Tracking How Politicians Target Us
If companies use finely tuned analytics to serve us ads and send us targeted messages it’s no surprise that politicians do so too. But what exactly those messages are, and how they differ by demographic and region, is something ProPublica wants to figure out.
In March, ProPublica created the Message Machine to track Obama campaign emails. Now they’ve expanded its scope to track all politicians and relaunched it.
Voters have little way of knowing how much a campaign knows about them, how the messages they’re receiving differ from the messages that other voters are sent, or what these differences might reveal about a campaign’s priorities.
Sasha Issenberg, a journalist who has done extensive reporting on campaigns’ new uses of data and analytics, said the Obama campaign is leading the way. It takes a rigorous approach to testing the effectiveness of different messages, tracking results based not only on the message content but also the name given as the sender of the email, the subject line, the format, even the date and time of day the messages are sent.
FJP: Wondering about how submissions would be verified (e.g. someone manipulating the wording or message in an e-mail sent in to ProPublica) Michael sent an e-mail to Jeff Larson to find out more. Here’s the scoop:
We have a bunch of systems in place to make sure they are real campaign emails. I’ll give you a few examples: Our software automatically checks to see if the email is like any emails we’ve ever seen from each campaign, and if it is wildly different we ignore it. This is similar to how traditional spam detection works. We also have an industry standard spam detector in place to filter out straight spam. We also have a bunch of monitoring checks in place, and if we see a fake/imposter email sneak through we can quickly delete it from our database.
Jeff also explained why the project is important overall:
It’s not widely covered, but political campaigns are using very sophisticated “big data” techniques to optimize their message and influence voters. I hope this project helps uncover how this part of political campaigning works. Campaigns are putting a lot of resources into micro-targeting, we thought it was worth watching how it works and how it’s being put into action. Learning exactly what the campaigns are saying to whom, may reveal inconsistencies in their messages or other surprising trends.
Image: Screenshot of the Message Machine e-mail.
Bonus: Read up a bit more on targeting here and here.