In the days before computers, politicians still had a way to deter- mine how much help they’d give you. If you asked for a favour, many would look you up on the voter rolls to see if you’d voted. If so, there was at least a chance you’d voted for that politician. If you received the favour, there was an even better chance you’d vote again, and vote for that same politician.
These days it’s pretty easy to check social media and to Google you, your associates, and co-workers to see if you’re a likely supporter. At the very least, it’s a way to determine if you’re a predictable voter.
Long before social media, in Nazi Germany there was also a way to check you out. This was the age of radio. Many citizens felt pressure to tune in to Hitler’s speeches to demonstrate they were good citizens and supporters of the regime. They wanted their neighbors to know of their standing and support. They turned up the radio volume so people in the hallways and next apartments would know that Hitler’s speeches were on their personal agendas.
Hence the term “totalitarian.” The regime was having total influence on the lives of its citizens — personal and professional, at home and at work.
Let’s put all these elements together in the era of “big data.”
Technology has long been able to tell us whether your TV set is on, but also whether you’re in the room watching. Decades ago “people meters” gave TV rating companies this valuable information. Today, Netflix does much the same by prompting viewers to respond to the question “are you still watching?” after a certain period of time.
The modern politician, even in a democracy, can now be al- most certain of knowing how you voted by adding up what’s known about you. Your address, magazine subscriptions, purchasing history, clubs, education, and other data will make your voting history a pretty easy guess.
Barack Obama’s successful 2008 election campaign leveraged the power of data. Emails were sent with targeted messaging based on the voter’s interests or issues. Links within these emails enabled the campaign team to track whether a certain action was completed, such as making a donation or downloading a policy document. This was a higher-tech version of Ronald Reagan sending out phonograph records of his speeches.
It was more targeted than the letters from the Richard Nixon
campaign that had been customized based on the recorded telephone
messages that voters were encouraged to leave for the candidate.
Collecting, tracking, analyzing, and responding to data has al-
ways been important, and will be more so in the digital age.
Pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, and finally radio have all been kingmakers. Then it was TV and now it’s online video. Recent elections have demonstrated the power of short clips, edited to instil fear or anger in voters. This is only the beginning.
These short clips go on social media to generate shares, likes, and comments. The goal is not so much connection, but amplification — the modern-day version of turning up the radio.
Given the power of data collection, will you start to watch what you post, what organizations you join, and what magazines you buy? As in German radio, you might not listen, watch, read, but you might pretend you do. You might even go to meetings, sign up for a mailing list, or click on a call to action button just to leave a digital trail. Well-off executives might assign an assistant the job of leaving the right digital trail to enhance business.
This is why we need privacy, and rigorous protection measures.