While the Obama campaign's unprecedented use of big data and gamification techniques might be helping them to engage citizens and strengthen his re-election bid, what impact will their digital approach have on privacy, transparency and democracy?
As the Republican presidential candidates continue to duke it out in contentious primary elections around the country, I’ve started to notice the increasingly public signs that the Obama campaign is gearing up for battle. Not surprisingly, I tend to focus on the Obama re-election team’s uses of digital technologies, where a number of shifts may result in important changes for both the voter-facing and internal components of the Obama For America’s (OFA) digital operations. I started writing this post with the intent of reviewing some of the recent news coverage of the campaign, but it turned into a bit more of a long-form reflection about the relationship between the campaign’s approach to digital tools might mean for democracy.
A fair amount of media coverage has suggested that the major technology-driven innovations within OFA and the Democratic party this election cycle are likely to consist of refined collection and analysis of vast troves of voter data as opposed to highly visible social media tools (such as My.BarackObama.com) that made headlines in 2008.
As Daniel Kreiss & Phil Howard elaborated a few years ago, database centralisation and integration became core strategic initiatives for the Democratic National Committee after the 2000 election and the Obama campaign in 2008. These efforts have been expanded in big ways during the build-up to the current campaign cycle.
According to the bulk of the (often quite breathless) reporting on the semi-secretive activities of the 2012 Obama campaign, the biggest and newest initiatives represent novel applications of the big data repositories gathered by the campaign and its allies in previous years. These include the imaginatively named “Project Narwhal” aimed at correlating diverse dimensions of citizens’ behaviour with their voting, donation, and volunteering records. There is also “Project Dreamcatcher”, an attempt to harness large-scale text analytics to facilitate micro-targeted voter outreach and engagement.
For a vivid example of what these projects mean (especially if you’re on any of the Obama campaign email lists), check out ProPublica’s recent coverage comparing the text of different versions of the same fundraising email distributed by the campaign two weeks ago (the narrative is here and the actual data and analysis are here).
(Side note: in general, Sasha Issenberg’s coverage of these and related aspects of the campaigns for Slate is great.)
As the Republicans sort out who will face Obama in November, OFA will, of course, roll-out more social media content and tools. In this regard, last week’s release of heavily hyped “The Road We’ve Traveled” on YouTube was only the beginning of the campaign’s more public-facing phase.
The polished, professional video suggests that OFA will build on all of the social media presence and experience they built during and the last cycle as well as over the intervening years of Obama’s administration.
Less visible and less certain are whether any truly new social media tools or techniques will emerge from the campaign or its allies. Here, there are two recent initiatives that I think we might be talking about more over the course of the next six months.
The first of these started late last year, when OFA experimented with a relatively unpublicised initiative called “G.O.P. Debate Watch”. Aptly characterised by Jonathan Easley in The Hill as a “drinking game style fundraiser” the idea was that donors committed to give money for every time that a Republican candidate uttered particular, politicised keywords identified ahead of time (e.g. “Obamacare” or “Socialist”).
In its attempt to combine entertainment and a little bit of humour with small-scale fundraising, G.O.P. Debate Watch fits with a number of OFA’s other techniques aimed at using digital initiatives to lower the barriers to participation and engagement. At the same time, it incorporates much more explicit game-dynamics, setting it apart from earlier efforts and exemplifying the wider trend towards commercial gamification.
The second initiative, which only recently became public knowledge, has just begun with OFA opening a Technology Field Office in San Francisco last week.
The really unusual thing about the SF office is that it appears as though the campaign will use it primarily to try to organise and harness the efforts of volunteers who possess computer programming skills. This sort of coordinated, quasi-open tool-building effort is completely unprecedented, especially within OFA, which has historically pursued a secretive and closed model of innovation and internal technology development.
If the S.F. technology field office results in even one or two moderately successful projects – I imagine there will be a variety of mobile apps, games, and related tools that it will release between now and November – it may give rise to a wave of similar semi-open innovation efforts and facilitate an even closer set of connections between Silicon Valley firms and OFA.
I believe that the applications of commercial data-mining tools and gamification techniques to political campaigns have contradictory implications for democracy.
On the one hand, big data and social games represent the latest and greatest tools available for campaigns to use to try to engage citizens and get them actively involved in elections. Given the generally inattentive and fragmented state of the American electorate, part of me therefore believes that these efforts ultimately serve a valuable civic purpose and may, over the long haul, help to create a vital and digitally-enhanced civic sphere in this country.
At the same time, it is difficult to see how the OFA initiatives I have discussed here (and others occurring elsewhere across the US political spectrum) advance equally important goals such as promoting cross-ideological dialogue, deliberative democracy, voter privacy, political accountability, or electoral transparency. (Along related lines, Dan Kreiss has blogged his thoughts about the 2012 Obama campaign and its embodiment of a certain vision of “the technological sublime.”)
All the database centralisation, data mining, and gamified platforms for citizen engagement in the world will neither make a dysfunctional democratic government any more accountable to its citizens; erase broken aspects of the electoral system; nor generate a more deeply democratic and representative networked public sphere. Indeed, these techniques have generally been used to grow the bottom line of private companies with little or no concern for whether or not any broader public goods are created or distributed. Voters, pundits, President Obama, and the members of his campaign staff would all do well to keep that in mind no matter what happens this Fall.
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