Inside microtargeting offices in Washington and across the nation, individual voters are today coming through in HDTV clarity — every single digitally-active American consumer, which is 91 percent of us, according to Pew Internet research. Political strategists buy consumer information from data brokers, mash it up with voter records and online behavior, then run the seemingly-mundane minutiae of modern life — most-visited websites, which soda’s in the fridge — through complicated algorithms and: pow! They know with “amazing” accuracy not only if, but why, someone supports Barack Obama or Romney, says Willie Desmond of Strategic Telemetry, which works for the Obama reelection campaign.
Entertaining and baffling discoveries abound. For example: Soda seems to count a great deal. Diet Dr. Pepper evidently indicates a Republican who votes, while apathetic Democrats drink 7up, according to National Media Research Planning & Placement. Beer, too, matters. Relatively uninterested Republicans go for Busch Light. Additional findings reveal that the most politically-motivated Republicans visit foxnews.com (no surprise there) while Democrats who couldn’t care less attend mtv.com or scour dating websites (OK: no surprise there, too).
All of these online movements contribute to what pollster Alex Gage calls “data exhaust.” Email, Amazon orders, resume uploads, tweets — especially tweets — cough out fumes that microtargeters or data brokers suck up to mold hyper-specific messaging. We’ve been hurled into an era of “Big Data,” Gage said. In the last eight years the amount of information slopped up by firms like his, which sell information to politicians, has tripled, from 300 distinct bits on each voter in 2004 to more than 900 today. We have the rise of social media and mobile technology to thank for this.
Dowd put microtargeting’s evolution this way: “It’s scary.” Even scarier? Most Americans don’t know how the profiling works. And when they’re informed, as many as 86 percent of Americans want it to stop, calling it an invasion of privacy, according to a 2009 survey, “Americans Reject Tailored Advertising,” by a scholarly consortium. Pew released a report last month corroborating the findings: Nearly three-fourths of Americans say they don’t want their online presence followed, even if it does lead to more personalized ads.
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