Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

How Obama for America Made Its Facebook Friends Into Effective Advocates

BY Nick Judd | Monday, November 19 2012

People involved in Obama for America's digital and technology operations say one of the biggest takeaways from the 2012 campaign is the success of a new kind of peer-to-peer digital persuasion tool referred to internally as "targeted sharing."

Well before the campaign reached fever pitch, OfA chief data scientist Rayid Ghani and analyst Matt Rattigan brought the technology team a prototype piece of software. The prototype used a script to check a given supporter's Facebook friends list against what the campaign knew about those friends. The campaign could use the merged data to create arbitrary scores that indicated which of a user's Facebook friends the campaign would like to present with a given piece of content. Obama for America could use it over and over again to make it more likely that people fitting certain profiles would be likely to see content targeted to them spilling into their newsfeeds, from the campaign, through their friends' Facebook posts.

By the end of 2011, the campaign had already decided what approach to existing voter turnout or new voter registration it needed in order to win each swing state. Obama for America planned digital campaigns based on what it needed to accomplish whatever the task at hand would be. For example, those above-the-fold ad buys on the front page of the the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's or Columbus Dispatch's websites to drive the early voting that the campaign believed was crucial to victory in Wisconsin and Ohio. People in techPresident headquarters in New York saw advertisements on that were most likely intended to convert viewers into donors. The prototype produced by Ghani and Rattigan would allow OfA Digital to be far more precise about what kind of content they were asking supporters to share around the web as well.

The only problem was that the prototype could not work at the necessary scale. Ghani and Rattigan's script took 45 minutes to run per person — not nearly fast enough. But anyone who opted to use Facebook single sign-on for an Obama for America web property was prompted to authorize the OfA Facebook application to connect to their account. Single sign-on users also gave OfA permission to glean all the data it needed to decide which content that user should be asked to share and guess who that user should share it with. In part because it linked the two, OfA was able to build up a user base of nearly 1 million people for its Facebook app by election day — making the potential gains for targeted sharing well worth some time and effort.

OfA developers went to work, and by midsummer the tech team had targeted sharing working in production and in real time.

By the end of the campaign, says Obama for America analytics chief Dan Wagner, the click-through rate on a targeted share was more than twice as high as the rate for a banner ad. Thanks to a convergence of three different teams — analytics, digital, and tech — the campaign had developed a tool that staff believe delivered empirically higher results for the re-elect using social media. In a campaign year full of hype and flashy social media toys, that's a big, bold claim.

Applying the same principles to get out the vote, Obama for America asked its supporters who had been signed up for the OfA Facebook application to pick potential voters from among their friends in swing states and urge them to get to the ballot box or register to vote. In the final days before the election and on election day, the application flooded its users with notifications asking them to reach out on the campaign's behalf. Officials told Time's Michael Scherer that a staggering 20 percent of people asked by their friends to register, vote or take another activity went ahead and did it. While the campaign hasn't shared how many people elected to press the case for Obama on Facebook in this way, and this is only remarkable if enough people participated to help close the distance for OfA in voter registrations and turnout where it had those goals, the success rate is high enough to raise eyebrows. Behind the Facebook application driving get out the vote was the same targeted sharing code.

Targeted sharing was for more than just Facebook, too. Tech team member Will St. Clair, who worked on the code, says that it was a piece of back-end infrastructure. The piece he worked on retrieved those voter scores and made them available to different departments — any department — so it could be used to inform a targeted email, too, for example.

It's unclear what happens next for this code or any of the other innovations built in-house for the Obama campaign. Democrats now seem to be weighing the cost of keeping some aspects of their new codebase maintained and functional against its potential utility in the election cycles to come. The software belongs to Obama for America, and could, in theory, be transferred to the Democratic National Committee, as OfA's email list was moved to Organizing for America after 2008 and made part of the DNC.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Civic Hackers Call on de Blasio to Fill Technology Vacancies

New York City technology advocates on Wednesday called on the de Blasio administration to fill vacancies in top technology policy positions, expressing some frustration at the lack of a leadership team to implement a cohesive technology strategy for the city. GO

China's Porn Purge Has Only Just Begun, And Already Sina Is Stripped of Publication License

It seems that China is taking spring cleaning pretty seriously. On April 13 they launched their most recent online purge, “Cleaning the Web 2014,” which will run until November. The goal is to rid China's Internet of pornographic text, pictures, video, and ads in order to “create a healthy cyberspace.” More than 100 websites and thousands of social media accounts have already been closed, after less than a month. Today the official Xinhua news agency reported that the authorities have stripped the Internet giant Sina (of Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging site) of its online publication license. This crackdown on porn comes on the heels of a crackdown on “rumors.” Clearly, this spring cleaning isn't about pornography, it's about censorship and control.


wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.