Opinion: Mining for manipulation

Students need to stay informed in an increasingly manipulative political time

Political campaigns are manipulating you. 

This should come as no surprise, since the current political landscape is plagued with deceit and corruption. Campaigns, rather than actual policy, are causing divisiveness among different demographic groups which should be alarming to voters and students forming political beliefs.

To be confident that their vote is based on facts, young voters need to have a solid understanding of the unethical and manipulative tactics political campaign workers use to gain support.

Through smear campaigns and fearmongering, political campaign workers are now categorizing voters into subsets to better target their messaging and receive votes.

“Most campaigns are savvy to the fact that voters (respond better to) things that make them fearful or hopeful than they actually care about policy issues,” said Adam Symonds, a senior lecturer, forensics director and political communication specialist at the Hugh Downs School of Communication

Symonds said what really motivates voters is their emotions.

“(Campaign workers) will intentionally make ads either prey upon our fears or make us feel like something is going to get better,” he said.

This manipulation is demonstrated by President Donald Trump and his supporters repeatedly chanting, “Build the wall,” at numerous rallies and campaign events. This statement, with its conciseness and ease, is used to embody the idea that his decisions guarantee safety for his constituents.

This tactic is often derived from a practice that is most harmful to democracy: data mining. Essentially, political campaigns buy data from major social media outlets to group individuals into certain demographic batches and target them with ads specifically tailored to their lives. 

This data can range from music preferences to frequently visited locations and even recently purchased items. All of this data, while it may seem meaningless, paints a picture of an individual’s wealth, political views and voting patterns. 

Data mining, in itself, is extremely unethical. This does not stop modern campaigns from using it to adjust to a rapidly changing political landscape, though.

After campaigns get ahold of relevant information, campaign workers are inclined to send out messages that appeal to certain groups. For example, Latinos living in America may have seen the message from Trump’s campaign boasting the “lowest unemployment rate for Latinos” in history plastered all over Facebook. 

Campaigns and political leaders do this so that voters understand how the campaign’s message is related to them. However, this language is clearly manipulated. The Associated Press reported that Trump reigns during a time when Latino, Asian and African American unemployment rate is at its lowest in history, but this ad does not tell voters that this rate has actually steadily decreased for the past several years and recently began increasing. 

When campaign researchers and marketers are able to choose which facts are relevant to their campaigns through data mining, searching for keywords on social media posts and obtaining voting records, they leave out a lot of significant information about a candidate, like their voting record, policy plans, donors or previous occupations, that voters often do not see.

Voters would have to go out of their way to fact-check the presented information, which is unlikely to happen due to the staggering media illiteracy among consumers. According to the American Press Institute, 32% of Americans find it difficult to distinguish news from opinion in the media.

In a reversal of truth, political leaders and experts sometimes blame negative statistics on an opponent’s leadership, when the issue was actually their own doing. 

This type of political blame game is clearly exemplified by many Democratic pundits denouncing Trump for his tough immigration policies. In reality, Obama also oversaw high rates of deportation under his administration, hitting a record high of nearly 410,000 people deported in 2012, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Trump’s leadership, marked by an increased reliance on ICE raids, has resulted in fewer deportations. 

The way campaigns manipulate college aged voters is among the most prominent examples of mass marketing influence. In fact, the Democratic National Committee has taken full advantage of college students’ reliance on technology as they frequently try hard too hard to connect with young voters. Mashable reported that a pink wallpaper tweeted from the DNC’s account and emblazoned with Trump's face and the Beyoncé lyrics "Boy Bye" notably tanked online.

As the Democratic Party became desperate to hold on to young voters, they began publishing more and more ad campaigns in the hope of relating to the Twitter mob. This is one of the most depressing and obvious attempts at creating a relatable campaign, but at least millennials are beginning to realize this.

It’s also important to note that Twitter is not a place for healthy or accurate political discourse. Often, Twitter users are accustomed to idealistic views and anger, which causes them to become misguided by conspiracies or ideas without real substance. 

Despite this, students are not a “done deal” when it comes to party politics and demographic grouping. More students are beginning to shy away from groupthink and are becoming more involved by learning about actual policy. 

Although ASU students are often low on the list of priorities for campaigns and policymakers, there are still ways for them to ensure their perspectives are heard.

Symonds said if ASU students want to see their perspective heard and adapted into the way that policy is communicated, they should think about what insights they have into their generation and particular subset of voters.

Students involved in campaigns should pitch their perspective to higher ups as, “Here’s my perspective on how folks my age are voting, and here are the values that people my age say will control what they vote for,” he said.

By generalizing information and making it about a demographic of voters that shares the same qualities as oneself, or by epitomizing a certain type of voter, he said, the easier it is for the campaign team to see a value in adapting to that insight.

As students, we must ensure that we remain cautious when deciding who to vote for and conduct our own research because campaigns will continue to collect data in unethical ways and pump out deceitful political messages that appeal to certain demographics. Voters must be wary of trusting smear campaigns and appealing catchphrases because these facilitators are often the tip of the iceberg when it comes to policy.

Symonds said that voters not only need to understand the tactics behind political messaging, but apply this knowledge each time they come in contact with it. 

“Clearly, every campaign has an agenda of what exactly they are trying to show you and a particular spin they are trying to put on an issue,” he said, “We should stop and think about  – what are they not telling us and what things have not been said?”

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author's and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.


Reach the columnist at amsnyde6@asu.edu or follow @AnnieSnyder718 on Twitter.

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