This year’s presidential candidates are using data to develop increasingly sophisticated political messages targeted to individual voters. But is that a good thing for democracy? Not necessarily, says political scientist Bill Gorton.
To borrow from the old automobile advertising slogan: This is not your father’s presidential election-year campaign. New technologies have changed the way candidates identify voters and influence their opinions and behaviors.
In particular, the increased sophistication of the Internet has introduced microtargeting technology. Microtargeting involves culling publicly available data about individuals, including consumer and lifestyle behavior, and then using the data to develop political messages that are narrowly tailored to an individual voter’s particular values, beliefs and interests.
“Microtargeting is a relatively new technology that political campaigns use to target voters in individual ways,” says Bill Gorton, associate professor of political science at Alma College. “We now have all this data on voters, and campaigns have the ability to use data to identify small, narrow groups of voters, as opposed to the old days when messages were broad and communicated through traditional media. Now, more people are seeing personal advertising whenever they are online.”
Data-driven Voter Profiles
Private companies like Acxiom keep track of what consumers like on the Internet: What ads do you click on? Where do you shop? What soda do you drink? What shows do you watch? Campaigns can purchase this data and create a much narrower voter profile through data analysis, typically deciphering as many as 1,000 to 1,500 data points to predict who someone will vote for and what messages resonate.
“This has been going on now for 10 to 12 years, and it has become more sophisticated with every campaign,” says Gorton. “The more you are on the Internet, the more you are susceptible to it.”
While microtargeting can be an effective persuasive tool, it has troubling implications for the public sphere, says Gorton. His recent research has explored a simple question: Is microtargeting good or bad for democracy? He concludes it’s mostly bad, for three reasons.
“First, it channels voters into informational silos — people only coming into contact with information that reflects their personal interests,” he says. “The microtargeted political ads you see represent only your own point of view. So people are less exposed to different viewpoints and less likely to engage people with different views. As a result, it makes people more extreme and less informed.
“Second, political redlining occurs when certain groups are not contacted by political campaigns,” he says. “Campaigns may determine that you are unlikely to vote or are unlikely to affect an election outcome, so they won’t waste time advertising to you. Or, you are so likely to vote for a certain candidate, opposing campaigns will ignore you. This can lead to increased levels of disengagement and low voter turnout.
Message Scrutiny Lacking
“Third, microtargeted online advertisements can easily avoid scrutiny from the press and broader public, increasing the possibility of campaigns disseminating misleading or contradictory information,” he says. “In the old days, everybody saw the ads, and if anything was said that was inaccurate or misleading, the press would correct it. That level of scrutiny is not there with personal ads. Microtargeting incentivizes false and inflammatory information.”
Gorton argues that the health of a democracy depends on the quality of public opinion, and high quality public opinion requires a healthy public sphere.
“A well-functioning system of free expression requires at least two conditions: People should be exposed to materials they would not have chosen in advance, and most citizens should have a range of common experiences,” says Gorton. “Unfortunately, it is apparent that microtargeting undermines public deliberation and contributes to political polarization.”
Gorton has presented his research on campaign microtargeting at the Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting. Last January, he shared his views at TEDxAlmaCollege.