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March 09, 2006

Microtargeting by Tele-Town Hall?

And while we're on the topic of "micro-targeting," here's a related item.  The Hotline reported yesterday (via their free On Call blog) on a genuinely interesting new technique now being used by some Republican congressman to conduct virtual town hall meetings using an old technology:  The telephone conference call.  The idea provides a unique way of reconnecting citizens with their representatives in the era of "Bowling Alone" in which Americans have "become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures" (to borrow both the title and promotional blurb from Robert Putnam's 2000 book).  While I am fascinated by the concept and hope Democrats will emulate it, I wonder about the privacy implications of its ability to "collect stunning amounts of data" from participants absent full disclosure of that intent. 

The Hotline described the technique as implemented by the company Tele-Town Hall, Inc. on behalf of Congressman Dan Lungren (R-CA): 

The concept is surprisingly simple: An automated caller connects to a targeted voter universe of 20,000 to 70,000 households, making up to 4,000 calls a minute. If an answering machine picks up, Lungren's voice apologizes for missing them and invites them to contact his office. Those who opt in to the phone conversation hear Lungren sharing his thoughts on anything that springs to mind. Lungren starts his conversation as soon as a few constituents are on the phone, and as others join, they're able to listen to a conversation already in progress. The calls are unscheduled, which, say those who have used the system, add a level of spontaneity that can attract listeners who would otherwise not go out of their way to hear what Lungren has to say.

Unlike a simple one-sided conference call, however, listeners can participate in the tele-town halls by asking a question. The interface allows Lungren's constituents to line up, and the congressman clicks a button on his computer screen that allows whoever goes next to speak. In the course of this 40-minute phone call, ten listeners get the opportunity to question Lungren, and tonight he answers questions about illegal immigration, the ports controversy and Social Security, among others. The option to ask questions gives his listeners a more engaged feeling and builds that sense of intimacy. Lungren: "People know there's other people on the line. But they have a sense that I'm talking to them, which I am."

Lungren is listening to his constituents as well. Reading from a set of pre-selected questions, he can ask his audience (i.e. poll his audience on) how they feel about an issue. Listeners press the number on their phone that corresponds to their views, and the congressman's office records and collects another piece of data about that specific household. The simple process of operating a drop-down box to denote which questions correspond to which answers allows congressional offices to collect anything from demographic data to opinions on complex issues.

The Lungren meeting described by The Hotline involved 400 participants and left messages with another 8332 households, all for "a little more than one-tenth of what a regular town hall costs."  The On Call post has many more details definitely worth reading in full, including the reasons Democrats have apparently not yet experimented with the technology. 

However, MP does wonder about the potential privacy implications of the Tele-Town Hall's ability to "collect" data:

[T]he Tele Town Hall technology excites GOPers not only because of its ability to interact with constituents and to collect stunning amounts of data that can be used later, but also with its potential to connect with voters. While lists of constituents utilized by official Congressional offices cannot be altered or built based on partisanship because of franking rules, the possibility to use the program as a massive and inexpensive focus group for candidates and its ability to collect detailed demographic data about users through a touch-tone response system is plain to any who witness the forums in action.

Of course, this notion is simply an extension of the straw vote "surveys" that members of Congress long included in their franked mail newsletters until the House changed the franking rules in the 1990s.  Twenty-five years ago, MP served a summer internship in a Congressman's local district office, and he distinctly remembers long hours spent hand typing constituent names and addresses into a computer terminal along with codes indicating which issue each had selected as "most important" on a newsletter survey. 

The issue is certainly not one of identification, especially with the member asking the questions personally on a conference call.  Moreover, the privacy concern could be easily addressed with a friendly disclaimer that "we want to use your answers to try to follow-up with you after this meeting" allowing participants to opt out (and for all I know, Lungren and the others did just that). 

But hypothetically, what if they did not?  Is it ethical to use these Tele-Town Hall meetings as a "massive" data collection tool without disclosing that intent to the participants?  MP thinks not, but hopes readers will offer their own opinions in the comments section (and he will not be collecting their answers or using it to generate follow-up email).

Related Entries - Microtargeting

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on March 9, 2006 at 06:48 AM in Microtargeting | Permalink



I participated in one of the town halls and found it informative. Like most Americans, I dislike all Congressmen except my own :-).

I joined in progress; Congressmen Lungren would speak, take questions, and ask obvious opinion questions (press 1 for yes, 2 for no.) Congressmen Lungren did mention that the information would be collected and used to help him his do his job better. I don't remember his exact wording. Users, of course, can choose not to respond.

I would describe the granularity of the questions as very low. Sacramento ranks just behind New Orleans in flood risk. The question I remember was along the lines of "Should the Federal government do more to protect Sacramento from flooding." I didn't respond to this question because I thought it was poorly phrased.

I see little difference between him asking these questions one on one and collecting the data vs. doing it hundreds or thousands at a time through these town halls. (other than the loss of granularity you get in the one on one.)

I can see many ways that this can be abused, but most of them aren't any different than traditional problems: asking poorly phraed questions designed to elicit a pre-ordained response; misrepresenting the results of these polls in a demagogic fashion; using the responses from different voters to target contradictory messages to different consituencies.

One advantage of this technique is that it can increase communication from your Congressman to you. It was my first town hall meeting, for example.

One potential disadvantage is that it could decrease communication back to the Congressman-if calls are screened to present only one side of a topic, or if this technique replaces face to face meetings (Congress Lungren is having two traditional town halls this month).

I hope this answers some of your questions, Mark.

Marty H.

Posted by: Marty H | Mar 9, 2006 12:55:24 PM

Marty H -- Question -- Do you recall if you were informed just that "these results" will be used (as in totals yes/no), or were you informed that your personal answers would be tracked via your phone number? Big difference.

Was the session introduced as an official public meeting (part of congressional service)? This must be open equally to all constituents regardless of political affiliation, and it would be very very illegal for the organizers to share any results with the Lungren campaign.

Or was it introduced as a campaign activity? In this case the organizers could weight the audience any way they choose, and could use the results for campaign solicitations and so on.

It occurs to me this distinction would probably be lost on most average citizens who received one of the random set-up calls ... and the tool could certainly be used both ways, to great effect.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Mar 9, 2006 11:52:17 PM

Hi Ron-

My recollection of this is vague (I think it occurred in January.)

My impression was that responses were aggregated, not tied to an indiviual.

I do not recall whether it was announced as a Congressional or campaign function. I certainly was not aware of the distinction, and so not listening for it.

In my post, I was trying to come up with scenarios that I would find objectionable, because Mark had some uneasiness with the mass collection of data. I tried to outline what those scenarios would be. If I intimated that any of them occurred in this case I certainly didn't mean to.


Posted by: Marty H | Mar 10, 2006 12:27:45 PM

Thx Marty -- One of my concerns was that respondents would get into the exchange with no idea what they had agreed to.

The tracking concern -- I think -- attaches more to tracking of your responses as an individual ... in the worst case, sending completely opposite letters to opposite respondent, for instance.

Also, the validity of aggregate responses could easily be gimmicked by audience selection or "turn off" questions.

Fascinating tool, the implications of which we haven't even begun to appreciate.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Mar 11, 2006 1:20:42 PM

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