The MIT Technology Review recently posted an article titled, "Campaigns to Track Voters with 'Political Cookies." It freaks me out for a reason I'll get to below.
From Technology Review:
The technology involves matching a person's web identity with information gathered about that person offline, including his or her party registration, voting history, charitable donations, address, age, and even hobbies.
Companies selling political targeting services say "microtargeting" of campaign advertising will make it less expensive, more up to the minute, and possibly less intrusive. But critics say there's a downside to political ads that combine offline and online data. "These are not your mom and pop TV ads. These are ads increasingly designed for you--to tell you what you may want to hear," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
Like most conscientious web users, I'm skeeved by the privacy issues of cookies, even as I tolerate them for their convenience.
But the real, immediate, permanent harm of political cookies, like Chester argues, is the other kind of privacy: the privacy it affords you to avoid public discussion, the (otherwise positive) right to be left alone.
Targeted ads bypass the public. They needn't be subject to civic debate. In fact, they foreclose the very possibility. With political cookies, civic debate about those messages can only happen within the subject's own head.
When MIT Center for Civic Media's own Matt Stempeck and Dan Schultz proposed projects like a recommended daily intake for the news, a credibility API, or automatic bullshit detectors, they're doing a great service but not necessarily a public service. Their work implicitly acknowledges -- and they're right -- that a political message is now predominantly a direct communications experience, from a campaign directly to an individual subject.
toward private politics
It's a private experience. Democracy without the demos. By definition and design, there's no public counterpoint to an ad targeted with cookies.
The earliest examples of American democracy took for granted that debate was public, happening among many individuals and associations of them. And a core logic, without which the rest fails, is that people are persuadable. Campaigns would love to persuade, but it's cheaper to reinforce. And reinforcement happens by aggregating individuals' click and spending data, with targeting taking into account predispositions, self-identification, and biases.
There's no need to persuade. No need, it feels, to be persuaded. No need to live outside our own private politics.
A version of this post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.
Andrew Whitacre is Communications Director for the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, 2007 Knight News Challenge winner. A native of the nation's capital, Whitacre has written on communications policy issues, starting with work on satellite radio as a student at Wake Forest University.