Clicking Our Way Toward the 2016 Election

Our political self determination may be headed toward manipulations that have no genuine semblance of public opinion – fear the algorithms.

As Americans click their way toward a third presidential election even more dynamic and interactive than our last two data-driven presidential elections, personalized social media and socially-embedded campaigns are changing our culture, social structures and political self-determination.

Marginalized attitudes about social media engagement – as simply the scaling of private living room conversations – is dangerous thinking these days for a representative democracy. Fear the algorithms; they may be leading us toward social manipulations that have no semblance of actual public opinion.

While it’s tempting to think of algorithms as the very definition of objective – they’re not. In fact, “It’s not really possible to have a completely neutral algorithm,” Jonathan Bright told Wired. A research fellow from Oxford Internet Institute, Jonathan Bright studies elections and though he doesn’t think Google or Facebook is trying to actually “tweak an election,” his level of trust seems profoundly naïve.

To begin, algorithms reflect the values and worldview of the programmers – is anyone at this moment seriously arguing that Silicon Valley doesn’t have a diversity problem? Fundamentally, an algorithm is the worldview of the programmer.

Thanks to the actual study having been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it wasn’t long ago that we learned data-scientists skewed what 700,000 Facebook users saw on their timeline after they logged in. In fact, we now know that there have been many previous studies that have used Facebook data to examine “emotional contagion.” Was anyone asked beforehand if they wished to opt-in to those studies?

Just how contagious are political views? According to Pew Research, 38 percent of people who use social networking sites “like or promote material related to politics or social issues.”

Election-cycle innovations have entered a new era of institutionalized technologies. The tools built for the 2012 elections haven’t exactly been gathering dust. As a member of the 2012 Obama analytics staff, Civis Analytics founder Dan Wagner has spent the last few years honing their prediction skills for the 2016 Democratic candidates. Backed by Google chair Eric Schmidt, the Chicago-based startup Civis Analytics has gone beyond driving the science of database structure into the science of winning elections.

In a series of quiet investments from Eric Schmidt, the Google chair has ensured the engineering talent needed by Hillary Clinton tofind, court and turn out critical voter blocs to win the 2016 presidential election.

As if Citizens United alone hadn’t complicated elections enough, all that free-flowing corporate money is now being used in new multi-network alignments to harvest the active spectatorship generated by social media around events like televised political debates. More debates, more data, more money – has anyone stop to ask themselves if those primary debates are really for the benefit of television viewers?

Today, money buys oodles of sophisticated targeting capabilities that are particularly important to customizing audiences around those events and building voter databases. Every time a candidate takes a position on immigration, for example, social media data-targeting takes the temperature and pulse of the nation to quantify in some way what, if anything, it means.

Is it fair conjecture – I’d call it a smoking gun of sorts – to conclude that active spectatorship has had plenty to do with Hillary Clinton’safter-the-fact adoption of Bernie Sanders political talking points?

Isn’t it interesting to see how memology – the study of how memes, or new ideas and trends, spread on Facebook and the process of accelerated content sharing within online networks – has publically elevated Bernie Sanders platform during this primary campaign? Interestingly, we don’t see many memes from Hillary Clinton just yet – why risk dank memes when Sanders is doing your heavy lifting?

Mainstream corporate media have gone from ignoring Bernie Sanders, to saying that he has no chance, to his potentially having an important role in the election after the primary is over – read, after Hillary Clinton’s coronation as the democratic candidate.

Social media platforms have new public spaces and opportunities for participation in Bernie Sanders’ campaign. But who will benefit once these communicative hierarchies take shape? The idea of “social media” itself is as much a fiction as “public opinion” – will active spectatorship fairly shape public discourse?

Wired reported that Hillary Clinton told Iowans how much she loves Snapchat because “those messages disappear all by themselves.” Again, those damn emails. Her comedic satire was a clever way of giving millennial voters the impression that she is forward-thinking. The important thing to understand, however, is the Snapchat business model was built around keeping user data private. Once the Snapchat message is delivered, the data is not manipulated beyond the advertisement. Does Hillary love Snapchat enough to abandon the detailed targeting capabilities of Facebook and Twitter?

The fact that media – even social media – can affect decision-making isn’t a bolt of news lightning. As far back as 2000, the “Fox News Effect” showed that the communities that got the conservative-leaning cable channel tended to become more conservative in their voting.

At the end of the day it seems, “recency” is what matters most – people remember the last thing they heard, which returns us to the question, “Should we ‘fear the algorithms?'” Unfortunately, the only answer is yet another question, “Should we trust Google’s search rankings or information on our Facebook timeline in the months, weeks and days before the election?” Trusting Google or Facebook is your call – the experiment may have just begun.