Preparing for the Campaign Tech Bullshit Season

Campaign tech bullshit is found at the intersection of two forces: (1) the incentive to freak your opponents out by sounding more sophisticated than you are, (2) the incentive to build a reputation for the next campaign cycle.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

It’s that time of year again. The presidential election has, mercifully, almost ended. Now it’s time for the campaign technologists on the trailing campaign to start giving interviews about how they’re really just as sophisticated as their opponents.

Four years ago, we were treated to the false promises of Romney campaign’s “Project Orca.” Orca was supposed to perform election-day tech magic on par with the Obama campaign’s vaunted data operation. It did not go well.

This year, we have the Trump campaign’s Brad Parscale opening up to seasoned campaign tech journalists Josh Green and Sasha Issenberg about “Project Alamo.” From their article in Bloomberg Businessweek, it appears that Project Alamo is a combination of email list-building, social media advertising, Twitter rapid-response, and some sort of data operation. Parscale, it seems, wants badly for us all to know that his operation has the type of data sophistication that we’ve come to expect and fear from modern political operations.

Parscale believes that the secret to this election will be negative advertising – “voter suppression operations” aimed at depressing turnout among idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans. He brags in the article about the campaign’s use of Facebook “dark posts” – nonpublic posts for which “only the people [the campaign wants] to see it, see it.” A campaign official tells Green and Issenberg that this will depress Clinton’s vote total, bragging, “We know because we’ve modeled this. It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

That sounds like scary stuff. But it also sounds like campaign tech bullshit.

Campaign tech bullshit is found at the intersection of two forces: (1) the incentive to freak your opponents out by sounding more sophisticated than you are, (2) the incentive to build a reputation for the next campaign cycle. Campaign tech bullshit is harmless so long as we don’t take it seriously. But it’s really important that we not take it seriously.

Here’s why I’m sure that Parscale is bullshitting: “We know because we’ve modeled this.”

That phrase sounds very science-y. But it’s also meaningless in this context. Parscale is trying to make it sound like his tech team has been gathering data and running experiments, developing a sophisticated turnout model that includes the impact of negative Facebook advertisements. But here’s the problem: You can’t model behavior without an outcome variable.

Parscale’s shop is flying blind. They don’t know whether their negative Facebook posts are affecting voter turnout among liberals, because they haven’t been in an election where liberals chose whether or not to vote. You can’t run actual turnout experiments in October!

Parscale is hardly the biggest campaign tech bullshitter in the Republican party network this cycle. That title has to be given to the folks at Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica was somewhat involved in the Brexit “leave” campaign. They claim to develop “psychographic targeting” models, a supposed advance in microtargeting which adds a voter’s psychological profile to traditional data on geography, demographics, consumer behavior, and vote history. They provided data services to Ted Cruz’s campaign, and now they’re doing the same for the Trump campaign. But it is far from clear whether there is any there there. Kate Kaye has reported for Ad Age that Cambridge Analytica is “Not exactly the toast of the town.” In speaking with eight political consultants that have collaborated with Cambridge Analytics, she was repeatedly told that the firm was “All hat, no cattle. […]the firm is more focused on its sales and marketing efforts than actually fulfilling core analytics work promised to clients.” In an article for Wired magazine titled “A Lot of People Are Saying Trump’s New Data Team Is Shady,” Issie Lapowsky describes a company making grand claims about its powerful data science, but unwilling to produce a single scrap of evidence that can demonstrate their effectiveness. Cambridge “went on strike during the Cruz campaign and refused to share data with another vendor.” Cambridge’s defense was that “We’re not going to give away any part of our data that can be reverse-engineered such that competitors can understand the intellectual property behind what we do and reconstruct or in any way copy what we do.” (Does that sound a bit like Theranos’s biotech excuses to you? It sounds a lot like Theranos to me…)

Campaign tech bullshit is an offshoot of the phenomenon that Cathy O’Neil describes in her new book, Weapons of Math Destruction. Whereas O’Neil is primarily focused on the actual threats that actual algorithmic modeling can play in society, campaign tech bullshit focuses on building up a reputation and siphoning public attention by making it sound like your algorithms are more sophisticated than they really are.

When faced with likely campaign tech bullshit, the normal trust-but-verify routine stops being a good approach. And to their credit, Green and Issenberg mention in their article that “there’s no scientific basis for thinking this ploy will convince these voters to stay home. It could just as easily end up motivating them.”

The reason we should care about this type of campaign tech bullshit is that it distracts us from the real issues. Voter suppression is serious. Voter suppression is happening. Republican elected officials right now are closing down polling places and disobeying court orders in order to deny people of color their right to vote. This is a concerted effort, happening in several states. Trump is also encouraging supporters to show up, armed and disorganized, at polling places to act as “Trump Election Observers.” That’s a recipe for illegal voter intimidation. It’s far less sophisticated, and far more dangerous, than any “dark posts” on Facebook.

Let’s keep our eye on the real voter suppression. Let’s fight it. And let’s also avoid the silly campaign tech bullshit distractions along the way. Brad Parscale and Cambridge Analytica want you to believe that they’re data wizards, with the capacity to perform marvelous feats of microtargeting propaganda and persuasion. They’re trying simultaneously to distract you and to drum up business for the next campaign cycle. They’re banking on our fascination and fear of analytics and algorithms to help enhance their rep.

I’m not buying it. The Trump organization has exhibited zero evidence of data sophistication. Their modeling talk sounds cheap and phony. If the Trump campaign dissuades liberals from the voting booth, it isn’t going to be through microtargeted Facebook posts. It’s going to be through old-fashioned voter intimidation and polling place manipulation.