Law in the Internet Society

Social Pressure Tactics and Corporations’ Potential Influence on Voter Turnout

-- By AnnaScott

Compared to other established democracies, voter turnout in the US is very low. A vast amount of political campaign resources are focused not on relaying the candidate’s message to undecided voters, but on making sure their already-identified supporters actually show up to vote on Election Day. Political junkies know this as the “ground game” or GOTV (Get Out the Vote) operation, and in contests where the margin is less than 2-3% it can be decisive in determining the winner. The backbone of voter turnout operations has looked the same for decades, relying primarily on phone-banking and door-to-door canvassing of identified supporters (although targeting has recently gotten increasingly aggressive and micro-level). Even the much-discussed, extraordinarily massive GOTV operation of the 2008 Obama campaign kept mostly within this traditional mold. Recently, however, the internet has opened up new possibilities in voter turnout strategies – possibilities which have legal and practical limits far beyond what the average citizen would expect.

One much-discussed example of the internet’s impact on voting behavior comes from a study recently published by Nature suggesting that one Facebook announcement generated 340,000 additional votes nationwide during the 2010 midterm election. The message reminded users to vote and showed pictures of friends who had clicked on an “I Voted” button. One control group saw a reminder with no photos of friends; another received no message. Researchers then matched users with voting records to compare turnout among the three groups; the first had a statistically significant increase in their voter turnout rate. So far, most discussions of this study have focused on its implications for our understanding of social pressure and the growing power of social media on our behavior. I think that more attention should be paid to the question of how far private sector involvement in voting could go -- both legally and practically – especially given the fact that voting records are, to varying degrees, publicly available. The issues are not limited to what Facebook might do (indeed, who knows if Facebook will exist in anything like its current form, or at all, in the future) – rather, the questions raised implicate a range of private sector actors who could potentially harness the powers of social pressure and public “shaming” to impact elections. In one experiment, political scientists mailed voters a copy of their voting history along with voting histories of some of their neighbors, and warned that they would be repeating the mailing after the upcoming election. Turnout went up 20 percent among voters who received the “public shaming” mailing—an enormous jump. (Studies show that email GOTV efforts lead to turnout increases of only 1%, while door-to-door canvassing sees jumps of 8%.) As discussed above, a slight advantage in voter turnout can sway an entire election; thus political groups and institutions with political arms have a very strong incentive to push the legal limits of proven turnout strategies. Voting-related nonprofits have used or attempted to use this “public shaming” tactic here and there, most recently in the Wisconsin recall election, but never on a very large scale. But the convergence of three factors could mean a sharp rise in this kind of social-pressure turnout targeting: one, the fact that more and more studies have shown that it is extremely effective; two, the recent dramatic loosening of campaign finance laws; and three, the fact that corporations have more data about consumers than ever before.

The loosening of campaign finance laws and the subsequent rise of SuperPACs? ? addresses two practical obstacles for any kind of large-scale “public shaming” tactic: cost and blame. They have lots of money to experiment with voter turnout strategies, and can step in where candidates or groups might not want to be associated with a tactic that might anger some supporters who see it as an invasion of privacy. Corporations and corporate money have always been involved in politics, but traditionally the activity has been things like funneling money to a candidate that is friendly to their interests, or funding a media campaign in support of an issue on the ballot. Voter turnout operations were and are usually still largely run by a candidate’s campaign or local political party, partly because (as discussed above) one of the main GOTV tactics is door-to-door canvassing, which logistically has to be operated in a very local fashion. Because mailings and emails have a much lower impact on turnout (canvassing has been shown to be eight to nine times more effective), it has not been especially worth it for corporations and groups to engage in turnout operations from afar (besides sending money to their chosen candidate and/or party). Today, corporations 1) have a huge amount of data about millions of Americans and highly sophisticated targeting algorithms and 2) have a lot more freedom to spend money using that data for political purposes thanks to Citizens United, and 3) if they use “shaming”/social pressure tactics, they suddenly have the ability to be a major force in voter turnout operations through mail and (even cheaper) email, without ever setting foot in a state in which they have a political stake and thus without necessarily ever needing to work with a local political group or candidate.

Legally, private companies could not obtain voter records from state governments; all states limit access to voter records to some extent, usually to political candidates/parties, elected officials, voter-education nonprofits, and PACs. However, one should not underestimate the sophistication of the data algorithms that corporations have built – even without direct access to voting records, corporations can deduce which kind of consumers tend to be sporadic voters in need of turnout pressure. I also think that access to voting records of neighbors or friends is not necessary to trigger social pressure to vote – all that matters is a message that is specially crafted to remind a sporadic voter that their voting history is public and that their neighbors or friend could, in theory, find out whether they voted.

What would increased corporate involvement in voter turnout mean for democracy? Some might argue it doesn’t change the relationship of corporations and politics very much, since corporate money is already flowing freely into politics from all sides. I think it is worth paying attention to, not only because the relationship between corporations and elections should always be closely watched but also because this involvement in particular could mean a smaller role and less power for local political communities in elections. Any development that makes it easier and cheaper for far-away corporations to impact an election and diminishes the role of the local political community is a development that is bad for democracy.


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r4 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:31:21 - EbenMoglen
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