Category Archives: Politics

Young Voters: Online, Off the Hook

On Election Day, we noted that nothing beats personal appeals from trusted peers in getting voters to the polls.  Traditionally, the two trusted methods have been a phone call and a door knock.  The upstart method is social media.

An interesting insight from Business Week this week on lessons from this election on why social media may overcome the phone as a method of making the personal appeals:

This powered the “targeted-sharing” program that Messina and others believe was the true innovation that helped drive such surprisingly high turnout. The campaign’s Orwellian knowledge of the electorate—its deep understanding of precisely what, or whom, would motivate someone to act on Obama’s behalf—was such that it could get supporters to appeal to wavering or unreliable friends and acquaintances with individually tailored messages. “Politics is a direct-response business,” Goff says. “People do things if you ask them to do it, and for the most part don’t do it if you don’t ask.”

Often these requests were made through Facebook, mobile, or another online medium, which made it particularly effective for contacting young voters. “Of our turnout targets 29-and-under, half couldn’t be reached by phone, either because they didn’t have one or we didn’t have their number,” Goff says. “Yet we were able to reach 85 percent of them through targeted sharing. Almost everyone is on Facebook.” He estimates that 5 million voters were contacted this way—more than Obama’s margin of victory. “All of these things are characteristic of the way the next generation of social and mobile apps are going to evolve,” says Schmidt.

Rebooting at the End of the Era of the Secret Ballot

In my recent post, the Too Visible Man, I noted that we were not having the necessary conversation about privacy.  Typically, privacy law has expressed is concerns — more likely to prompt precautions — where personally identifiable information was at issue.

That prior post was prompted by the news of the merging of online and offline databases in the context of Facebook, suggesting that there is little data that is non-personally identifiable information left out there.  Consequently, privacy concerns are at the core of data today, not at the margins.

The same concern holds true in the non-commercial realm, specifically databases that have been created by both parties for political targeting:

Sasha Issenberg, author of a new book, “The Victory Lab”, says the innovation in this election cycle is that the campaigns are able to link online and offline data. Voter-registration files have been merged with vast quantities of bought consumer data, on top of which come bought or acquired e-mails, mobile and landline numbers, as well as data gathered through canvassing, phone banks and social-media pages. The campaigns are also making use of cookies, the crumbs of data people leave behind when they browse the net. It is these that allow Mr and Mrs Sixpack to be sent different advertising.

The point of all these data is to mine them for insights into the electorate and identify pockets of voters who can be won over—either to vote, spend or volunteer. (The darker side of the art is to scare off voters leaning towards the other candidate.)

The same issues that we need to confront head-on with Internet data (as I discussed in both the post above and this additional one), we need to take on in the context of our politics.

The Ground War (The Digital Front)

Takingpitches, Election Day edition.

After a long campaign of getting out the message, elections come down to making sure your voters get to the polls.  As the Economist puts it:

The parties have both embraced research showing that nothing beats a personal appeal from “trusted peers”—friends, neighbours, relations or those with shared interests—either on a doorstep or by telephone. The psychology of shame has been scoured for tips about the importance of securing an “affirmative” pledge to vote.

The old school proven way is knocking on doors and ringing the telephone.  If the key aspect of that is “a personal appeal from trusted peers,” then perhaps there is a place for the social network as a GOTV tool.

The Obama campaign has embraced this point.  After thousands of emails received from the Obama campaign, the last one I received was from Michelle Obama.  It said in part:

The polls are closing in a few hours.

If you’ve got any nervous energy, there’s plenty you can do right now to have an impact on the results tonight:

2) Then, forward this message to everyone you know to make sure they vote, too. And remind your friends in battleground states on Facebook to go vote:

After the election, it will be interesting to see what the results will say about the impact of Facebook, Twitter, etc as a third method of GOTV in addition to the phone and shoe leather.





Probability Nugget, Certainty Shell

Another one from Michael Lewis’s piece on President Obama, on making decisions for highly probabilistic outcomes, but then having to “feign total certainty.”

But if you happen to be president just now, what you are faced with, mainly, is not a public-relations problem but an endless string of decisions. Putting it the way George W. Bush did sounded silly but he was right: the president is a decider. Many if not most of his decisions are thrust upon the president, out of the blue, by events beyond his control: oil spills, financial panics, pandemics, earthquakes, fires, coups, invasions, underwear bombers, movie-theater shooters, and on and on and on. They don’t order themselves neatly for his consideration but come in waves, jumbled on top of each other.

“Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.

The Flow of Obama

One of several interesting passages in Michael Lewis’s Vanity Fair article about Obama.  This one centers on focusing your ability to make decisions by eliminating the routine decisions.  In the extreme, the cost of eliminating all routine decisions is also the loss of serendipity.

You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”

The Super PAC Election: The Attempt to Silence Social Media?

I wrote six weeks ago that:

The Internet, utilized correctly, should make politics passionate and alive; but, instead politics is largely becoming even more stagnant, even with the occasional examples of a refreshing oasis in the desert.

That post observed that the Internet was falling short of bringing authenticity into politics.  Like the space program, we seem to be going backwards with the internet and politics.

In a similar vein, NYU’s Clay Shirky observes this month in Wired:

Clinton used mailing lists in ’92, and every election since then — famously Howard Dean to Barack Obama — has involved considerably more imaginative use of social media. And this election has not. I’ve been quite surprised by that.

I had a student looking at Super PACs a while ago, and we said, “Let’s try and find out what the Super PACs’ social media strategy is.” As she came back about 10 days later, she said, “I think I know what the Super PAC’s social media strategy is: Don’t use it.” That’s exactly the whole point of being a Super PAC, to be able to spend unlimited money on the kind of media where no one has the right or the ability to respond, and to minimize transparency. This election feels to me, right now, more Nixon-Kennedy than Obama-McCain because television has become the tool of choice for the source of unlimited fundraising. Politicians like television better; nobody gets to yell back to you if you’re yelling on TV.

The Stealth Red Hats

Wow, oh wow.  Just remarkable.  From the FT today:

When China last year revealed its newest stealth jet fighter, the defence industry was taken aback.

Executives of leading companies in the sector and military officials had not expected the J-20 to be as big or as technologically advanced as it appeared.

Nor had they expected it to resemble their own latest generation jet fighters quite so closely. But they did have a suspicion about where Beijing obtained some of the top-secret information that might explain why this was so.

The western defence industry is one of the biggest targets for cyber attacks. Many of them are believed to originate in China, as it tries to modernise its military without having to spend decades developing fiendishly complicated technology, such as that used to make the latest generation of western fighter jets that are near-invisible to radar.

Groups including Lockheed Martin, the US’s biggest defence contractor by sales, and BAE Systems, its European peer, have come under particularly heavy cyberfire.

The two are involved in the most sensitive and costly projects, including developing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which can perform tasks such as evading detection and allowing pilots to home in on ground targets miles away and invisible to the human eye.

Because there is no law on how much companies must disclose about a cyber­attack, details about what may have been stolen and who could have been behind a theft often appear only via the grapevine.

But many cyberexperts in defence companies suspect large quantities of data have been mined from programmes such as the Joint Strike Fighter.

The Enron Problems of Chinese Governance

One of the core challenges of business is keeping managers accountable, focused, and productive.  It’s true at all levels — whether it is the board managing the CEO or the CEO managing his reports or those reports managing their reports.  Think of Jeff Immelt, having to manage numerous GE subsidiaries in many businesses in every possible geography.

The solution of managerial capitalism is managing through targets – whether numerical or otherwise.  If you meet your targets, you are rewarded; if you don’t you are fired.

This an effective way to manage in many ways and perhaps the only way.  The downside is that you get the results you incent for; but, sometimes at the expense of optimal behavior.  People learn to game the results and may act unethically to achieve the results.  Think WorldCom or Enron.

Earlier this week, we discussed how an authoritarian regime achieves the appearance of consensus.  But what happens after consensus, in terms of the implementation of that policy.

An authoritarian society faces a similar issue as corporations in managerial capitalism in terms of how a central authority projects its authority across a society at the most local levels; how do you control millions of local officials?  While similar in concept, the issues are infinitely more complicated in degree than any corporation.  In contrast, democratic, federal societies like the US have an elegant solution; they bypass the agency and command problem altogether by having the people at every level govern themselves through elections.

Ironically, the Chinese Communist party, lacking the elegance of democracy, must rely on the more imperfect institutions of managerial capitalism for the central government to control the local authorities. As described in the Economist, this has resulted in a perhaps unsustainable solution, where local authorities are rewarded for meeting certain subjects, even if it means literally trampling on citizens who stand in the way, including through murder, torture, and kidnapping:

But the emperor does know, and the emperor rewards. Although there has been an expansion of social and economic freedoms in many areas, under the Communist Party’s system of cadre evaluations, local officials are graded on the basis of a series of internal targets that have little to do with the rule of law. The targets are meant for internal use, but local governments have sometimes published them on websites, and foreign scholars have also seen copies. The most important measures are maintaining social stability, achieving economic growth and, in many areas, enforcing population controls. Cadres sign contracts that spell out their responsibilities. Failure to meet targets can end a cadre’s career. Fulfilling them, even if it means trampling laws to do so, can mean career advancement and financial bonuses.

Mayling Birney at the London School of Economics says the system assigns the cold logic of a scorecard to behaviour often dismissed as the excesses of little dictators far from Beijing. Acting in accordance with the law is ranked as less important than other priorities. On one local document seen by Ms Birney, cadres in one township could score only up to 10% of their points for lawfulness, but 40% for economic development. In effect, she says, the party is instructing local officials to break laws when it will help them to meet higher priorities.

Social stability is paramount: authorities in Tibet and in Jiangxi province recently announced that officials can be promoted for “outstanding performance” in maintaining stability. Beijing will supply localities seeking to put down unrest with additional “stability maintenance” funding, which creates a perverse financial incentive to employ repressive tactics. Political careers have been made, not broken, by brutal repression of unrest—in 1989 an official named Hu Jintao imposed martial law after riots in Tibet. Mr Hu is now China’s president. In 2011 a Hu protégé, Hu Chunhua (no relation), burnished his credentials by cracking down in Inner Mongolia.

Brian Lamb For The Internet Age

As long as I am on my run blogging politics right now, here is an im chat I was having with a friend a few weeks ago:

me: relatedly, you know what would be a cool project — is a crowdsourced structure to get draft bills read in real-time. one of the most disturbing turns that american democracy has taken is that no one (i.e. legislators or citizens) reads the bills, and we only have a sense of what’s in the bill by some often inaccurate headline provided by the proponents. often what we find is that there are all sorts of nonsense — intended and unintended — that has been hidden into the bill.
someone should get that started and win a genius grant for doing so

friend: yeah
that’s a great idea
it would also help
with calling out
sneaking shit into bills
at the request of lobbyists

me: it’s an internet age c-span — a transparency maker

friend: there’s no mechanism for that now?
it probably doesn’t happen in real-time
but there’s no place to go to get the full explanation for legislation?

I hope someone is doing this or does it soon.

The Underlying Instability of “Managed Chaos” in Authoritarian Societies

In life — whether in business or politics — it is deep in our humanity that “command and control” only goes so far because some of us inherently have dissent programmed deep within us.

In nations that are authoritarian, as Americans, it can be hard to conceptualize disagreement for leadership and on core issues.  If you veer from the authoritarian leader, don’t you die?  Just by scanning the newspaper, it is obvious that this does not explain things.  Think just in the last couple of weeks: about apparent disagreement between the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad in Iran about the nuclear program, the struggle between Putin and Medvedev over the presidency of Russia, and the drama around the disposal of Bo Xilai (and his family) in China.  All these societies have also seen a dramatic uptick in citizen action  over the last few years, whether it has been dissent on the street or in social media.

These incidents suggest another potential model of disagreement in authoritarian societies: massive disagreement behind the scenes, while publicly maintaining the illusion of an authoritarian unity.  That illusion has to be maintained, because if disagreement becomes public, this invites disorder, for if there is an ongoing debate about power and the future, why shouldn’t it be more open and why shouldn’t the citizens be involved more directly and broadly?

The Weekend FT recently had an incredible piece about the process in Russia.  Here are some relevant excerpts:

However, Andrei Kolesnikov, who has covered the Putin beat at Kommersant newspaper for the past 12 years, and wrote the first authorised biography of Putin, said that maintaining the placid exterior was the central principle of competition within the Kremlin. “The various teams are expected to fight with each other, to compete for everything on behalf of their boss,” he said. “But the cardinal rule is that the principals should never be dragged into these battles unless they want to be.”

Konstantin Remchukov, the editor and owner of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the influential Moscow daily newspaper, said that competition among staff was obvious. “Putin would make an appointment to see a minister at 10:15 in the White House, in downtown Moscow, while Medvedev would make an appointment with the same minister a few hours later at his residence outside the city,” meaning it was nearly impossible for the minister to make both appointments on time. “It was a kind of managed chaos,” said Remchukov.


A forceful, merciless and omnipotent ruler has been a near-permanent fixture inside the red brick walls and onion domes of the Kremlin since it was first built in the 15th century. And yet, this image of the tsar has always been at least partly the result of a co-operative effort by the Kremlin court, in which the notables and barons conspired to make even the weak, sickly, absurdly young, or the utterly disinterested in ruling appear fearsome, while painting themselves as quivering supplicants.

In a classic essay published in the 1970s, at the height of the cold war, Harvard historian Edward L. Keenan argued that the notion of an omnipotent, autocratic tsar has largely been a myth throughout 500 years of Russian history; instead, the rule has been a system of Kremlin court politics, within which the guiding principle is consensus. Clan politics within the Kremlin, he wrote, was “symbolically expressed in a kind of self-imposed fictional subservience to an autocratic tsar, and ensured by the awareness that the fiction was the central element of a conspiracy against political chaos that would ensue if clan were to be set against clan”.

Keenan’s conclusions appear every bit as valid today as they did 30 years ago. While Putin is unquestionably the most powerful figure in Russia, it is clear he doesn’t entirely lay claim either to the aura of absolutist tsar, as projected by his supporters, or autocratic despot, as proposed by his detractors.

“You know, Putin is not in fact a dictator,” said Oleg Vyugin, chairman of MDM Bank, and former deputy head of Russia’s central bank. “A dictator is when you really do control the elite, and each day decide, ‘Today you’re getting this and tomorrow you’re getting this, and you’re not getting anything’… For Putin, the situation is more complicated. Putin has to take into account very many different interests in politics, and try to combine them.”

Instead of an Olympian throne, it would seem that Putin sits at the nexus of modern-day boyar clans in perpetual conflict, in the form of the state corporations, oligarchic financial-industrial groups, bureaucrats and the police.