By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
The other day, the Wisconsin State Journal ran a wire service item about a minor celebrity who “took to social media to announce the birth of her (son).” It said actress Megan Fox on Oct. 17 used her Facebook page to let the world know of this event, which happened three weeks earlier.
How strange that anyone deemed this particular use of social media newsworthy. Tweeting all through a birthing, perhaps, but not a belated Facebook post.
Modern information technology is transforming society so fast that what was cutting-edge yesterday seems quaint today. Increasingly sophisticated communication methods are being used in all spheres, including politics.
Most candidates for office, and their legions of friends and foes, are pouring resources into what George W. Bush once called the Internets. For instance Rob Zerban, a Democrat challenging U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, has a full-time New Media director to run his website and oversee social media, including online question-and-answer sessions through a portal called Reddit.
They also are literally buying into these brave new outlets. Since Jan. 1, 2011, state political candidates and their supporters have spent nearly $2.8 million on online advertising, according to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board’s campaign finance database. That’s more than what was spent on robo-calls, newspaper ads, billboards and brochures combined, but well short of the $54.7 million spent on TV ads.
Dietram Scheufele, a life sciences communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies new information technologies, says campaigns are trying to reach “younger news consumers shifting to online-only diets.” But he adds that approach has been going on for some time — at least as long as people have been using Facebook to announce key life events.
A newer phenomenon, Scheufele says, is placing political ads in media like video games. For instance, the campaign of President Barack Obama purchased an ad in an Xbox 360 Live car racing game, putting his campaign message on a street-side billboard that players race past. The ads were targeted to run in battleground states, including Wisconsin.
But even this, Scheufele notes, is an “old story,” as these things go. That video game was one of 18 that carried Obama campaign ads … in 2008. This year both he and Republican rival Mitt Romney are popping up on video games. And Obama is on the free online game site Pogo.com, which has also carried an ad from Wisconsin’s own Tommy Thompson, now seeking a Senate seat.
Scheufele says what’s truly new, at least for now, is that campaigns “are hiring analysts and strategists to do one-on-one advertising.”
Early this year the Obama campaign ran an employment ad seeking geeks to use “statistical predictive modeling” to “determine which voters to target for turnout and persuasion efforts.” The ad stated: “We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions.”
The campaign, Scheufele explains, is collecting and crunching available data on individuals. “All of us produce a significant stream of data,” everything from which books we buy to which blogs we read to “how many seconds we spend looking at that article in the New York Times.”
These data are then used to create profiles for the purpose of “microtargeting” — deciding which messages to pitch to whom, through emails, direct mail, phone calls and such. Katy Culver, a UW-Madison assistant professor of journalism, calls this approach “Big data, small targets.” Some people are pursued as donors, others as potential converts, and still others as committed voters the campaign wants to keep engaged to ensure turnout.
Schuefele says he hasn’t seen these techniques used in local races or even high-profile Senate contests like the one between Republican Thompson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin. But what he really means is, he hasn’t seen this yet.
“If that doesn’t change in four years,” he says, “I’d be very surprised.”
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.