Voter information is a valuable resource in today’s campaigns. Campaigns use information from voter registration, credit card purchases, and other sources to target specific voters and personalize messages sent to them. However, the methods of collecting this data can be questionable in some cases and even violates people’s right to privacy without them even realizing it.
In “Deep Democracy, Thin Citizenship: The Impact of Digital Media in Political Campaign Strategy,” Philip Howard discusses data collection techniques used by campaigns. He explains the need for campaigns to “narrowcast”, or tailoring a message to a specific group of people, and points out that “even though media sources seem to be consolidating, their success depends on their ability to deliver customized content to differentiated, issue-specific social groups.” Campaigns do so through tools such as data-mining companies and Spyware. The data is compiled into databases used by campaigns to customize messages to voters. Howard points out that most of the people whose data is being collected don’t give consent for companies to use their personal information.
This topic is of interest to the New York Times. In this article, the authors discuss data mining techniques used by firms that campaigns hire to collect data on voters. Campaigns then use the data to personalize political ads and messages to individual voters. Firms collect the data by following the “digital trails” voters create as they leave campaign website and visit other websites. By tracking the website visitors, campaigns can discover personal information about voters such as their interests, demographics, and beliefs. Some see the personalization of campaign ads as positive because it shows a voter the message that is most relevant to him or her, but others question the lack of privacy and transparency.
Several weeks after writing this article, one of the authors posted a blog post about a recent study that shows both the Obama and Romney campaigns have been leaking information about people who visit the campaign website to third-party trackers. According to the blog post, both campaigns say there are safeguards in place to protect user data, but a study by a graduate student from Stanford University shows the campaigns are actually leaking this data. Pages from both candidates’ websites include the website visitor’s personal information in the URL or title of the page, which allows the third-party companies that operate on the websites the ability to collect the information.
This practice brings up an important question- is it wrong from campaigns to track the information of voters? An interesting point was brought up by a high school teacher from New Jersey in the Times article. He was quoted saying “The Internet has changed privacy. We can’t expect either campaign to pretend we’re living in the past.” There is some validity to this point as I do think the Internet has changed our concept of privacy. However, I think there’s a difference between consciously giving information on the Internet, like posting information on Facebook, and information being taken from you without you realizing it. As both a political science and journalism major, I understand the importance of having this information and using it to tailor messages to certain audiences. However, I don’t think it should be done covertly. Transparency should be introduced into the process. I don’t see anything wrong with collecting this information as long as consent is given first. It will be interesting to see how this practice evolves as technology develops in the coming years.