How Technology Is Influencing Your Vote

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Robbie’s Round-Up
Week of February 15-19, 2016

Communications technology is playing a tremendous role in the 2016 election, from debate coverage to social media to “voter surveillance” in campaigning. What voices are being amplified in this environment? And what does this mean to those who have not adopted these technologies?

Iowa Caucus & Tech: Outreach to Outcome
On February 1, the U.S. presidential primary season officially kicked off as Iowa held its (in)famous caucus. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won a close race against Sen Bernie Sanders (I-VT), receiving 23 delegates to Sanders’ 21. The winner of the caucus for the GOP was Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX), who many have said owes his strong performance to the analytical work done by his campaign. More on that later.

Election Tech
The caucus provided an opportunity for large tech companies to showcase their plans for using tech to enhance election coverage. Microsoft developed a pair of mobile apps that Democratic and Republican party officials used to report vote tallies. But Microsoft’s motives were questioned by Sanders’ Iowa coordinator, Pete D’Alessandro, who said, “You’d have to ask yourself why they’d want to give something like that away for free.” The Sanders campaign went so far as to build its own reporting system to check the results from the official app.

Not all went smoothly for Microsoft on caucus night, though. The official party webpages for the public to check the results of the Iowa caucuses became inaccessible at some points amid heavy interest. The page listing the Republican results had the most trouble, including during the 10 pm EST hour — a time when many networks projected Sen Cruz to be the winner.

Like Microsoft, Google also introduced election tech, aiming to be a go-to source for election results. On the day of the caucus, Google Search showed presidential candidates’ stances on topics like immigration, climate change, and economic policy in the form of quotes culled from news articles. Google Search would also gave users a rundown of the up-to-date delegate count for each party. The company also incorporated caucus reminders and results into its Google Now cards.

Using Social Media to Reach Voters
Google teamed up with the Fox News Channel for the final Republican debate before the Iowa Caucus, and showed real-time Google Trends data, incorporated questions from YouTube stars into the debate, and allowed campaigns to respond directly through Google Search results. As Google wrote in a blog post, “Political search interest spikes 440 percent on average during live televised debates as people turn to the web to learn more about the candidates and their platforms... By publishing long-form text, photos and videos throughout the debate, campaigns can now give extended responses, answer questions they didn’t get a chance to on stage, and rebut their opponents.”

Additionally, Google has now added a feature -- “candidate cards” -- which appear when a person looks up information about a candidate using Google Search. “Candidate cards” are small pieces of text that include tweets, quotes, videos, and more about a candidate. But candidate cards are raising questions. Because campaigns control the information on the cards, readers are getting persuasion and spin when seeking information.

Facebook, too, is establishing itself as a network for campaigns to track voters. Harry Davies and Danny Yadron wrote for The Guardian that Facebook does not let candidates track individual users, but it does allow presidential campaigns to upload their massive e-mail lists and voter files – which contain political habits, real names, home addresses and phone numbers – to the company’s advertising network. The company will then match real-life voters with their Facebook accounts, which follow individuals as they move across congressional districts and are filled with insightful data.

The use of Facebook by campaigns to track voters is notable because of Facebook’s size. It remains the most popular social media site. In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that 72% of online adults are Facebook users, amounting to 62% of all American adults. Usage continues to be especially popular among online women, 77% of whom are users. In addition, 82% of online adults ages 18 to 29 use Facebook, along with 79% of those ages 30 to 49, 64% of those ages 50 to 64 and 48% of those 65 and older. Facebook also continues to have the most engaged users of any other social media platform. 70% log on daily, including 43% who do so several times a day.
“Facebook is the easiest and most effective platform,” said Zac Moffatt, the top digital strategist for Romney’s 2012 campaign whose firm, Targeted Victory, has worked with most of the Republican presidential candidates.

The digital tools offered by Facebook and Google help some voters gain information and be reached by candidates, but this can also lead to exclusion, as those without Internet access do not receive the information and are further out of reach to candidates.

Voter Surveillance and Privacy
Ted Cruz is running arguably the most sophisticated analytics operation of any candidate. Writing for Bloomberg, Sasha Issenberg said, “Unlike most of his opponents, Cruz has put a voter-contact specialist in charge of his operation, and it shows in nearly every aspect of the campaign he has run thus far and intends to sustain through a long primary season.”

The Cruz campaign has been working with a “psychographic” analysis group called Cambridge Analytica. The organization uses powerful computers and proprietary algorithms to predict Americans' personality traits. Cambridge Analytica is connected to a British firm called SCL Group, which provides governments, political groups, and companies around the world with services ranging from military disinformation campaigns to social media branding and voter targeting.

The Associated Press reported that Cambridge Analytica is owned, at least in part, by the family of New York hedge fund manager Robert Mercer. The Mercers have provided the lion’s share of the $37 million raised by a quartet of unlimited-money super PACs supporting Cruz’s campaign this year for the GOP presidential nomination. Cruz’s presidential campaign has contracted with Cambridge Analytica to provide data services, and the company has had talks with at least one of those super PACs.

The scope of Cruz's system is formidable. Cambridge's 10 terabyte database combines government and commercial data sets such as voter rolls and lists of people who liked certain Facebook posts, along with consumer data from grocery chains and other clients that can provide a voter's preferred brand of toothpaste or whether he clips coupons. In Iowa, where identifying evangelical voters was key to Cruz's victory strategy, Cambridge's employees scoured the Internet for such useful information as church membership rolls.

Cambridge Analytics claims to operates behind firewalls to secure its data and follows all applicable U.S. laws. However, of note, Cambridge Analytics’ practices are illegal in Europe under stricter privacy laws there, according to the Associated Press.

Additionally, the Cruz campaign has a "Cruz Crew" mobile app. The app is designed to gather detailed information from its users' phones — tracking their physical movements and mining the names and contact information for friends.

Cruz Crew prompts supporters to register using their Facebook logins, giving the campaign access to personal information such as name, age range, gender, location and photograph, plus lists of friends and relatives. Those without a Facebook account must either provide an e-mail address or phone number to use the app.

By contrast, the app offered by GOP candidate Dr Ben Carson's campaign asks supporters to surrender the same information as Cruz from their Facebook accounts, but also gives an option to use it without providing any personal information. Carson's app separately asks users to let the campaign track their movements and asks them to voluntarily supply their birthdate and gender.

All of this voter data collection raises privacy concerns. Cruz has been outspoken about protecting Americans' personal information from the government, including the National Security Agency."Instead of a government that seizes your emails and your cellphones, imagine a federal government that protected the privacy rights of every American," he said when announcing his campaign.

Chris Wilson, Cruz’s director of research and analytics, dismissed any suggestion of a discrepancy between Cruz’s opposition to government bulk surveillance and his use of targeted techniques online. Wilson said, “There’s an important difference between what people share voluntarily on social media and what they have no desire to share, like their cellphone metadata.”

The chief technologist at the privacy advocacy group Center for Democracy and Technology, Joe Hall, said politicians are unlikely to strengthen privacy protections as their campaigns become more and more reliant on mining personal data to squeeze out votes. "This is a form of political-voter surveillance," Hall said. "If people understood that this amount of fine-grained, sensitive data was being used by political campaigns, they would likely feel betrayed."”

Campaign technology is headed in a disturbing direction. While certain digital tools open up information and access to voters, it can often come at a cost -- political spin, intrusive ads, and reduced privacy. As TC Scottek noted in The Verge, “Journalists are forced to recognize on a practical level that they no longer host the primary venue for discourse in democracy... Internet search results and ‘trends’ are now as integral to the presentation of debates as old-fashioned polls.”

Increasingly, we have a campaign process focused on manipulating voters, advertising on social media platforms using political spin, and harvesting mountains of voter data to fuel this process.

Whose voices are being amplified? Those who elect to share the most information about themselves, and who would be identified in his or her ability to influence others. In other words, those who value and practice privacy in regards to their digital data are given less attention in our campaign process.

And what of the people who are without these tools? While they may be able to better protect their privacy, they can also be easier to ignore by candidates. If technology can make voting and finding information pertaining to the election more accessible and more democratic, then we need to be sure that these technologies are inclusive, equitable, and serve the public interest.

We will continue to watch as tech asserts itself more prominently in the discourse surrounding the primaries in the months ahead.

For More on Privacy and Election 2016, Try These Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

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By Robbie McBeath.