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Is Team Obama Messing with Your Mind?

Posted By on November 5, 2012

Screen shot of Dashboard, Obama's data mining ap

Screen shot of Dashboard, Obama's data mining ap

Curious how the mainstream media is willing to talk about Team Obama’s cynical use of data mining to win tomorrow’s election – in New Zealand – but not in the US. Radio New Zealand commentator Katherine Ryan interviewed US political analyst Michael Cornfield on her “Nine to Noon”  program this morning. Cornfield founded the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet at George Washington University

According to the New Zealand Listener, which also published an article this week about “quantitative behavioral targeting,” both campaigns “are reluctant to talk about the behind-the-scenes digital manoeuvring that some voters might find sinister (you think?), such as data mining, “micro targeting” and its even more precise cousin, “nano-targeting.”

Sinister? What an understatement. In her interview Ryan refers to Obama’s slick campaign strategy – of exploiting potential voters’ on-line behavior – as a “dog whistle.” For people unacquainted with the term, it’s used to describe subliminal messaging a target responds to unknowingly – much as a dogs respond to high pitched whistles undetectable by the human ear.

Here’s a rather frightening excerpt from the Listener article, which makes the point that Obama’s technical outreach is “light years” ahead of Romney’s:


Everything about how campaigns at a presidential level are getting out the vote has changed,” says Michael Cornfield, an expert on politics and the internet at George Washington University. Every time someone uses social media, they leave a digital trace, and all those traces are being collected and cross-checked against voter files. States keep rolls of who is registered and who shows up to vote, and some also include party affiliation, giving campaigns an extra piece of vital information. The scope for picking up information from these digital traces is huge. About 60% of American adults use social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, according to a survey by the Pew Research Centre’s Internet & American Life Project. It also found that two-thirds of these users – or four out of every 10 American adults – have used social media for civic or political activities.

“All this demographic and behavioural information – the websites you’ve been to, the pages you’ve liked – is now fodder for the campaigns as they attempt to get out the vote. That’s a big change,” Cornfield says. For example, a mother in Wisconsin who orders eco-friendly nappies and drives a Toyota Prius might see a banner ad featuring Michelle Obama, and a Latina student in Nevada who visits TMZ, the celebrity gossip site, might see an ad in Spanish. The Obama campaign might not even bother with a middle-aged man in Virginia who has a gas-guzzling SUV and gets his news from Fox, the conservative channel. Tailored messaging does not end with the computer screen. It is all linked so volunteers who head out with clipboards know who lives in a house before they knock on the door and they are told what points to emphasise to appeal to that particular voter.

To hear the Katherine Ryan interview go to and click on “The digital strategies used by the US presidential campaigns.” The easiest way to hear the interview is to download the MP3 file.


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