"It should be illegal to publish poll numbers."
So said Matt Taibbi in his assessment of how speculation about the outcome of the election eclipsed the event itself. His suggested remedy:
Banning poll numbers would force the media to actually cover the issues. As it stands now, the horse race is the entire story.
Obviously this was written awhile ago, on 9 October 2012. It doesn’t diminish the relevancy though. Taibbi continues by excoriating himself and his colleagues in journalism, but we can skip that. Journalists give people what they want, or what they are most interested in finding out.
I’ve noticed this behavior myself, regarding the election, and seeming obsession with forecasting the outcome while in progress. It definitely resembles a horse race, or football game, some sort of betting-related activity. There is competition at the center, with a vast audience of onlookers. Relatively few are direct stakeholders in the outcome, though. In some sense, of course, we all are, even external to the U.S.A.
The Future Journalism Project, from whom I reblogged the first portion of this post. continues on, and demonstrates quite thoroughly how Taibbi’s point is substantiated by findings from The Pew Research Center’s recent report, Winning the Media Campaign 2012. I suggest reading the original post by FJR for further details. I didn’t need much convincing about this. Personally, I found the election coverage very boring for the exact reasons highlighted, that there was an over-emphasis on the process rather than coverage of the underlying candidate stances and consequences.
The intense focus on Nate Silver and statistical forecasting using predictive analysis was not especially interesting to me either. It just seemed like more of the same.
Big Data Integrity?
There are numerous ethical questions pertaining to the use of behavioral data for predictive purposes, and certainly for influencing behavior. The over-emphasis on predicting the electoral results is problematic for the reason that polls might actually influence voters. Just as troubling or more so is the material in a new, three part series by MIT’s Technology Review, which covers the extreme granularity of the candidates’ efforts to influence voters:
the President’s team used Big Data and sophisticated analytics at an almost unprecedented scale to track voters, and nudge them in the direction that the Obama team wanted them to go… It essentially created a cohort-analysis system of data to judge every single voter it wanted to get to the polls. Obama’s team took the usual system of analytics and reduced it to the most granular level: the individual voter.
Remember, though, that while one can develop a system with this intended level of precision, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is effective. Nevertheless, the intent was there. Given time and a few more elections, I suspect the process will be fine-tuned.
Predictive data and the 2012 U.S. Presidential electionTo be fair, this effort was overwhelmingly implemented by the campaign for re-election of President Obama. As covered extensively elsewhere, the Romney campaign was not particularly successful in its efforts to use sophisticated analytic methods. According to yesterday’s Read Write Web article, about the use of text analysis and predictive models to influence voter behavior :
In contrast, the Romney campaign was still in an earlier mode of data analytics, focused around larger cohorts such as campaign topics (the fall of Obama-backed solar energy provider Solyndra, for instance) and how individual ads affected the voter mindset.
Ars Technica provided very detailed coverage of the shortcomings of the Romney campaign effort.
Troubling if wrong, troubling if rightI find this use of predictive analysis and statistical forecasting to be unsettling. First, I am not certain that it is as effective as some seem to believe:
The Obama team figured out what type of person a voter was and how that person would respond to certain types of stimuli - such as direct mail, person-to-person interviews, social media, advertising, and so on. Obama was then able to deploy his massive volunteer network (some 500,000 people) and other campaign resources as needed.
Second, I have reservations about using technology for these purposes. By way of analogy: Consider the effect that algorithmic and automated programs have had on financial markets, especially the effect of high frequency trading.