Perhaps Valerie Plame Wilson’s lecture at the Westminster Forum last week sensitized baby boomers’ and everybody else’s awareness about the government’s intrusion into people’s privacy. No doubt the daily litany of another American ally protesting the NSA’s eavesdropping into its government’s conversations also spooked people’s concerns on the issue.
Such heightened sensitivity made it difficult not to sympathize with moderator Lawrence Jacobs’ assessment during the “Social Media and the New Campaign: Lessons from 2012” discussion Wednesday afternoon (October 23, 2013) that “the level of detail” political campaigns have about potential voters is “a little creepy.” Speakers Jeff Blodgett, Minnesota State Director of the Obama Campaign, and Cullen Sheehan, Chief of Staff to the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus, spoke eloquently about the impact of social media upon the presidential campaign of 2012 and the upcoming 2014 and 2016 elections. Mr. Blodgett reveled how effective social media were in “recruiting new volunteer leaders” for the Obama campaign while Mr. Sheehan ruefully admitted the Republican Party in Minnesota and elsewhere was “far behind” in that regard but promised they “will catch up.”
Blodgett’s PowerPoint demonstration revealed the Obama campaign’s successful strategy of using the “snowflake model” of organization in “prospecting for new leaders.” Finding volunteers, arming them with i-Pads, and targeting them toward other prospective volunteers enabled the Obama campaign to achieve its goal of turning “virtual supporters into real supporters.” Sheehan concurred this tactic was “a real game-changer” in 2012. Even though the Romney campaign employed “Corvette” quality social media, they “were not [effectively] used on the ground” to proselytize new leaders and supporters.
Both men envision the election campaign of 2016 will be “a battle of technical geniuses,” but also stressed the importance of using social media for “microtargeting” or tailoring the message to the individual voter. They acknowledged that a candidate’s message and ability to reach people matters, but neither seemed particularly concerned that a campaign organization’s knowledge of a voters’ “persuadability” left them in Blodgett’s words “completely open to be manipulated.” Sheehan added that “some people might be surprised at how much data there is to collect.”
In microtargeting volunteers to spread their candidates’ messages, campaign managers appear to have used social media to facilitate the sacrifice of an individual’s sense of self-determination in the name of accountability to their candidates. This “very numbers-driven” campaign environment may be why the current and previous administrations seemed so indifferent to the ethical alarms raised by social media's ability to invade people’s private decision-making.