Facebook and other social networks are transforming huge swaths of our lives—how we work, shop, and stay in touch with the people we love. They are also changing the political process itself. When John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated on television, concerns were raised that politics would deteriorate into a contest where the most telegenic candidate won. But TV debates took place out in the open—anyone could tune in. And the Federal Communications Commission adopted regulations so that opposing candidates were granted equal time to present their views.
With social networks, it’s not the most telegenic candidate who wins, but the one with the best data crunchers. Barack Obama was swept into office largely because of his presence on the Web. His social network campaign was managed by one of the founders of Facebook, twenty-four-year-old Chris Hughes, who took a leave from the company to propel Obama into office.
The Republicans did Obama one better and stormed Washington in the 2010 elections through targeted use of social network data. Data aggregators used posts from social networks, such as people’s interest in the Bible, and combined it with other information about what those people did on the Web, such past political contributions, voter registration status, shopping history, and real estate records. They were able to identify conservative voters by name and provide that information to Republican political hopefuls. The candidates could then email the people directly, making promises and taking stances that were never revealed to the public—and were shielded from scrutiny by their opponents.
In an election where every last vote will count, Romney and Obama are seeking new ways to persuade us to support them. Employing techniques that businesses use to find out who to target with ads for luxury cars, cheap home loans, or coupons for discounts at department stores, the campaigns have authorized websites to deposit tracking mechanisms called “cookies” on our computers. This allows candidates to collect data about where we go on the Web (porn sites, religious sites, a Facebook high school reunion page, or all of the above), and make decisions about what sort of phone calls or emails would get us to vote their way.
But do we really want to condone a government that spies on us in our own homes by following our travels across the Web? I’d rather see a candidate who speaks out for our fundamental right of privacy and supports an idea brewing at the Federal Trade Commission—that we should have a do-not-track list, like the do-not-call one, in order to protect us from prying eyes on the Web.
Lori Andrews, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, is the author of I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy.