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Yes They Can: What Voters Have Lost and Campaigns Have Gained From 2008 to 2012

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, March 13 2012

The Short-Form Birth Certificate Obama 2012 Coffee Mug (from his Facebook Timeline)

Here are my slides and a "pencast" mashup of the audio and my real-time hand-written notes on the panel I did Sunday March 11 at SXSW along with Teddy Goff, Obama 2012 digital director; Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina; Claudia Milne, the online's North American editor; and Michael Scherer of Time magazine, who was our moderator.

Our topic was "Election 2012: Campaigns, Coverage & the Internet," but Tufekci and I both tried hard to shift the conversation away from easy patter about the presidential campaigns are making smart use of social media, and onto the harder question of who is actually being empowered by all the new and more sophisticated uses of technology that we're seeing (or that are still hidden from us) in campaign 2012.

I had three points I wanted to get across. First, too much of the mainstream political media coverage of tech's role in the campaign falls for the digital candy: the fact that Romney has a Spotify playlist, that his wife Ann as a Pinterest, that Obama has an Instagram account, or that they're both using Square to process mobile donations--these stories are great marketing opportunities for all these companies and platforms, but they are mostly a distraction.

Second, compared to 2004 or 2008, in 2012 the relative balance of power between campaigns and voters--in terms of how they use interactive communications technologies to influence the course of the election, has subtly but substantially shifted back toward the campaigns. I illustrated this point by showing the audience how in 2008, (MyBO), the campaign's innovative social networking platform, gave supporters the ability not just to create local events and fundraise, but to also form groups, affiliate with friends and even blog. Those features have all been quietly deprecated by the Obama campaign (despite Chris Hughes' promise back in the heady days right after the November election that "The online tools in My.BarackObama will live on"), and while Goff says they're coming back when the campaign rolls out its redesigned version of MyBO, we're already more than halfway through the election and those features had enabled Obama supporters to do a lot of self-organizing back in 2007-08.

Third, both the Obama and Romney campaigns are deeply and quietly invested in plugging into their supporters' social networks, a process I called "Facebookization." Unlike four years ago, when we saw a flowering of user-generated Facebook groups (led by the "Million Strong for Obama"), here the game is all about the campaigns' ability to access their supporters' social graph, mine them for insights and then presumably make sophisticated and targeted use of word-of-mouth networks. In other words, it's not about broadly segmented advertising, which has gone on for decades (you subscribe to Guns and Ammo Magazine, we'll send you a pro-guns mailer). It's about figuring out which of your friends can most effectively convince you to vote for the candidate, or what kinds of signals and messages may be the most effective triggers for your support.

Thus both the Obama and Romney campaigns try very hard to get people to sign up on their websites using Facebook, which automatically enrolls them in the campaign's Facebook apps. This connection is far stronger than a mere "like." As you'll find if you dig deep into your Facebook privacy settings, both the Obama and Romney apps can not only access your basic info, including name, picture, gender, birthday, religious and political views, they can also post status messages, notes, photos and videos on your behalf and access your data when you're not using the app. Facebook used to prevent third-party apps from keeping any of that data, but that rule has been dropped. I think of this whole process--of tapping a supporter's social graph and then analyzing the larger data ecosystem that results to aid the campaign's messaging, fundraising and organizing efforts--as Facebookization, and to be clear, it includes more than just the Facebook data, it includes all the data exhaust that people share about themselves that the campaigns are trying to vacuum up. This isn't something ordinary people can do--unless you know not only how to code apps but also how to spots patterns in the resulting data.

Zeynep Tufekci agreed, noting that "campaigns have discovered that data mining can help them get people to do what they want," pointing to a recent New York Times Magazine story about Target subtly shifting its marketing messages when it discovers that a potential customer is probably pregnant and interested in (or vulnerable to) ads for different products. She decried the "black box" of campaign secrecy around these practices, but then made a larger point, drawing on her study of the Arab Spring uprisings. New technologies, she said, tend to be adopted first by outsiders who use them to disrupt the status quo, but with time power learns to master these new tools.

As you'll hear if you listen to the discussion, Teddy Goff strongly disagreed with this analysis. He argues that in today's environment, the user "has an incredible amount of power to do us harm or do us right," and thus campaigns have to focus on being "real, authentic, local and personal." He also accused me of being too focused on the changes in MyBO and argued that "There's a gigantic difference that has occurred between 2008 and now: we don't have a need to build a social network and we are not." He cited the Obama campaign's efforts on Tumblr, where they have worked hard to show that they get whimsical Tumblr culture, and pointed out that the best response that they've gotten on a volunteer ask was on Tumblr because "people see that we get it."

Goff insisted that Obama supporters were more empowered, not less, in 2012, and said that the President personally "really believes in giving ordinary people a seat at the table"--citing the current fundraising effort they have underway now that will include a $3 donor among four random Obama donors who will share a meal with the President. To some laughter from the audience, he exclaimed, "Don't you guys think the Internet brings out the best in people?" The idea that it might be used to manipulate voters was apparently not thinkable to him.

I have to give Goff credit for showing up and representing the Obama campaign; it's quite smart of them to have a big presence at SXSW, given the tech-heavy scene. Unfortunately, we only had an hour, and thus didn't have enough time to discuss what might be different about how the Obama political operation might work post-election, assuming the President is re-elected. "All of us have learned some lessons from post-election 2008 and 09-10," Goff said, " and hopefully our supporters have too."

We shall see.