In 2007, activists on Facebook created the group “One Million Strong for Barack” (which has since been archived), a grassroots effort to show support for then-Senator Barack Obama’s bid for the Presidency. It was one of the earliest examples of large-scale social media activism in the 2008 campaign, even if it didn’t necessarily translate directly into political action. The Obama campaign was quick to jump on the social media bandwagon, launching their own network, MyBarackObama, in early 2007. It was a prescient move which allowed supporters to use a campaign-sanctioned tool to connect with like-minded voters, organize meet-ups and raise money. Even so, its design was relatively simple by contemporary standards and, while useful (especially for fundraising), the site was hardly a game-changer in the election.
Fast-forward to 2012. Now, the President’s re-election campaign seems determined to use social media to its fullest extent, starting with the undisputed king of social networks: Facebook. Instead of relying on a custom, in-house network, the campaign is pushing its “Are You In?” Facebook app, which they hope will be even more successful by relying on Facebook’s pre-existing infrastructure and gigantic user base.
Unlike MyBarackObama, Are You In isn’t just about social networking; it’s the cornerstone of the campaign’s ambitious data-mining operation, the oddly-named “Project Narwhal.” The idea behind the project is to “fuse the multiple identities of the engaged citizen—the online activist, the offline voter, the donor, the volunteer—into a single, unified political profile.” Alex Lundry, a Republican strategist, called this kind of synchronicity the “holy grail of data analysis” because it allows the campaign to pool information from multiple sources, analyze it and use it for outreach which is both massive in its scope and meticulous in its specificity.
In order for the project to work, however, the campaign needs data on voters, and lots of it- which is where Are You In enters the picture. Any user who installs the app is greeted by this boilerplate privacy alert:
It might not seem like much (and, compared to the kind of information Facebook gives out to advertisers, it really isn’t), but to a political campaign, Facebook access is a data goldmine. Signing up for Are You In gives the Obama 2012 campaign more than just access to your profile, it also shares your status updates and even data as specific as the zip code you’re accessing Facebook from. What’s more, any information which your friends make public is visible to the app as well, meaning that the campaign can pull data from users who haven’t directly opted into it.
At first, this might not seem like a big deal and, in a sense, it isn’t. We’ve been handing over our personal information to help swell Facebook’s profits for years- it’s just usually been to the benefit of private advertisers. Now, a political campaign is using the same technology to try to get both our money and our votes. Even in the political realm, this isn’t all that new; it’s just a more accurate and efficient way of doing the same things campaigns have been doing for almost as long as they’ve existed, like profiling supporters, reaching out to undecided voters and soliciting donations.
But what if something else is getting lost in all of this? One of the things that made the original “One Million Strong for Barack” Facebook group was the fact that it wasn’t a top-down political operation, but a genuine expression of grassroots support for a then-nascent and arguably longshot candidacy. When a groundswell of political support was expressed through social media, it was because a candidate and his/her message was truly resonating with users, not because a campaign had been pushing it as part of a massive data-mining operation.
Isn’t that what was supposed to be great about the intersection of social media and politics- the fact that users were the ones in control? Sure, users still have the choice of whether or not to add Apps like Are You In, but now the campaigns themselves are pushing even harder for users to sign up because it’s more than just a metric of popular support- it’s a tool that could end up being critical to their success. Now, when the Obama campaign sends out email blasts encouraging users to “show their support on Facebook” (or, in a more blatant move, the Newt Gingrich campaign creates fake users to buff their number of Twitter supporters), I can’t help but feel like something is being lost.
Perhaps the reality is that such a shift was inevitable- social media is too valuable a tool for campaigns to not exploit. Does this mean that the pseudo-democratic “purity” of social media is dead, or did it never exist to begin with? Maybe there was no shift at all, and I’m just remembering grassroots where it was really always astroturf.