Company Behind Iowa Caucus App Has a Deeply Troubling Plan to Manipulate Voters

Those gathered to see the Iowa caucus results roll in on February 4 were sorely disappointed — the vote-counting process had been disrupted by a malfunctioning app, delaying the announcement of the final results. The botched voting process caused uproar online, sparking rumors about another Democratic National Committee effort to sideline Sen. Bernie Sanders. The debacle also brought scrutiny to Shadow, the company that created the app, which bills itself as a “progressive digital consultancy.”

While Shadow’s massive mishandling of the Iowa caucus vote is important, investigation into Shadow and its sole investor, Acronym, may have revealed something even worse. A memo leaked by VICE showed that Shadow is part of a dense web of progressive “new media” companies headed by Tara McGowan, a former Barack Obama campaign staffer with personal ties to the Pete Buttigieg campaign.

While parent company Acronym has distanced itself publicly from Shadow, organizational charts show that the companies are closely intertwined in a concerted campaign to counter Republican messaging online and reach Democratic voters through “strategic narratives.” They plan to disseminate content with a mix of paid advertising and messaging from “local” news sites set up by Courier, an Acronym-funded for-profit news corporation, in swing states to carry messages “optimized” to convert citizens based on their online activity.

What is deeply concerning is McGowan’s seeming inability to distinguish between reporting and strategic communication. According to the VICE article, “Asked whether they had license to report freely on Democratic politicians or were tasked with, as the document says, ‘Reach[ing] voters with strategic narratives + information year-round,’ she said, ‘I don’t know what the difference between the two is.’”

The memo states that Courier’s pilot campaigns, which aimed to target female voters in Virginia, have shown “how much more effective boosting and targeting owned media and news content online was over pre-produced ‘ads’ at influencing a voter’s support for or against a candidate or issue.”

Essentially, Acronym treats reporting and advertising as different methods to reach the same objective. In a glowing profile in Bloomberg News, McGowan anticipated critiques of this approach: “’A lot of people I respect will see this media company as an affront to journalistic integrity because it won’t, in their eyes, be balanced,’ she says. ‘What I say to them is, Balance does not exist anymore.’ In her view, there are only facts and lies.”

According to McGowan, facts are bits of information that happen to align with a progressive agenda. In this regard, she sounds a lot like Breitbart News editor Matt Boyle, who said back in 2017 that, “Journalistic integrity is dead. There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about weaponization of information.”

McGowan is essentially arguing for the liberal adoption of right-wing media tactics under the guise of objective, fact-based local news. She argues that this is necessary in a media ecosystem where right-wing opinion media has steadily gained ground since the 1980s, first through the underutilized airwaves of AM talk radio, and more recently through digital channels that amplify Fox News coverage on social media. McGowan is correct in pointing out that this creates a conservative feedback loop of sensationalist, hyper-partisan content that is particularly effective in an era where headlines are more influential than the articles themselves.

The issue with this response is that it completely devalues any concept of truth. While it is no secret that complete objectivity is unattainable, it is reporters’ commitment to pursuing this impossible ideal that sets them apart from advertising executives.

Journalists, unlike many other professionals, do not have a claim to expertise through extensive training or certification. Instead, media sociologists C.W. Anderson and Michael Schudson have made the widely accepted claim that the unifying factor within the profession is commitment to a “professional ideology” that values objectivity as a normative endpoint. Even while most journalists recognize the irreducible plurality of viewpoints that comprise reality, journalists use best practices, such as corroborating information with multiple sources, to get as close to a shared, objective truth as possible.

This approach is not without limitations. Notably, the journalistic practice of reporting on both sides of an issue, once enshrined in U.S. broadcast law, often creates false equivalencies between issues of different magnitudes and can increase the reach of extreme viewpoints. In the same Bloomberg article, McGowan criticizes liberal media for their narrow focus on liberal, white and urban audiences. She isn’t wrong. However, traditional journalism is rooted in a desire to provide audiences with sufficient information to evaluate issues for themselves.

In contrast, McGowan has pressed for the abandonment of flawed attempts to achieve objectivity altogether, arguing that they are futile in a “distributed, digital media environment.” Instead, as her plan for Acronym shows, she treats the dissemination of information as a means to an end — in this case, converting citizens to Democratic voters.

The glaring issue with this approach is that it denies voter autonomy, instead treating audiences as targets for political manipulation. This undermines the concept of democracy as a society governed by the people, instead treating citizens as pawns in a game run by propaganda shops.

Acronym is even more dangerous in terms of its use of audience tracking to micro-target and convert certain segments of the population, just as internet advertisers do. McGowan’s memo describes this as optimization. But media scholars have pointed out that such an approach infringes on the free will of users, creating a dystopian feedback loop that is controlled by those with enough resources to buy and possess information. Scholars Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias have termed such practices “data colonialism,” suggesting that the increasingly precise rendering of human behavior as data creates new and dangerous power dynamics premised, like McGowan’s tactics, on a lack of user autonomy.

Technology scholars Helen Nissenbaum, Daniel Susser and Beate Roessler similarly point out that such violations at the level of personal autonomy are directly linked to the integrity of democracy. For them, “autonomy is writ small what democracy is writ large — the capacity to self-govern,” and “It is only because we believe individuals can make meaningfully independent decisions that we value institutions designed to register and reflect them.”

The point is not that manipulation never happens in democracies, but that abandoning the ideal of the autonomous, self-reflective voter represents a turn away from democratic governance. It also means that protecting this ideal might require placing ethical limits on the reach of technology. For example, just because we can track every user’s clicks and eye movements doesn’t mean we should.

Related concerns of this nature have led to the recent restriction of targeting for political ads on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But because of its status as a for-profit news corporation, Acronym and others like it are able to skirt such regulations.

In many ways, Acronym is, as McGowan argues, the product of the current corporate digital news environment, one that has been built according to private companies’ need to “convert” users and monetize engagement. Acronym and its content strategies represent the logical endpoint of a technologically determinist mindset that uncritically accepts the logic of currently existing platforms. But it does not have to be the only option.

Policymakers, newsmakers and journalists have the ability to maintain their commitment to creating a shared, if flawed, objective truth. Media sociologist Schudson argues, in fact, that it is journalists’ duty to make the press “unlovable” in the service of democracy. But this requires imagining another ecosystem, one that will be difficult to build, and which requires news organizations and platforms to insist on prioritizing some approximation of truth over click-ready content.

This alternative will be especially difficult to imagine in the coming months, as politicians and those who cover them increasingly invoke an alarmist view of politics that extends no further than November 3, 2020. However, it is doubtful that a strategy meant to instrumentalize voters is likely to win them over in the long term. The Sanders and Warren campaigns have shown that engaging with the real grassroots is at least as effective as manufacturing “local” support, and in the end, those who choose the president are not just voters, but citizens. Any functioning democracy needs journalists and politicians who treat them as such.