To you, the reader of this article, I am likely a fellow student at Northwestern University. To my best friends back home in New York, I’m the token nerd with a knack for writing and an answer for every random question. To my parents, I’m still just a baby.
But to the presidential campaigns and Super PACs, I’m just another target of idiosyncratically personalized online campaign advertisements based on every bit of my personal information on the Internet.
However, this harvesting of my personal information goes far beyond a simple Google search – which, incidentally, brings you to a few relevant pages and a bunch of real estate listings.
Under the service of the Obama and Romney campaigns, companies are tracking my browsing history and linking it with the personal information I’ve entered in online registration forms to create a profile about the person sitting behind my laptop screen.
The campaigns then flood my computer with advertisements catered to my profile: a 19-year-old college student living in the Chicago suburbs that reads The New York Times and CNN Online, visits Facebook, Twitter and Reddit almost compulsively and writes for his college's only news website named after an Alfred Hitchcock film.
Surprisingly, it isn’t the exploitation of every aspect of my life for political gain that bothers me. No, what bothers me is how much the campaigns suck at it.
I’m used to my Facebook newsfeed being cluttered by ads for New York Mets fan sites, Crohn’s Disease support pages, online guitar lessons and journalism internships – all of which are relevant to me. I’ve accepted the fact that no information is truly personal online and any bit of knowledge about me is a now commodity to advertising agencies.
But when I – a registered Democrat that likes Barack Obama on Facebook, follows Cory Booker and half of MSNBC on Twitter and argues a liberal standpoint in a column – see ads for Mitt Romney’s campaign and Obama's America: 2016 when I’m browsing, I get confused and irritated.
The flaw with this system is that it associates a page visit with a positive connection. It operates under the assumption that because I decided to read an op-ed from The Wall Street Journal or check out Romney’s website to get a better understanding of his policies, I agree with everything I read.
These hits on pro-Romney sites mean that I will soon see ads that fail to connect with me fill my browser, all because agencies believe they actually do connect with me.
As a liberal, I don’t inundate my social media feed with quips from Romney, Fox News or anyone else of those viewpoints because I don’t agree with them, nor do I want to be constantly immersed in posts that cater to those audiences.
But as a journalist and American citizen, it is my responsibility to study those viewpoints, regardless of whether they inspire me or enrage me. For that reason, it annoys me when I’m constantly shown how many of my friends like Romney on Facebook or how Obama is destroying America even when my political leanings are blatantly clear.
If this is the price we must pay to stay informed, then how long can we expect any semblance of a rational political discussion to continue in this country?
As the methods used to gather and synchronize this information evolve, the advertisements should become more relevant. But for now, these campaigns will continue to misfire, aiming at curiosity and responsibility while neglecting those with a genuine connection with the product they sell – a product that can change the face of the country as we know it.