Ray Bellamy, a retired doctor based in Florida, decided that he wanted to make a donation in a local congressional race. He began by Googling the Democratic candidate's name, "Alex Sink." He then clicked on one of the first results that popped up. A page loaded that that had the candidate's typical designs, color schemes and even a large photo of her talking to constituents. Not thinking anything of it he entered his financial information and hit submit. What he didn't notice was the small print at the bottom of the screen.
He was then notified that his donation had actually gone to her opponent -- as he explained to Tampa Bay Times, he had been the victim of an elaborate scheme by National Republican Congressional Committee to trick voters into donating money to the wrong party.
It turns out that the political organization has purchased over a dozen domain names of Democratic candidates up for election and set up real-looking-but-fake websites. The worst part of all - besides the blatant deception and malice for the electorate -- is that fact that since it has been exposed, the NRCC has stated that they are "very proud of the program" and have promised to expand it. It seems they can't even be shamed into stopping their borderline fraud.
These Republicans are far from the only group to engage in behavior like this -- questionable campaign tactics are expected from both parties.
It's easy to be apathetic about the entire process, but things are not always the same as they have been. Political campaigns are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they use technology. Unfortunately, that has led to these groups embracing some of the more questionable, seedy practices of online marketing. There's a lot of hype about the opportunities this offers to candidates -- less frequently discussed are the risks and downsides to voters.
The 2012 Presidential campaign was a watershed moment for the use of data analytics in assisting get-out-the-vote efforts. Despite noted public opposition to the practice, both major campaigns collected a massive amount of personal information on every voter while refusing to rudimentary answer questions about what they were doing. Meanwhile, campaigns have distributed apps and games that mine your personal information, considered selling a massive database of your political views to private corporations for advertising purposes and used optimization techniques to figure out how to get you to part with your money most frequently. With the latest efforts by NRCC, you can now add design manipulation to the list.
There's nothing new about sleazy ads and misleading tactics -- what's new is the way they can be delivered. Campaigning online offers capabilities that officials could only dream about doing in-person: specific messages tailored to your browsing history, going deep into a social network to find people that could influence you, changing a message in real-time in response to news or developments, the ability to approach you anytime and anywhere and an automated process for improving the ability to persuade you based on your reactions.
By definition, success for a campaign is defined as winning at the ballot box. Whatever tactics one party successfully uses, the others will be under great pressure to adopt as well. And while most technology has been used thus far to encourage and persuade, it's only a matter of time before a campaign deploys these marketing tools for the purpose of advancing a divisive wedge issue. Technology just enables campaigns to do the things they have always done, but at a drastically greater scale, speed and specificity.
Ethics in politics has always been a thorny subject, one which many people understandably choose to keep their distance from. But these are the early days of a new type of campaigning; as attention shifts online, the dollars will follow. The technology available today far exceeds what was available in 2008, just as what will become available in 2016 is sure to seem like science fiction compared to what is possible today. What's at issue is the quality of our democracy, the integrity of our elections and settling fundamental questions of how you can be treated by the people vying to be your elected representatives.
This article originally appeared on Forbes - Disruption and Democracy. Check out my upcoming book, Identified: How They Are Getting To Know Everything About Us
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