Data-driven World

We have the first social media president, a deeply divisive character who communicates directly with his echo-chamber followers and reflects the deep divisions in our data-driven world.   Some pundits claim the president’s victory was decided by his genius in exploiting the newest mass technology.   His team’s brilliant use of data has also been mentioned.

This has happened before with each new technology.   FDR, with his fireside chats, was the genius of the radio, the new and engrossing mass media of his time.   JFK was the first TV president (Nixon, no fag, refused to wear make up; JFK, a metrosexual who let them fix his face for TV, was not shiny, sweaty and shifty-eyed under the lights when they debated).   Obama mobilized support, and early campaign funding, like Howard Dean before him, via the internet.    Trump, already a famous and outspoken brand, worked his thumbs on his phone throughout the campaign, using Twitter like no political candidate before him.

Many of his tweets are, frankly, idiotic.  That is not the point, as we learn.  Politicians throw red meat to their base.  America is a deeply divided nation and that’s how candidates do it.  Obama had crowds chanting “¡ se puede!” [1]  and “Yes we can!” — it made them feel united, hopeful and energized.    Trump had crowds chanting and pumping their fists to “Lock her up!” as he repeatedly threatened his often defensive-looking opponent with prison time upon his election. [2]  This, we must confess, is the level of national politics in America, SAD!  

But here is the thing about our data-driven world.   Back in Hitler’s time his party made unprecedented use of social feedback to continually adjust and sell their policies.  Every speech Hitler gave was heard over millions of radios.   Every listener’s reaction was reported up the chain, each apartment building had a captain, every block had someone who reported these reports to a gauleiter higher up the food chain.  

Dr. Josef Goebbels [3], Minister for Public Enlightenment, quickly had feedback on how the public was buying a given load of crap from candidate Hitler and later from the Fuhrer.  Having, and being able to analyze, such data is crucial in selling anything, marketers run ad campaigns based on it.  Political campaigns are about branding and marketing.  The side with the most effective “messaging” wins.

If Hitler spoke in a hall or a stadium, he knew exactly what to do.  He was said to have had an unerring geiger counter-like gift for taking the pulse of a given crowd and a genius for playing that crowd like yer proverbial violin.   This is an essential talent for any would-be demagogue.  In a mass-market, the candidate, who must speak to millions at once, needs the help of data and numbers crunchers.  We have the technology now to do it in real-time.

He is not well-known, in part because he is a private person, but Robert Mercer, self-made billionaire, is credited by some with saving Trump’s campaign.   Mercer funded Breitbart News and after Trump destroyed Ted Cruz’s campaign, Mercer threw his support behind The Donald.  Through Mercer strategist Steve Bannon came on to the scene, and also the delightful Kellyanne Conway.  Mercer’s daughter Rebekah was appointed to Trump’s transition team right after he won the election.  

Trump is said to love chaos and distraction.  It seems to be true.  He seems to operate best off the cuff, with a shit-storm flying in every direction.   Paying a $25,000,000 settlement, during his presidential campaign, to people defrauded by a business of his that he bragged about would have destroyed any other candidacy.  In his world of constant chaos, nobody really had the focus to exploit it against him as they might have.  The “so-called judge” who ruled against him and forced the settlement, well, his parents were Mexicans, tweeted Trump, with a knowing wink, resting his case.   “Lock her up!  Lock her up!” screamed energized Trump crowds, as their candidate exuded nonchalance.  

While all this was going on some very smart nerds were presumably working obsessively with data.   Robert Mercer is a brilliant mathematician who refined the use of data in investing and invented algorithms that made him a billionaire.   If you have the money to invest in his fund, and you need a lot, his super-sophisticated data-driven investment machine can make you a shitload of money.  The levels of profit are off the charts.

Trump won the Electoral College by a shockingly small number of votes, well under 100,000, spread over five “swing states”.   He won key districts in each of these states, exactly enough of them to win.   A careful analysis of the data prior to election day would have shown his exact path to an Electoral College victory.  How many gerrymandered districts would candidate Trump need to win Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, the other prizes?  With less than 20,000 votes needed in each of those states, would it have been hard for someone with the know-how to design the algorithm to figure out exactly where to target the campaign?  Particularly if hundreds of thousands in those states were ruled ineligible to vote under new, suddenly constitutional, state voter suppression laws?

When my father cast his computerized vote for Al Gore in Florida in 2000,  on a Diebold voting machine, he was alarmed to see a screen pop up instructing him to press “confirm” to cast his vote for George W. Bush.  A primitive computer user, and smart man, my father managed to find the back arrow, got back to the previous screen, indicated Gore again and, the second time, was able to confirm his vote for the candidate he had selected.  (Or maybe not, who knows?  Diebold, owned by Bush campaign donors, successfully argued that its proprietary software would be compromised if they allowed internal checks of their voting machine tabulations)  “How many voters my age do you suppose would have been able to figure out how not to vote for Bush in that situation?” asked my father, not unreasonably.

Leaving aside this kind of easily conducted cyber-chicanery, some simple math can be done to analyze Trump’s Electoral College victory.  It is a strictly academic exercise, but the arithmetic is not hard to do.  

Take his margin of victory in each state.  Put it beside the number of disenfranchised likely Democratic voters in each of those states, voters purged from the voter rolls or not allowed to vote under the particular voting laws of the state, or made to wait hours to vote in “inner city” districts while in the suburbs there were no lines at polling places.  A gun license might be suitable voter ID in one state while a college ID might not.  A brief general history of voter suppression laws is here.

The Voting Rights Act, enacted to prevent this kind of shit, no longer needs enforcement in our post-racial society, a right-wing Supreme Court has recently ruled.   We had a mulatto president, for fuck’s sake, argued the five conservatives on the Court.  The law is now that states may best decide how to restrict voting by people they think don’t deserve to vote.

I leave you with this one thought: whether a foreign government with the ability to hack into voting machines in selected districts, changing just enough votes to give an Electoral College victory, or an all-American mathematical savant with the right algorithm– how hard would it be to flip the right 80,000 or so votes in an election one candidate won by a fairly narrow almost 3,000,000 vote margin?  

Meanwhile, as the real and metaphorical shit flies in every direction, suck it up, ladies and gentlemen, America got the president we deserve.  We love celebrities and worship the fabulously rich, the undisputed winners of the class war the rich so vociferously denounce losers for trying to bring up.  We got a fabulously rich celebrity president.  God bless these Untied States.

 

[1]  Many of those chanting in Spanish had reason, during his eight years, to hope they and their loved ones were not among the record number deported by the charismatic president they helped to elect. 

[2] In a delicious irony, Michael Flynn, a man now seeking immunity from prosecutors, famously led the crowd in the “Lock her up!” chant during the 2016 Republican Convention.  

[3]  I loved this google blurb, as I verified the spelling of the ‘poison dwarf’s’ name:

Joseph Goebbels: the ‘Casanova of the Nazis’ – Telegraph

Jan 8, 2011 – A new biography of Joseph Goebbels, the limping Nazi propaganda chief, shows him to be a serial seducer who kept detailed notes of his affairs. … On the streets of Nazi Germany his club foot and feeble, polio-weakened 5’5″ frame earned him the scathing nickname, the “poison dwarf”.
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