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Can Big Data Increase Voter Turnout?


By Emma Elisse

It’s a fact of life these days that by using increasingly sophisticated big-data tools and technologies, we’re able to take the convergence of our “digital” and “real” selves to the next level. And for companies in the private sector, the digital footprints left behind when consumers ‘like’ a Facebook post or ‘share’ their feelings toward a certain product are an invaluable way to discover how that person may shop in the future. Because so much of our lives are now connected to the broader Internet of Things, it’s possible for marketing teams to understand almost everything about our lives, and use the import social issues and current events – including environmental policy and action on climate change -- to shape their campaigns.

To ensure success in this year’s presidential election, political strategists in both the Democratic and Republican parties have teamed up with big data firms to create massive datasets which hold detailed characteristic and trait profiles of millions of individuals. These political funding initiatives, which effectively target specific slices of the electorate, help candidates tailor their messages to whomever they are attempting to reach.

For example, a candidate attempting to reach pro-environmental voters in the Houston area could send certain ads only to specific registered voters registered who have typed “Nissan Leaf” into Google, or shared information from the COP21 event on their timelines.

Candidates who have based their platform around climate change may be able to use data-based advertising strategies to move people to action – but of course, the inverse is also true as well. Republican candidates, notorious for their allegiance to fossil fuel industry, also invest heavily in data-mining tools to more effectively disseminate their messages to voters across the country.

How campaigns collect your data

Xaxis, a top data mining firm, has supported several political campaigns by harvesting massive quantities of data from people across the United States. By scanning the social media profiles, online purchases and Internet searches of millions of Americans, Xaxis compiles a comprehensive list of likely voters and where they stand on certain issues. Political campaigns purchase this information to make their efforts more effective. In this way, instead of distributing a single advertisement about a candidate’s positions to every household in Detroit, highly specialized advertisements are sent only to likely supporters.

Yet for political campaigns, the realm of digital is still relatively new. Television has long been the standard medium through which to connect and communicate, and it’s still the most effective -- reaching 87 percent of people over 18, as Derek Willis wrote in the New York Times earlier this year.

To this end, it was in the interest of pay-TV companies Dish Network and DirecTV to begin offering services allowing political campaigns to utilize their digital data to distribute certain advertisements for particular households. Dish and DirecTV had previously joined audiences in their “D2 initiative," which mined TV set-top box data to target ads at a household level for consumer advertisers. By bringing this technology to politics with the addition of voter files and data provided by i360 and Clarity Campaigns/TargetSmart (Republican and Democratic data companies, respectively), big data will increasingly alter the way politicians buy ads designed to persuade or to move people to action.

Data demographics

After all of the data is gathered, it is further analyzed to create a granular picture of each individual’s demographic profile. Once likely-voter profiles are assembled, the information is delivered to the campaigns. Campaigns use video advertising companies like Eyeview to create videos that appeal to voter personalities and interests. Some videos may utilize logic and fact-based strategies and others may use emotional appeals.

Keyword data can also be used to locate certain interest groups. By discovering individuals who searched for terms like 'Honda Prius,' 'green living' or 'vegan diets,' campaigns can learn where they can effectively concentrate their advertisements about environmental issues. This is an important aspect of informing and mobilizing voters for an election. Identifying Internet users who frequently visit science and energy websites can also be used to find people who support the environment. To this end, similar methods can be used to flag potential voters who support gun rights or free trade.

Climate action and the 2016 election

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a denier of climate change, uses data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica to gather psychological profiles of potential voters across the United States. Using this revealing information, Cruz has been able to create specific attack-advertisements on gun legislation and environmental issues. Because Cruz is showing these advertisements to individuals whose beliefs are in opposition to these causes, he is attracting quite a bit of support from voters in certain areas of the South and Midwest. This could increase the likelihood of Cruz surging forward to take the Republican nomination for the upcoming election.

That said, substantial funding and the same data-based strategies can help environmentalists elect a leader who will support strong action on climate change. Environmentalist Tom Steyer's super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, has expressed support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. This may help the Sanders' campaign move forward and target the right voters, raising further awareness of his plans to move away from fossil fuels and toward more renewable sources of energy.

Consistently showing potential voters advertisements about topics that they are interested in can increase voter turnout. The technological tools of big-data analytics make this possible on a unprecedented scale. Data-mining has transformed the strategic landscape of modern political campaigns. With the proper funding, the resources of big data can be used to elect leaders that will protect the environment from the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Image credit: Pixabay

Emma Elisse is a freelance writer and blogger from the Midwest. After going to college in Florida she relocated to Chicago, where she now lives with a roommate and two rabbits. She primarily covers entertainment topics and issues pertaining to the environment. 

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