In the summer of 2012, a group of scholars at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania led by Joseph Turow put out a national survey on public attitudes toward targeted political advertising. The results were stark. Nearly nine in 10 Americans said they didn’t want political ads tailored to their personal interests. Eighty-five percent agreed with the statement, “If I found out that Facebook was sending me ads for political candidates based on my profile information that I had set to private, I would be angry.”
The report got healthy coverage in mainstream outlets like The New York Times and NPR’s Fresh Air, as well as industry journals like ClickZ. But it had zero impact on political advertisers. At the time, Rich Masterson, the chairman of Campaign Grid, told me, “There are many surveys that indicate Americans do not like negative campaign advertising, exercise, or health diets. The fact that Americans do not like these things does not make them bad.”
Jim Walsh and Chris Massicotte, then the CEO and COO of DSPolitical, a Democratic firm that claims to have invented the “political cookie” (an online tool for targeting individual voters), told me that digital targeting was just like direct mail. “Just like any new technology, it comes with a level of apprehension, but once people know more about what it can do, namely spare them from being flooded with useless political ads that they would prefer not to see, more people will accept it.” (Walsh recently resigned from DSPolitical amid allegations of sexual misconduct.)
After Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, voter targeting and other uses of Big Data in campaigns was all the rage. The following spring, at a conference titled Data-Crunched Democracy that Turow organized with Daniel Kreiss of the University of North Carolina, I listened as Ethan Roeder, the head of data analytics for Obama 2012, railed against critics. “Politicians exist to manipulate you,” he said, “and that is not going to change, regardless of how information is used.” He continued: “OK, maybe we have a new form of manipulation, we have micro-manipulation, but what are the real concerns? What is the real problem that we see with the way information is being used? Because if it’s manipulation, that ship has long since sailed.” To Roeder, the bottom line was clear: “Campaigns do not care about privacy. All campaigns care about is winning.”
A few of us at the conference, led by the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, argued that because individual voter data was being weaponized with behavioral-science insights in ways that could be finely tuned and also deployed outside of public view, the potential now existed to engineer the public toward outcomes that wealthy interests would pay dearly to control. No one listened. Until last year, you could not get a major US foundation to put a penny behind efforts to monitor and unmask these new forms of hidden persuasion.