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Big Data and elections: The candidates know you – better than you know them

Taylor Armerding | July 15, 2016
Most political campaigns emphasize providing information – carefully controlled information – about a candidate to voters. But in the era of Big Data, they are also collecting information about voters – with little or no control, consent or security

With the presidential nominating conventions looming, the candidates are getting ready to add to the hundreds of millions they’ve already spent to tell you about themselves – but only what they want you to know about themselves.

Meanwhile, they have also been spending millions of dollars collecting information about you – and you have no say in what is collected.

Which means that, in the era of Big Data, if you’re a potential voter, they know a lot more about you than you know about them.

The desire to know what will turn a voter to, or from, a candidate is not new, of course. Campaigns have been chopping up voters into interest groups for decades – minorities, gays, blue-collar workers, soccer moms, the religious right, progressives, boomers, NASCAR dads, union members, retirees, the rich, plus a host of occupational groups ranging from health care to law to the food and beverage industry.

They have been tracking voting history, political contributions and volunteer history as well.

But the information being collected now is much more, as they say, “granular.” It includes social media – everything from “friends” and “likes” on Facebook to YouTube views, LinkedIn profiles, activity on Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and Reddit to who a person follows on Twitter, or who they retweet.

It includes magazine subscriptions, the types of cars or boats they own, where they shop, charitable contribution history, memberships, where they live, whether they rent or own a dwelling, whether they have a vacation home, permits and licenses, own a gun, and more.

All of which is designed to help candidates “micro-target” their message to groups of voters. They call it better communication, although it has an obvious element of manipulation to it.

If you donate to a campaign, one of the first things you see – and will see periodically after that – is a ‘We'd like to get to know you better!’ survey.

joseph lorenzo hall
Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist, the Center for Democracy & Technology

“It can be as simple as swapping out a phrase that might have been found to be more appealing to one kind of voter, via focus groups, etc., or more complicated things like changing the visual demographics or traits of people appearing in ads,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Josef (Joey) Ansorge, New York attorney and author of “Identify & Sort,” which includes a focus on the political implications of Big Data, said the ZIP code is among the most important pieces of information collected because, “where they live, where they work and where they went to school tell us a lot about individuals.”


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