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Political Data Mining

With Wade Goodwyn in for Tom Ashbrook.

The campaigns and ‘dark money’ groups are spending a whole lot of money to target each of us on our computers. Different voter, different message. Is this a good thing?

Photo illustration. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Photo illustration. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)


You know how when you go online to shop for something, say a new baby stroller, then suddenly every website you go to advertises new baby strollers? Now political advertisers are marketing their political messages just for you.

But how do they know who you want to vote for and how to push your particular political buttons? And just who are these advertisers who know so much about us yet we know nothing of them?

This hour, On Point: political advertising’s new frontier.

-Wade Goodwyn



Lois Beckett, a repoter from Propublica.

Scott Goodstein, founder and CEO of Revolution Messaging.

Daniel Kreiss, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

From The Reading List

Propublica “Lauren Berns was browsing Talking Points Memo when he saw an ad with President Obama’s face. “Stop the Reckless Spending,” the ad read, and in smaller print, Paid for by Crossroads GPS.  Berns was surprised. Why was Crossroads GPS, a group that powerful Republican strategist Karl Rove helped found,advertising on a liberal-leaning political website?”

Propublica “Campaigns are increasingly tailoring their messages — and their funding requests — using massive databases of personal information about potential voters. Here are six variations of a Thursday night message from the Obama campaign, based on emails submitted by 190 recipients across the country. Click a tab to select an email. Then hover over the other tabs to compare your selection to the others.”

Annenberg School For Communications “The 2012 election marks a watershed moment for online advertising. In unprecedented ways,and to an unprecedented extent, campaign organizations across the American political spectrum are using hundreds of pieces of information about individuals’ online and offline lives to ensure the “right” people are being targeted with the “right” advertising.”

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  • Wm. James from Missouri

    Oh great ! From a handful of lies to hundreds of millions of lies ! How will they keep them straight ? On the other hand if they have such a technique, I sure hope they make it public. I just might get back into the dating scene J

  • kalpana ganesan

    Informatics Outsourcing is an Offshore Data Management service company. Data Management Service includes all types of Data Conversion, File Conversion, XML Conversion, HTML Conversion,SGML Conversion, Document Conversion,Data Entry, Data Extraction and Validation,OCR and ICR Services with affordable price. Our team to give the solution quickly and given requirements.

  • AC

    if the message is endorsed by the candidate, does this matter?
    Presumably they will each be monitoring all these ads for inconsistencies/contradictions by the ‘esteemed opponents’ & could make a case from that…
    i imagine it would be long (and boring) if there was only a single ad that tried to please ALL the people ALL the time…..i heard somewhere that can’t be done…..

  • Che’ Riviera

    I guess it is easier and more efficient than running a good candidate with a clear and honest message.

  • Yar

    When my eldest was in high school, she filled out a card for the local Republican party with the name Marilyn Manson and our home address.  For years we got political mail addressed to Marilyn Manson.  I hope data collection is more refined now.  I get mad when data miners ask stupid questions.  For example, I was in K-Mart this weekend buying canning jar lids, as I swiped my debt card, the question popped up asking if I want to share my email address, when I said no the system reset which required me to re-swipe my card and input my pin again.  Any programmer worth his salt should know a person buying jar lids is not worth mining.

    • J__o__h__n

      My mother, Jean, must have had a data entry error once and then the list was sold several times.  I always include the typo “4ean” when addressing her birthday and mother’s day cards. 

  • Yar

    This happens in my Google’s news feed as well.  Category creep is what I call it.  I listed some personalized news feeds for topics of interest.  I find it fascinating when obscure articles from my preferred feeds show up in other categories or as top NEWS stories. Google thinks it is presenting me a News I want to read.  This is my definition of living in a bubble.  Pretty creepy!

  • Ellen Dibble

    Data mining — questions often force you to warp what you mean.  No, you have to answer yes or no.  No, the 1 to 10 scale rates a definition of blue/green, not yellow/orange.  Forget that.  Such phone calls or mail-in questionnaires are “opportunities” for votes of my cohort to be bought and sold via campaign “messaging.”

        Also — also — I have gone to school on the value of giving, say, $25 on the grounds that this will show to the rich people that the little people are on board.  What is wrong with that?  It is another way of herding the little people.  I think it tends to warp the message in its own way.  Right now, I’m thinking there are institutions I’d support, at least over the competition, but supporting them, and therefore attracting more Big Money to follow, presumably, the votes of the likes of me, will inevitably sway whatever I’ve put my $25 toward in the direction of Big Money.  Where corporations have poured forth their largesse, the interests of the likes of me will get lost, has gotten lost.  Forget it, if you’re buying the Congress, do it without my $25 encouragement; I don’t want to be part of that racket.  Our representatives should Earn the honor, not be bid upon.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Both parties seem to think the goal is to wring as much money and influence into the hands of the elites, whether in government or sort of above it, and obviously this can enable the channeling of dollars to retirees, voting retirees, who look to investments for income, and channeling of dollars to exploits such as bridges to Singapore and Bahrain (figuratively speaking), supporting international collaboration (globalism, surely the 21st Century Friendship Ship par excellence), and enterprise at home. Isn’t this obviously a good thing?  Providence smiles on these, and they smile upon us?  Or is the idea basically to favor the funneling of resources to an already empowered class?  Aren’t you in favor of wealth and success?  But people are starting out nowadays not just with nothing, having to borrow from the rich (i.e., make the rich richer in the process) in order to launch themselves; they start say $60,000 in debt for daring to get a college education.
         Both parties seem to be part of this American Dream, certain people preying on certain other people, the best they can finagle it.  Yes, I did read Karl Marx in college, and it was in religion courses; it is pure Utopia.  The idea of cooperation and joint enterprise by all the citizens together; that which Marx pointed to is quite the opposite of dictatorship, whether dictated by a puppet of some WMD global power or a firebrand speaker who can suck up all the anxieties of his or her people, and I don’t think I need to start that list.  

    • Che’ Riviera

      Oops!  I’m sorry Ellen, you said “Marx”…  I’m afraid this will disqualify your comment for AT LEAST 50% of all Americans.  It isn’t as bad as saying “Socialism”, but it is in the same neighborhood.

      • Ellen Dibble

        Marx was right on target about capitalism, Das Kapital, and the way it disenfranchised many, many people.  As they say, McCarthy and McCarthyism ultimately won out; we won’t even look at the vision behind that tome.  When Americans think of communism, we think of dictatorship, total excision of the people from the ownership where it matters.  Nope, it was the dictator, not even a fairly elected government, that owned what it chose.  Fairly elected.  You could vote, but everyone was of the same party.  Remind you of anything?  Isn’t our current complaint that Big Money is doing everything it can to basically buy both Republican and Democrat candidates?  Corporate America does not want to find that it doesn’t have the loudest voice in terms of influence and connections, no matter who wins.
        You could say that the elites own the means of production, the top 1% owning most of what matters, proportion-wise, by whatever means necessary. And the top 1% owns the government. Ergo the means of production are in the hands of the government/power-brokers. Same difference.
        The object of democracy is to make sure the people have a voice (a) and a choice (b). Communism is basically democracy in that respect; it isn’t going to favor those who own the means of production. You know what? I’ve gone in a circle; and this is a vicious circle, and I’ll let you tease out the truth in it.

        • Che’ Riviera

          I think Marx was right on substance, but wrong on timeline.

        • Tina

          Ellen!  This piece of yours is Brilliant!  I especially like the part where you compare what is basically the Fascistic part of Communism, including its One Party system, (because THAT Fascistic part is the bad part!) with the fact that corporate America is turning our two major parties into “the same difference”, i.e., One Party!!!  That idea MUST get spread around, because it is one of the essential aspects of our current political situation!  But, yes, all of Marxism itself is NOT what is to be dreaded:  it is other “attachments” to it, like the Fascism, that need to be parsed out and understood as the aspects to be dreaded.  

          I’ve said this since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, but no one would listen to me.  Now, there are scholars out there speaking far, far, far more knowledgeably than I ever could about the historic specifics and implications of all this.  There was a man interviewed the other night on some TV show, and he was talking about a model economic/social community in Spain, started way back in 1956 by a priest who wanted to help the people help themselves, so he set up an entire economy, established as an alternative to our understanding of Capitalism.  One of the aspects of this region, that would probably otherwise be blighted economically, is that the people vote as to what Differential they want between the wealthiest people and the poorest people (the People determine the level of income inequity, admitting that some is probably inevitable or to be desired!!)!!!  The region is still doing very well these many decades later compared to the economies of the world’s nations, with a good reading on what would be called the GNP, if the region were a nation.  The area is called Mondragon.  I haven’t finished reading about it on Wikipedia yet; but the man who praises it, perhaps in his own recent book, is named Richard D. Wolff.  I think he is an economics professor at one of the UMass universities.  

          And, of course — broken-record me! — the Scandinavian countries have figured out how to combine Socialism with Capitalism within a Democracy and have very successful economies and happy citizens!

          It is intellectually pathetic that Americans have been so propagandized that so many cannot even entertain a discussion about the very aspects of Capitalism that are now reeking havoc on their own lives!!!  Many people are waking up, but, I fear, thanks to Faux News, that we are still in the minority.   

  • Troll Doll

    Data Protection. Everyone else has it why can we?

  • Kelley_perry

    Kripes, when is Tom coming back? Wade’s voice is irritating and speaks too slow!! Sorry about the rant. I really don’t have a comment about this issue.

    • Jfshaughnessy

      I know, I can’t believe it’s still wade.  Can’t we get someone else?  He’s not a great host for this show, we need Tom!

      • Brian

        Wade’s doing fine.  I hope Tom is just vacationing and not out for an emergency leave.

    • Tina

      I agree with Isaac and think Wade’s doing a great job.  I’m hoping Tom’s having a well-deserved vacation!   

    • Mike Card

      I’m not sure which voice is more irritating:  Wade’s or that woman’s.  Wade needs a long drink of whatever energy drink she’s been guzzling.

    • TIredOfWhiners

      Kripes, when are people like Kelley_perry going to stop whining? Kelley’s post is irritating and grammatically challenged. Not sorry about calling people out for churlish whining. We’re probably glad you don’t have a comment about this issue.

  • IsaacWalton

    Wade you’re doing a GREAT job! 

  • Sequoia M.

    Lois: please mention Ghostery! 
    http://www.ghostery.com/ It is a browser extension that blocks trackers.  See a screenshot below: on this site I’m blocking all trackers except Disqus (because it provides some utility to me, whereas the others don’t)


    Ghostery is a set-it-and-forget-it way to block trackers across the ‘net; I recommend it to everyone.

    • Scott B, Jamestowny NY

       Ya’ beat me to it! I was just about to post about Ghostery.

       It’s easier to find Ghostery if people go to their browsers’ add-ons page, usually through their “tool” menu.  Some sites don’t work without you granting access to their tracker on their site (like Google won’t work without Google’s tacker being allowed), but it woll shut of the tracker for other sites.  If they use multiple browsers they need to install Ghostery for each browser.

        Most people would be amazed at how many different tracking cookies, etc., there are out there. One site I visited had 17 different trackers that Ghostery was negating. 

    • http://twitter.com/loisbeckett Lois Beckett

      Sequoia & Scott–Great point. Should have mentioned Ghostery–it’s a really useful tool. And interesting to use on campaign sites. 

  • Yar

    With digital cable TV, it is just a matter of time until ads are targeted by the individual set.

  • Tina

    Can Lois Beckett please speak more slowly?  She has excellent information to provide for us, but it is NEW information:  we need time to hear it, and her rapid speech pattern makes that difficult, at least for me.  I know it is a new pattern that is  prevalent among the young, but this show has a wide audience.  Thank you very much.  

    • Diane

      You said that so nicely, Tina. I just about turned the program off because her voice was so annoying. It was way too fast, the emphasis came at odd, distracting times, and she has that gravely, croaking tone that makes me want to scream. It may be a new pattern, but I think she needs elocution lessons.

  • Cathy G

    We live in a town with fewer than 600 people.  We are amused to see how many ads are tailored for us but seem ridiculous.  For instance, Radcliffe housewife earns $5,000 a month addressing envelopes.  If anyone in our town was making that much money, everyone in town would have heard of it.  It’s no surprise to me that I see ads for one party more often than the other. 

  • Ellen Dibble

    How many states are like mine, where you can vote and change your party affiliation back to independent right after the primary.  You can basically vote in the primary of your choice.  I’d think that tracing independent voters online would get scrambled by that.

    • J__o__h__n

      They could track it over several elections. If you switch back and forth that would be as determinative as being listed as an independent/unenrolled. 

  • AC

    it sounds like the danger ends up being ‘preaching’ to the choir – you’re only ever given what you already gravitate too

    otherwise, i guess i don’t care if they click on every article i’ve read to read it for themselves

    i’m agreeing with this caller, or I guess his name was Scott

    • guest

      We have no idea who “this caller” is.

      • AC

        i thought he was a caller, he wasn’t listed as a guest, but they just repeated his name ‘Scott’

  • Wm. James from Missouri

    First question :

    _What gives Google the right to limit my access to information on candidates. Your guest has said nothing about advertising for 3rd or 4th party candidates.

    _Second comment:

    Let’s turn the tables on these bums. Why do use the internet to allow voters to vote DIRECTLY on the budget and bills that are presented to congress, via the internet. In fact, it is not necessary to limit our seat of Government to the city of Washington , DC. Some time ago, on a different show a caller suggested that cities bid for the rights to host our representatives and agencies, much like they do for the Olympics. This would end the “ Good ole boys club”.

    • Wm. James from Missouri

      Why not use the internet to allow voters to vote DIRECTLY …

  • DMM

    Judging by the ads I see, these tools completely fail to identify my political point of view.  

    • Mike Card

      Shhh!  Let ‘em think it’s working!!

  • Ellen Dibble

    Wade speaks of “the public arena,” and I’m thinking that the Occupy Wall Street movement brought to light the fact we don’t really have a nondigital public arena.  We have the right to congregate, thanks to the bill of rights, but no place to do that congregating in a meaningful way.
        So, we have the digital space.  Thanks to those trying to understand how that’s happening.

  • Robert

     Daniel Kreiss is a total tool!

  • Ellen Dibble

    I read that something like $3,000 is being spent per voter to sway their votes, and the newspaper I was reading speculated that those voters would prefer to have that money in hand for themselves.  Perhaps that $3,000 means Ohio and Florida independents.  But it does seem that a lot of ad men and ad women and a lot of media outlets are getting rich, without exactly boosting the employment rate.

    • Mike Card

      I think I read the same thing, but it meant $3000 per swing voter in swing states–aren’t there something like eight or nine “swing” states this year?  The calculation was that there are only 4 or 5 million available votes–undecided in those states–so ALL the campaign money is being spent to grab enough of those votes.

      • Ellen Dibble

        Yes, that’s what I read.  I suppose that’s just (“just”) for the presidential candidate.  Where I live, there are mostly ads for the senate race.  Are they useful and informative?  Or are they a waste of my time (and IMHO a waste of money).   It is an appalling idea to me that someone would vote for ANY candidate based on the assumptions that seem to underlie certain (most) advertisements.

  • Tina

    Isn’t it true, like Wade said, that if you block your Cookies that websites you WANT to use don’t work as well.  If so, why did the guest suggest that people erase (whatever the term is!) the cookies?  

    • Ellen Dibble

      I’d like to know more too.  I often go to wrench ikon, tools, erase cookies, and if I don’t re-enable them, I can’t go to Facebook.  At present, I think the cookies are immediately allowed back in after I delete them, and I think that my virus protection is adjusting its method of handling that — from VERY slow, to pretty speedy.

      • Scott B, Jamestown NY

         On most browsers you can set it so that cookies are erased when you leave the site or shut down the browser (different browsers have different options), so the site your on doesn’t stop or slow when you’re there. However, the site’s cookies and 3rd party trackers (or any other sites’) can look at where you are and where you’re been in the cookies haven’t been erased. 

        Most people are better off just setting their browser to erase cookies automatically, or getting something like Ghostery, and allowing some sites to always allow cookies, than trying to remember to always going into “tools” and hunting around for the “erase cookies” button.

  • Omaha

    There is also no way for political parties to know if we view sites just to waste the money being spent on ads.  If I were a Demo then why not view Repub sites to be targeted and waste Repub money or vice versa.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HUHWX4TIAZRFNFYCWUE43OZDUQ 7LeagueBoots

    I really dislike targeted advertising in any format, political or otherwise.  I’d rather have a random exposure, so that i see things I like and do not like both.  Targeted ads miss the point, often they are advertising something you already have or are doing and it’s a waste of time and money.

    I’d love to see a complete ban on data-mining, but that will never happen.

  • AC

    ok, now this texting false info does worry me!!

  • Hidan

    I recommend using No-script,CC-scanner and Advance System care.

    No-script blocks most of the additional/hidden websites(kind of ignoring at first but you can create a white list) and for cookies use CC and ASC will clean up hidden cookies.

    If people aren’t aware of this facebook is a main source for data mining and those “free” Apps when accepted allows them to mine your data.

    • Hidan

      kind of “annoying”at first but you can create a white list because it blocks the sites

      • Ellen Dibble

        I had heard that, never to allow an App, but what is a white list?

        • TFRX

          It’s the exact opposite of a blacklist: Senders (for email) or sites which you’ve given direct approval for your computer to do stuff with (run scripts, accept cookies, etc).

    • Ayn Marx 666

      There’s also the TrackMeNot extension for Firefox (rule 0: stay away from IE), which attempts to confuse matters by throwing out tonnes of hits to sites all over the place, trying to hide your patterns in the noise—think of the old trick of throwing down tinsel to try to confuse anti-aircraft radars….

    • Mike Card

      I’ve been using Ghostery, which lists all the tracking cookies that web site drop into my browser.  DISQUS really hates it, and blocks me from posting after I’ve downloaded updates from Ghostery.  (I think the DISQUS behavorial model is the jilted 14-year old.)

  • Ellen Dibble

    Never underestimate the influence of certain Sages, community by community.  People do learn to totally ignore online spots and TV ads.  But if so-and-so in town who always seems to know what’s right, if that person comes out for this or that, then a voter feels confident about how to vote.  How to identify those Sages?  And how to, hopefully, influence their opinion and choices?  Inquiring citizens want to know.

  • Mike Tyrion

    Saying “It’s just the Internet,” misses the point:  just like the Market, religion, and government, the Internet is a form of social technology that human beings invented and so can set the rules therefor.

    For example, I have read that some advertising and marketing techniques that are commonplace here are in fact illegal in the E.U.—they’ve made different rules.

    Finally, I would say that only hearing about things in which you know you’re interested, and even more so only hearing opinions in sympathy with your own, is a recipe for a blinkered and ignorant populace…the fact that someone _could_ look at divergent views is irrelevant to the apparent fact that for the most part people do not.

  • AC

    what sorts of ads was James Holmes targeted with?  again, why don’t they use these ‘algorithms’ to weed out strange behaviors?
    i think this is much ado about nothing…

  • Ellen Dibble

    I keep being offered to bid for the “opportunity” to have lunch with Michelle or Barack Obama.  Little do they know I don’t have that kind of time (or money).  However, in the name of open democracy, I wait for the same “opportunity” to dine with Romney.  I’d like to spend some time thinking of what to say.

  • Ayn Marx 666

    I don’t care whether it’s a government, a union, a private company, or a sewing circle:  if it’s a lot bigger and more powerful than I, I don’t want it to have access to much information about me.

    I remember during the dust-up over the Clintons’ proposed health plan:  opponents on one television  show fixated on the  plan that there be a national health i.d. card with the bearer’s picture, decrying this as horrible…they were followed by an ad touting a new credit card which would bear your picture.  Now a private company does not ahve access to the physical force that government can bring to bear, but it certainly has access to other forms of pressure.  Lenin supposedly claimed that ‘…the capitalists will sell us the rope we will use to hang them,’; this looks relatively intelligent compared to queuing up to buy the rope from someone and then handing it over to them.

  • Bill Colvard

    I visit a lot of liberal political blogs and therefore get Obama ads constantly. But I am going to vote for the President no matter what. My vote is not up for grabs. So why waste money on targeting me and the likes of me?

    On the other hand, I have donated online to Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts even tho I live in North Carolina. Shouldn’t other liberal candidates outside my home state and congressional district be hitting me up for money? It seems if this technology were that good, they would be.

  • Lollipop

    Anyone can keep slightly anonymous online by setting their web browser to “allow cookies but delete all when browser closes”.
    Also, by telling their internet provider that they want a “dynamic ip” rather than a “static ip” will keep their internet return address known to only their provider: the address will change each time they turn their modem off and on again.

  • Nancybishop1335

    The European Union has a new (2011) policy requiring all websites to tell visitors that cookies will be dropped under certain circumstances. Visitors have to opt-in for cookies to have the full site functionality. Any company that operates in Europe will have to abide by this rule, so it would seem that eventually we’ll live in an “opt-in for cookies” world.

  • Hell’s Kitchen

    No one has told Tom or Wade (or Lois) about AdBlock? Really?

  • Greenlibertarian

    Why in the world would ANYONE put up with all the ads when it’s simple and free to avoid them?

    Use Adblock plus.
    Use Privoxy

    Stop wasting bandwidth downloading all those ads!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JXLJ2FCD6CJF7XKJZPM4XUHNK4 xavier

    Totally disingenuous guests — thumbs down.



  • Todayxmas

    My biggest beef with all these groups that contact me and use my information is that there is no way for me to reply to them and for me to market back to them.  If they have legal means to contact and market to me I think it is only fair that I have equal access to their information and an ability to respond in kind.  Their is nothing that makes me so disinclined to participate or buy a product than to receive a solicitation or advertisement at my personal email or on facebook with a statement that I cannot reply to the “communication”. 
    If political parties and corporations have freedom of speech on this scale where then are my individual rights?

  • Peter

    Sam (caller at 32:40) lamented that we have a republic and not a democracy. He seemed not to know that Article 4 section of the constitution guarantees that…
    The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, 

    • Jake from Cleveland

      Just because it is in the “sacred” Constiution doesn’t mean that it is not lamentable.  There were plenty of lamentable things in the original document. 

      The “founders” did not want a democracy because they held the poor and lower classes in contempt.  There was plenty of internal sociopolitical upheaval during the Revolutionary Period.  The more radical and progressive lower classes wanted a purer form of democracy with greater input. 

      As could have been predicted, they got a “republic” instead.

      • globeflyer

        When I saw your (misspelled) “sacred” Constitution remark, I knew where you were going with that. You also show your “class warfare” mentality with your second paragraph. I’d be willing to bet you vote Democratic in November. As long as we have elected Representatives, on both sides of the aisle, who aren’t a whole lot smarter than a fourth-grader (see:Rep. Hank Johnson/Guam and Rep. Todd Akin/Pregnancy) and as a result of our public education system, it’s probably best we have a Republic. Those Founding Fathers, although not perfect, were pretty smart guys.

  • Bin

    When you see one of the Romoney ads, just CLICK on it. What?!?! Yes – when you click on it, the advertiser has to pay 50 cents to a dollar or so to the network. Imagine the power of millions of us clicking and draining the campaign of this rotten “job creator” from its ill-begotten funds that he collected from his coterie of oligarchs, bankers, and dictatorships in Asia and the Middle East.

    • BarrySoetoro2

      Another brainwashed student at CH.

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