.
DOUGLASIf we start getting emails, then we're going to be in the same pinch. We're going to tell them look, you do this one more time (unintelligible) candidates left.
NNAMDIWell, thank you for sharing that with us, Douglas. Douglas may not be voting anytime soon.
NNAMDIEitan Hersh is a professor of political science at Yale University. His research focuses on how today's political campaigns use voter data. Craig Johnson is author of information diet, a case for conscious consumption. He did some of the early work on campaign data with Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. He also co-founded Blue State Digital, a leading Democratic-affiliated Web operation. And Lois Beckett is a reporter with ProPublica who covers politics and data.
NNAMDIProPublica has launched a project called Message Machine, an online database of the emails sent by the major political campaigns. You can find a link at our website kojoshow.org. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.