Data & Communication Tools = Political Tribalism?

Michael J. Starks
May 8, 2018 · 3 min read

The national consensus is that to win key elections, Democrats need to do extremely well with two demographic categories: African American Women and White, Suburban Women. The argument is then made that this demographic makeup is inherently problematic for Democrats and something Republicans can capitalize on.

If we remove race from this discussion (impossible, I know) there are two inter-related issues at play; forces that are impacting the political landscape across the U.S. First is the evolving nature of primary elections. Second is how data and communication tools are impacting the targeting of political messages.

Primary Elections

An earlier era in which heavy-handed party elites selected candidates seems undemocratic. Thus, we’ve evolved to a much more free-market version of primary campaigns. These campaigns increasingly utilize an aggressive form of politics where message, policy, and vision are tailored to fit targeted groups. In this winner-take-all landscape, the key question becomes, will my side win? As President Trump likes to suggest, either you are a winner, or you are a loser!

An image from one of Rush Limbaugh’s congratulatory posts.

This framing is important. If losing in a hard-fought primary race demoralizes supporters, then Democrats face headwinds during general elections.

Communication Tools

Technology has impacted elections in the 21st century in distinct ways. First, it has created communication tools that operate in real-time, at global scales, alongside a proliferation of individualized data. Both political parties make use of data and communications systems (Votebuilder for Democrats, rVotes for Republicans). They also use Google AdWords and Facebook ads to target people as successfully as possible; to be able to get tailored messages out to convince people to vote for them.

In some ways, the defunct Cambridge Analytica best represented this approach. What they attempted to do during the 2016 election is to take existing demographic data and couple it with additional psychological traits and behaviors to target voters. The question was, what kinds of messages and appeals will affect you, the voter?

Of course, Cambridge Analytica also operated in the shadier world of manipulation and voter disenfranchisement. That is the flip side of the data coin. Here the data is used to target voters, whether by your opponent, a Super PAC, or international bots, to get them to NOT vote at all.

People’s identities are complex. For campaigns, it is often easier to rally voters around who they are against, rather than who they are for. Hence why fear-based campaigns are so effective. The key is to create contrasts and use all available tools to convince voters not so much to vote for candidate A, as to NOT vote for candidate B. President Trump was able to capitalize on this strategy. This is not a new strategy, but what is new is our ability to figure out, what are YOUR emotional triggers? What will make you stay home on election day?

Your emotional response to this question may act as a guide for how political groups communicate with you.

Political Tribalism

As a result, targeted messaging is increasing political tribalism within the U.S. Tribalism is developing an Us versus Them mentality among voters (not just Republican versus Democratic, but Bernie supporters versus Hillary supporters, etc.). Even the straightforward messages sent by candidates can be problematic, as ‘echo chamber’ information often reflects, and enhances our biases.

Playing up our biases, tribalizing our communities, hyper-focusing on our fears. The negatives are not trivial, and we need to be vigilant in raising awareness about how data is used.

Political races are competitive. We shouldn’t expect the candidates, who spend countless hours canvassing, fundraising, and working to win, to not use data to their advantage. Yet every election, as we move closer towards hyper-individual messaging, the more possibilities candidates, or their opponents, have to split and fragment our communities.

Competitive Democratic primaries will stir emotions between targeted groups. Republicans will likely target voters with negative messages to suppress voter turnout. For those who desire more progressive policies, we must be vigilant about using data and communication tools to bring people together through inclusive messaging, and raise awareness about the ways that misinformation can be targeted at voters.

Michael J. Starks

Written by

I do communications work for an economic forecasting firm. Former data director for a Georgia politician. RPCV, Kenya. Big family. Midwest roots.

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