Analysis. Data and propaganda is dangerous combo. The ongoing US election campaign sets new standards for voter manipulation. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican, has harvested millions of Facebook data to analyze and influence the choices of voters. Not with facts, but propaganda. How will democracy work in the world of data?
Ted Cruz is a dangerous man. Not only because of his political views, but because of data. Everyone talks about Trump, but the senator from Texas is the pundits’ favorite to win the right wing of the Republican Party in the race for The White House.
Politically, there is not much difference between the two. Cruz is appealing to the same voters, but applies a different set of tools. Trump is very adept at traditional propaganda, based on the person’s ability to opportunistically take advantage of public sentiments, preferably the negative ones.
Harvesting Facebook data via Amazon
Cruz is also populist, but much more strategic in his approach. According to the The Guardian, Cruz’ campaign has hired researchers from Cambridge University to conduct “psychographic profiles” based on a double-digit million number of Facebook data.
The methods for the collection are dubious. For example, the researchers enlisted users via Amazon’s crowdsourcing tool, Mechanical Turk. Participants received one dollar for filling out a questionnaire, but the purpose was rather to gain access to the data pertaining to themselves and their friends.
The scientists have been paid $ 2.5 million over the last two years working on American voter data. This year alone, Cruz’ campaign received data and analyses for $ 750,000.
More weapons to the anxious votes
The money was spent linking vast amounts of Facebook data with advanced sets of voter profiles. The scientists hired by the Cruz campaign apply the psychological tool FFM (Five Factor Model), which identifies the five most important factors of personality and psyche. Thus, it is possible to target political messages extremely accurate.
Cruz is particularly interested in swing voters in the Republican electorate. People who are still undecided and can be won over to the other side with the right arguments. That is the whole point of the exercise, to find the right arguments at the right time for the right person.
If a voter, for example, scores high on “neuroticism,” uncertainty and anxiety, the Cruz campaign will then argue for easier access to weapons. Cruz campaigners can retrieve profiles on each individual before they knock on their door to persuade them. It is all on the staff’s smartphones, according to the Washington Post.
There is a wide range of worrying parts in this story, here are the main bits.
Political opportunism of the worst kind
The only time Ted Cruz wants any kind of association with Barack Obama, is when he talks about data collection. His campaign is doing the same as Obama in 2012, says Cruz. He is wrong. This is a whole new level of profiling and de facto surveillance. Orchestrated by a right-wing politician who routinely argues and votes against the government’s use of data law enforcement purposes.
We know far too little
The Cruz campaign’s extensive use of Facebook data has been covered in various media outlets, but the facts are scarce. No one will talk, nobody feels responsible. Facebook has reacted with a short, worried, but vague statement.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, there are no real rules in this area and the entity responsible for oversight, FEC, is overburdened. Political campaigns can do as they please. But to be from criticism or prosecution, Ted Cruz has set up alle the data operations in a separate legal entity, funded by one of the senator’s private benefactors.
From marketing to politics
The most dangerous aspect of all, however, is the inherent power in data, a power that is now utilized to influence an election in the world’s most prominent democracy, the United States.
“It’s one thing to try to predict preference for Coke or Pepsi. It is quite another to predict things that are very important for our identity, core personal social and cultural conditions.” That is the assessment of Michael Zimmer, University of Wisconsin, specializing in privacy and data ethics.
All pundits agree that the current election climate in the United States is the most emotional and negative in living memory. Despite the fact the United States is actually doing well, with an improved economy and no existential threats to national security.
Ted Cruz nourishes and exploits the fear with bombastic statements and threats. “I would carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion. I do not know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’ll find out. ”
Not because he necessarily believes in the statement. But because he knows it manipulates the best. Thanks to data.