Political Redlining and Issue Publics
When Lippmann wrote that the news media could never effectively manage the exchange of information between political leaders and citizens, he probably did not imagine that campaign managers would use another institution – an open, digital market for political data – to structure this exchange. We have placed our personal lives into the open market as data points for political dossiers and profiles. Voting.com, for example, charged about $70 for two variables on 1,000 people, but the quality of its psychographic data was well above that of other data firms charging lower rates. As a public service, they collected information about political donations and built a publicly searchable donation database, allowing users to see how much their neighbors had donated and to which political candidates or issues. Since political inferences are increasingly made from shopping habits, we continue to generate data for campaigns’ statistical models as long as we conduct electronic transactions. Political culture used to be generated by elites or small groups of people operating through widely institutionalized media or party organizations. Now lobbyists and issue publics generate political information for their own consumption. As citizens, we increasingly live in a political subculture that has been conceived with us in mind.
Even the GrassrootsActivist.org project, which sought to build tools for political learning and had relatively altruistic motives, helped to develop some problematic communication strategies. On several occasions, I met clients in the waiting room of GrassrootsActivist.org. “Their tools have let me identify certain people and give them extra political attention and services,” one told me. “The data let you target. Who wants to target nonvoters, for example? Big waste of time.” Another told me that she was a big hit with her parent company because she could segment audiences to specific groups. “If you have an issue like pro-tobacco, where you need that small microcosm of society that supports you, you only let your audience see your message.” In other words, even the hypermedia tools created by altruists are used for political redlining.
Learning Politics from the Hypermedia Campaign
“Redlining” is an old term used to refer to the organizational practice of identifying the parts of a community that are difficult or problematic to serve. Most often the term refers to how organizations decide that some people, by virtue of neighborhood attributes and perceptions, should be offered low standards of service and indenturing obligations. These neighborhoods would be circled in red ink as places where insurance companies would give uncompetitive rates, banks would have more demanding repayment plans, government agencies would make fewer investments, or real estate developers would refuse to build new ventures. Most often neighborhoods made up of racial minorities or low-income households would be denied the opportunity of competitive insurance rates, loan packages, municipal infrastructure, and real estate development (Massey and Denton 1993).
Political redlining is the process of restricting our future supply of political information with assumptions about our demographics and present or past opinions. As I use the term, political redlining occurs in three ways over hypermedia. First, political redlining can involve delimiting which population is less likely to vote and designing informational services only with likely voters in mind. Second, political redlining can occur when someone decides to filter political information for Web-site users who have signed up for content. Third, redlining can occur when an individual chooses to privilege some information sources over others by relying on Web rings for content or by setting topical preferences with news portals. Informational segregation occurs when political lobbyists take excessive amounts of information on some potential voters while ignoring others, pursue informed consent from some voters but not others, or offer opt-in or opt-out privacy policies to some voters but not others. Some pollsters will take data snapshots of a neighborhood or issue public and then neglect to revisit the site for changes in public opinion, decline to dig deeper for subtle variations in opinion, or change privacy policies midstream just to collect and sell more data. It is more common to use aggressive and deceptive marketing strategies online, strategies that take advantage of the technological inexperience of new users, users with poor search skills, or users with different levels of education or linguistic comprehension. This means, as with other forms of social inequality, that the elderly, poor, and racial minorities are most likely to be victims of imposed political redlining.
From the point of view of campaign managers, political redlining is reasonable because politicians have specific constituencies. As with the case of AstroturfLobby.org, campaigns will exclude voters who cannot be activated against the particular politician being targeted. Redlining traditionally refers to the organizational practice of refusing to serve communities based on race and income. In the political sense, redlining also refers to the campaign practice of declining to serve a community if it is not part of a sensitive electoral district or declining to serve individuals if they are perceived to be less sensitive to the political issue. In other words, if a community is not in a politician’s service area, it is not targeted by a hypermedia campaign. If a person is not an engaged citizen likely to feel sympathetic – a suspected nonvoter – they are not targeted by a hypermedia campaign.
Political redlining is discriminatory; campaign managers build hypermedia not just to segment, but also to factionalize the public. The designers perceive a set of sensible social segments, primarily defined by political grievance and opinion, and set about building technologies that help these communities to coalesce. Often these segments also align with gender, race, and class boundaries, but issue publics are primarily distinguished by ideational, not demographic factors. Demography and public opinion are not always related, and it can be very difficult to predict one’s ideas based on demographic characteristics. For most pollsters and political campaigns, however, demographic profiling has served as the best means of aggregating the personal politics of millions of people into identity profiles. From the start, political hypermedia have been designed to get around this problem of focus and scale. Informational segregation creates environments for narrowly focused political dialogues or closely edited political updates.
A number of theorists have feared that new media might fragment social perception, experience, and ideology. Political hypermedia are designed not only to serve politically sophisticated citizens with the information they desire, creating what Kling called “boutique politics,” but also to equip any consumer of political content as a producer of political content (Kling 1996). The cultural industries that Horkheimer and Adorno critique are similar to the political culture industry of campaign managers:
The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of satires in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organizing, and labeling consumers. Something is provided for all so that none may escape; the distinctions are emphasized and extended. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification. Everybody must behave in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type. Consumers appear as statistics on research organization charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green and blue areas; the technique is that used for any type of propaganda. (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972), (p. 123)
What Horkheimer and Adorno observed in the construction of a popular culture was supported by my observations of how Voting.com and GrassrootsActivist.org design hypermedia tools for political redlining. Horkheimer and Adorno were criticizing the tools and industry of traditional media. As the next chapter illustrates, hypermedia are not hierarchical nor is their content mass-produced. Hypermedia do depend on classifying, organizing, and labeling consumers. With hypermedia, though, many of these schema – and the tools themselves – are actually constructed by individuals, with or without their informed consent. But even if we have grievances against mass media industries, such as the pollsters and consultants who produce political campaigns, there are at least two ways that modern hypermedia campaigns can disenfranchise. Mass media, such as broadcast television, seemed to constrain the supply of political information available to the public and provided little capacity for user-driven political learning. Unlike the mass media critiqued by Horkheimer and Adorno, hypermedia are both a structure of constraints and a system of capacities.
When the producers of political content make choices about what information a consumer will see, they structurally impose limits on how the consumer will navigate and what the consumer can learn. For example, if I rely on my labor union’s Web site as a news portal, that union’s editors will be making important choices about what information is presented to me. In this sense, producers structurally impose a political context on the hypermedia world I inhabit. Companies such as Voting.com and nonprofit charities such as GrassrootsActivist.org provide these structures of facts and link. However, because I, too, am equipped with political hypermedia, I can choose to visit other portals, create my own portals, or rely on friends and family to pass on political content to me. When the consumers of political content make choices about whom they trust for information and what form that information should take, they construct a network of information suppliers by validating some and disapproving others, in effect imposing limits on themselves by privileging some sources of political content over others. For example, I can choose to have The New York Times send me updates about environmental news but can avoid news about developing countries and can visit the blogs of my friends to keep up to date on Canadian politics. Consumers individually construct a trusted political network from which they draw information. Whereas campaign managers can use political hypermedia to bond voters to a campaign so the campaign becomes the primary source of political information, citizens can use political hypermedia to bridge campaigns so they have multiple information sources.
<snip from chapter 3 of Managed Citizen book, pp. 131-135>
In chapter 3 the process of political redlining was exposed. Redlining referred to the campaign practice of declining to serve a community if it was not part of a sensitive electoral district or declining to serve individuals if they are perceived to be less sensitive to the political issue. In other words, if a community is not in a politician’s service area, it is not targeted by a hypermedia campaign, and if a person is not an engaged citizen likely to feel sympathetic – a suspected nonvoter – they are not targeted by a hypermedia campaign.
<snip from page 197>