Postdoctoral Research

Did Prime Minister Harper choke on a hash brown? His Members of Parliament appeared convinced as they posted the news item to the social media platform Twitter. Or at least they did until their party admitted that a hack of its website circulated the fake news item. More than embarrass the party, the hackers revealed its communication apparatus; one that exemplifies how campaign management software controls their communications. My Postdoctoral research project investigates these new campaign and communications software systems and how they re-wire political communication in democratic societies.

The Hash Brown incident would have been dismissed as hearsay, but it appeared credible because party members had posted it to Twitter, or rather software posted the story because party members’ Twitter accounts were configured to automatically forward news items from the party’s central website – an example of ‘calculated messaging’ that is produced more by software than by people. Beyond just a prank, the hackers also leaked a party donor database from the website – revealing the same data that Conservatives used to send holiday cards to Jewish residents of north Toronto, a practice that only came to light after these residents complained about the party tracking their religious beliefs. These voter management techniques represent a kind of ‘on-demand support’ that parties rely upon to target messaging, fundraise and get-out-the-vote. Where parties once tried to listen to and persuade voters, they now package them as profiles with generic names like ‘Eunice’ or ‘Dougie’, so staffers can ask ‘how would Dougie react?’ when customizing messaging in a kind of ‘probabilistic politics’ of calculating likely support. Calculated messaging, on-demand support, and probabilistic politics have become integral parts of modern campaigning, and are now linked by an emerging set of campaign management software. I research the software products orchestrating these techniques into a system of real-time managerial control.

My postdoctoral research:

  1. studies the functions and affordances of software products being developed and deployed for political campaigns in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom;
  2. explains how calculated messaging, on-demand support from probable voters, and probabilistic politics function as part of these software packages; and
  3. theorizes how real-time control alters the democratic process.

My research provides critical insight into how software threatens the democratic function of political communication. If a thriving democracy depends on political communication to inform voters on party positions, then software effaces this process in favour of telling voters what they want to hear, when they want to hear it, even if it contradicts messaging to other potential supporters. Majority governments once formed by ‘appealing to the centre’ now aggregate different and conflicting supporters with more extreme, calculated messaging. US President Obama voiced the same problems when he stated, “for if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways” . If campaign software seeks to only target, tailor, and manage communication, it will weaken the ties between citizens in a stable democracy, and will turn the outcomes of elections into products of calculation, not consensus.