Everyone has been standing with Boston and Massachusetts over the past week. Finally, according to the Boston Globe, some political folks figured out a way to benefit from it. The Democrats get the dubious honor of finishing first in the race to tastelessness:
Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was behind this tasteless tactic, sending out an email and tweet asking people to sign a supposed “thank you note” to the first responders. That would be nice except for the fact that in order to “sign” the note, you have to give the Democratic party your email account and ZIP code.“We’ll collect every note we get and deliver them to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino so they can pass along your sentiments,” Wasserman Schultz writes.
A note to the brave police and firefighters? How sweet. All you have to do to “sign” it is yield enough information that the DNC can figure out who your Member of Congress is and a way to contact you. More important, they can tag you as someone who cares about first responders. Then, if they were so inclined during the next budget crisis and certainly during the next campaign, the Democrats can reach out to you and tell you how voting for their person means safety, while voting for the Republican means a living in a post-apocalyptic war zone where warlords fight each other over guns and gasoline while neo-feudal serfs cower in terror.
That is, if the Democrats were interested in using first responders as political chess pieces, which they would never do.
The National Journal has a sneak peek at the NRCC’s new, Buzzfeed-esque website, set to launch sometime in the next few days. Since the dawn of 2013, the NRCC has been quietly and not-so-quietly doing some good things to get House Republicans (and prospective House Republicans) positioned well for 2014 - rootsHQ has a good write-up of that.
On the design side, though, check out the lack of traditional colors:
Contrast that with any of the other alphabet soup committees on either side. There’s occasional splashes of black and yellow, but mostly red, white, and blue. The NRCC is trying to stand out from those sites, and the early peek suggests they’re doing it right.
This should especially help drive donations and activism on behalf of Republican candidates. The cynical analyst might point out that the only people who will visit a party committee website is someone with a keen interest in politics. The average citizen won’t look to the NRCC as a destination for content, though they might see content in other venues like Pinterest or Facebook. But those with a keen interest in Republican politics want something different from the party after the previous two Presidential elections when old white guys didn’t do so well. They want a different tone, and something they can believe in. By showing a fresh, new look – combined with the more aggressive and pop-culture-influenced messaging strategy they’ve been sharpening for a few months – the NRCC can satisfy the thirst among the activist class for a fresher look and feel.
America has plenty of elections, from the crucially important annuals like the Oscars or the meaningless Presidential elections that we only bother with every four years. In many of them, online networks and social media can predict results – winning candidates tend to be mentioned more on Twitter or liked more on Facebook.
While some will jump to the conclusion that online chatter will drive the support that pushes a candidate over the edge, that’s an over-simplistic reading of the situation. Social media posts are tea leaves of human behavior, but not usually the initial driver. It’s worth watching data trends and extrapolating results, but trying to create those data trends to ensure a specific outcome is a waste of time. Daniel Day Lewis didn’t win an Oscar with social buzz, he won by making the legislative posturing surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment interesting and engaging. He didn’t even have to slay any vampires, so that was good too. Similarly, online activity follows good political candidates, it doesn’t create them.
(Sidebar: What kind of a sick joke is it that Lincoln Motor Company is a subsidiary of Ford?)
If the correlation between online data and reality was more direct, according to Google we’d all have the flu by now.
Michael Turk had a great post on the center-right’s tech/data gap yesterday – but the best part was where he wrote it, in the American Spectator.
Spoiler alert: Turk warned that investing in new technology is not enough, that Republicans need smart people thinking about human behavior and voting patterns as well. Good call: It’s not enough to figure out how people are interacting with a campaign, since most people in their right mind run away from political communication. There’s an academic component in figuring out how to reach these people and keep them from running. (Unless you use glue traps, of course, but there’s some questionable legality there.)
Ok, the right needs thinkers. Where do they come from? Political parties are good for resources, but not always innovation. Remember that while much of the Obama infrastructure has been bequeathed unto the Democrat National Committee, it was the Obama campaign that built all the new toys. Plus, if the eggheads don’t show immediate dividends, Republican candidates will wonder why the national party money that could be helping them win air wars is being spent to pay Lewis Skolnick.
The best spot for a bunch of data nerds is somewhere in the non-profit universe – whether it’s with an educational foundation like Heritage, an activist group like Americans for Prosperity or FreedomWorks, or a super PAC like American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS/Conservative Victory/Crossroads: The Next Generation. With no donation limits, these groups can make a much better case to the big-ticket donors they’ll need to get the ball rolling. Since the checks can be bigger, it’ll take fewer of them.
Conservative movement non-profits could be better positioned to start the process. That makes The American Spectator a pretty good place to raise the issue.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp has been banging the drum on a proposed Health and Human Services rule that would mandate insurance companies share patient data with the federal government. The purpose of the program ostensibly noble – the administration wants to collect as much data on health care as possible to determine. But Huelkamp correctly notes that data is not always secure. Companies and governments lose personal data on customers and citizens periodically.
In a related story, Google revealed that the US government asks the search company for more user data than any other government on the planet. In fact, there were more requests for Google data than there were wiretaps on phones last year.
While Google may look skeptically on the government requests for information, the HHS program sounds like something out of Google labs – aggregating data about users of the health care system to ensure better future outcomes. Just as Google has multiple touch points where it meets its users (search, YouTube, Android, Gmail, etc.), so does the government. What if they started connecting the dots? We send tax returns in each year, so the IRS knows how much we make, where we live, whether we own or rent, what we do for a living. On a state level, readily available voter registration data tells them how often we vote and may even give them a good idea how we would vote, based on primary voting history. That doesn’t even get into people who participate in federal programs for medical help, student loans, social security, or public assistance. And it doesn’t take into account the possibility of government looking elsewhere for data. Today it’s Google, but a host of other companies are out there looking at what you but, what magazines you subscribe to, how often you gas up your car, and what TV shows you watch.
Eventually, other government agencies could follow the same model as HHS, expanding their data points on each citizen. That’s when it could get really interesting, especially if some enterprising staffer in some agency realizes all the information that’s pouring in. Imagine if the roadblocks between executive agencies came down, all the data was in one big pile? The administration could be an even more voracious consumer of data, and use if to create detailed analyses of national trends, attitudes, and issues. Here’s a video representation of how this might look:
A campaign or company wouldn’t use available data to recruit new customers or make life better for existing ones. When I go to Amazon or Best Buy’s website, they look at what I’ve bought in the past and make recommendations; it’s simply good business. An executive agency, which is supposed to strive for efficiency, would pick up on this trend as a way to streamline government services. The difference, though, is that if you’re creeped out, you can always shop somewhere else.
Last week, Mashable and David Weigel both noted that Mitt Romney has been investing in web ads, but that he has yet to run an actual TV commercial in the early primary states (or any other states, obviously). Mashable chalks it up to a money-saving move that has the added benefit of appealing to young voters:
It’s possible the candidates are waiting to amass more funds to pay for more-expensive airtime. Or, they could be engaged in an informal standoff for who will try to rule the airwaves.
On the other hand, web ads are a smart move. They are relatively cheaper to make and broadcast and naturally appeal to younger, web-savvy voters — traditionally a weak spot for Republicans.
After the criticism he took in last night’s debate, though, a web-focused strategy makes perfect sense for Mitt Romney. The video which spawned last week’s round of coverage chided the Obama Administration on trade and intellectual property rights, which isn’t exactly a front-page-news-making issue. It does, however, speak to some key audiences. It’s one thing to say you appeal to philosophical conservatives who view government as an instrument to protect citizens’ rights and voters whose views align with business and commerce; but Romney’s ad deals brings up a niche issue that demonstrates an understanding of these voters’ motivations and concerns.
These are also the types of voters who are probably still deciding whether or not a Romney Presidency would be better enough than an Obama Presidency to be excited about a Romney candidacy. Despite the fireworks of last night’s debate and this morning’s conventional wisdom that the other candidates put him on the defensive, Romney still carries the mantle of inevitability as the 2012 Republican nominee. He still has plenty of people to convince to avoid being an also-ran in the same category as former inevitable nominees Bob Dole and John McCain. He won’t be able to explain away his Massachusetts health plan, but online video gives him a medium to show conservatives he understands other issues.
We the People have spoken, and according to the White House’s citizen-driven petition site, the most important issue in America is: the legalization of marijuana.
The White House launched We the People last month as a way to provide commoners like you and me a “direct line to the White House on issues and concerns that matter most” to us. So far, a petition to legalize pot is the top performer, according to The Hill. The call for decriminalization has attracted over 50,000 signatures. It also illustrates nicely why the site is such a waste of time for serious advocacy campaigns:
[National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Executive Director Allen] St. Pierre said online petitions help spread the word and generate supporters who can call and write Congress, but they have not translated into the real-world pressure — and money — needed for his side to win.
St. Pierre is right: online petition campaigns are an excellent way to find and recruit audience. So how many supporters did this online petition generate?
To sign the petition, site visitors had to create an account on WhiteHouse.gov. That means that the White House has their contact information (along with whatever issues are important to them) but NORML gets nothing. Had NORML hosted the petition on their own site, they might have been able to collect signers’ contact information and email address, which would have allowed them to go back to those folks later with calls to action – such as calling or writing Congress.
At least NORML got some good press out of it, which could indirectly recruit grassroots support. But if NORML – or any other issue advocacy group – wants to generate real impact, pointing people to the White House’s petition platform isn’t going to work.
Online petitions can recruit and mobilize supporters, but they’re better as a starting point, rather than a finish line. Since We the People doesn’t allow for the next steps, NORML’s apparent success is actually a wasted effort.
Stephen Hawking possesses one of the most brilliant minds of our time. And since he can ponder and comprehend the most complex theories of the nature of time and space, you know the man understands how to sell a TV show.
That was likely part of the impetus between Hawking’s Sunday night debut episode of Curiosity on Discovery networks, provocatively subtitled: “Did God Create the Universe?”
Spoiler alert if you haven’t caught it in reruns yet: Hawking says no.
Much of the informational content – the description of the Big Bang, the discussion of the nature of gravity and the theoretical descriptions of the creation of stars – were nothing new to anyone (like myself) with an addiction to documentaries about space. In fact, Hawking himself has covered that ground in previous shows for Discovery networks.
That leaves Hawking’s religious opinions as the only new information in the show – and unlike his understanding of the laws of physics, he doesn’t appear to grasp the fundamental concepts of religion. Like so many others who seek to draw some type of dichotomy between science and faith, Hawking tries to establish a false choice. “Did we need a God to set it all up so that the Big Bang could… bang?” he asks. “I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine Creator.”
The thesis is that the Big Bang and everything that came after are wholly consistent with the laws of physics, with no need for “divine intervention” to spark existence.
That’s a fair assessment, but completely parallel to the concept of a universal Architect. That the machinations of the Universe are intelligible does not preclude the presence of divinity. In fact, the idea of laws of physics which govern so rigorously and unfailingly the motion of each cosmic body – from supermassive stars on down to subatomic particles – seems to give an awful lot of power to Whoever it was that wrote those laws, doesn’t it?
In fact, let’s take it one step further and consider the Big Bang, in Hawkings own words:
“Follow the clues, and we can deduce that the Universe simply burst into existence… but I’m afraid we have to stop a moment, before we get carried away by fire and noise. At the very beginning, the Big Bang happened in total darkness, because light didn’t exist yet. To see it, we’d have needed some type of cosmic night vision. But even this, a view from the outside, is impossible. Again, it sounds strange, but space didn’t exist then either.”
Another account of those momentsis probably more familiar to most people:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
The latter is, of course, the beginning of the book of Genesis, which is certainly no science textbook. The juxtaposition proves nothing, though it does seem interesting that the description of the creation of the Universe written in ancient times mirrors so closely the result of centuries of astronomical research.
Putting the items side-by-side does demonstrate that even where they intersect, science and religion need not clash. Forcing a choice between God and the laws of physics is like arguing whether the stuff you learn in history or English is more correct – both subjects are occasionally intertwined, but distinct.
Similarly, someone who studies math and science should also be able to appreciate the beauty and symmetry of the universe without being accused of being irrational. Isn’t it amazing that the ratio of every circle’s circumference to its diameter is the same (pi)? Isn’t it fascinating that electrons buzz around nuclei, nuclei buzz around each other, planets buzz around suns, suns buzz around the centers of galaxies? This type of view of the natural world most likely inspired Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed what would be called the Big Bang theory in 1927. You might also refer to the good professor by his other job title, Monsignor.
Of course, for all the discussion it has raised, you can say this about Hawking’s thesis: it makes for very provocative television, even when the factual subject matter has been done before.
Since at least 2009, Facebook has kept an office here in Your Nation’s Capital, but the company became an official part of the DC community this week when their PR consultant got caught trying to recruit bloggers to write anti-Google stories.
As consulting snafus go, this is pretty mild – especially when a reading of the original emails suggests that the PR consultant was not doing anything wrong, underhanded, or illegal. This isn’t Jack Bonner’s “contractors” cooking up fake letters, it’s a PR person recruiting someone to sign an op-ed – in other words, exactly what they are paid to do.
The problem is they asked the wrong person. Sure, Chris Soghoian lists himself as a “security and privacy” researcher. But the name of his blog is “Slight Paranoia.” That’s the type of blogger who asks questions about why you’re barking up his tree and encouraging him to take a public stance against Google.
The situation highlights how trying to wage public affairs battles anonymously can backfire. Clearly, Facebook wanted to sling mud without getting their hands dirty. But they had a legitimate point about Google and privacy. Google collects an enormous amount of information on people, many times without users understanding how they are sending that information. People have had beefs with Facebook on privacy, but the information you put out on Facebook is information you actively put on the internet; if the world suddenly knows you like My Little Pony and Elmer’s Glue it’s because you signed up for a Facebook account and clicked “like” on those pages, you sick, pathetic degenerate.
Facebook isn’t the only big player going after Google; both MicroSoft and AT&T have put big money into public policy campaigns taking shots at everything from privacy to intellectual property.
Like those other companies and many others in all kinds of industries, though, Facebook figured out that the government’s activities could impact their business. Because they tried (through their PR agent) to get too cute, Facebook’s message on privacy is obscured because of a tactical misstep.
Welcome to Washington.
President Obama’s first campaign event kicked off on Facebook this afternoon just a few hours after Micah Sifry at TechPresident did a basic overview of the online landscape of for the 2012 race thus far.
Sifry’s attention-getting headline – “It’s not Facebook, It’s the Data, Stupid” – seems to be an indictment of social networks. But his key point is that knowing the audience is more important than having thousands (or even millions) of friends, followers, or likes. It’s a point that many have made since 2008 repeatedly, yet it isn’t repetitive. There are still folks who believe that online success is measured by the easiest metrics of Facebook and Twitter, and not in the more difficult (and final) measurement of votes on election day. Ultimately, success or failure of the online campaign is tied to the success or failure of the overall campaign:
Facebook and other third-party social network platforms aren’t the central battlefield. It’s data and targeting and figuring out how to use online strategies to enable motivated volunteers to identify, persuade and get out the vote.
Sifry does miss an important shift in voter engagement, though. He downplays Facebook, noting that the Obama 2012 effort still has the advantages of the MyBarackObama.com networking infrastructure left over from 2008 (with roots stretching back to the nascent Howard Dean effort in 2003). But that campaign architecture is outdated if it doesn’t work with Facebook.
Consider that in the 2004 and 2008 election cycles, social networking was a varied market. Friendster, MySpace, AIM, Friendfeed, Twitter, and of course Facebook all had significant shares of the market at one point or another. Now, Facebook is the unquestioned market leader. What’s more, Facebook is built as a platform for other services. For instance, the biggest social network to gain traction since the Obama campaign, Foursquare, allows you to sign up for their service by using your Facebook log in.
There’s no room for MyBarackObama.com in the modern online media and networking environment unless it works seamlessly within the Facebook interface. If the Obama campaign tries to copy 2008 tactics in 2012 they will fail.
Sifry talks glowingly about the Facebook apps deployed by the Pawlenty and Obama campaigns – and rightly so, because these little programs are monumentally important in bridging the gap between social networking success and data management. Liking a page is a tangential connection, that can be severed easily and surrenders little information; running followers through an application that allows them to submit contact information and self-identify their interests and issue priorities is much more powerful.
The idea that activity on Facebook is separate from data management is a recipe for a losing campaign; the winner in 2012 will have both working together. (And despite the attention-grabbing headline, Sifry seems to get that.)