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‘We Knew Exactly Who We Had to Go Get’

December 10th, 2012 - 7:20 pm

I’ve been getting a lot of fascinating correspondence about the presidential election, much of it dealing with the technology used by the Obama campaign.  It documents a remarkable degree of precision that the Obama foot soldiers and cyberwarriors brought to bear on the American electorate, right down to identifying potential voters who might, if approached in the proper way, go to a voting booth and support their candidate.

Much of this technology was developed by the same nerds and geeks that have given us the social networks, and the tools upon which they depend. The process is a familiar one — we know all about it in the commercial marketplace. See, for example, the helpful analysis in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

Merchants routinely send us lots of material about products they know will tempt us.  They know this because of the very detailed information they have about our buying habits, our peer groups, our tastes, and our beliefs.

The same methods apply to  selling candidates, and the Obama organizations were far more effective than Romney’s at exploiting their understanding of our habits and desires.  They had a great deal of specific information about voters, and were able to target individuals with a degree of accuracy that was vastly superior to the Republicans’ methods.  Listen to one of my favorite commentators, Debra Saunders:

Team Obama conducted nightly surveys of 9,000 likely voters in 10 battleground states. Because of those surveys, campaign manager Jim Messina told the gathering, “We thought we knew exactly where the electorate was.” The campaign’s targeting was so tight that national field director Jeremy Bird was able to see support slacken at Ohio State University and respond by multiplying the campaign’s presence. Messina claimed, “We knew exactly who we had to go get.”

That last quotation grabs me by the throat and drags me to the question of digital communications, including email, texting, Facebook, and Twitter, in the global turmoil on whose outcome our own destiny now depends.

“We knew exactly who we had to go get.”  Instead of an American political manager,  put those words in the mouth of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, or Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and you get to the heart of a very big question.  The same sort of detailed, granular information about the Iranian and Syrian people can be used by their oppressors.  To go get them.

The insurrections against the tyrants, in the Middle East today as in the Soviet Empire in the revolutionary eighties, desperately need good communications.  They are certainly not going to get reliable information from the official state media.  Where will they get accurate reports?  Only from trusted sources.  During the Cold War, the fax machine was the revolutionary source of choice, along with Western radio broadcasts.  During the Iranian uprisings in 2009-2010, the social networks (Facebook and Twitter) and some Western broadcasts (more often televsion than radio, some of which was “official” like the BBC, while some was private, including Iranian-American broadcasts from southern California) played a big role.  Indeed, when the Iranian regime shut down Internet, the outside broadcasters “triangulated” information:  street fighters called a Western TV station with real-time information, which was then broadcast into Iran via satellite.

Ever since, there has been great enthusiasm for the West to help freedom advocates from China and Myanmar to Iran, Libya, and Syria gain easy access to Internet networks.  This enthusiasm continues, as in this recent essay by Joel Brinkley, in which he argues that “tyrants fear social media more than anything.”

But, as often in warfare, there is a constant flow of advantage between offense and defense.  At first, the new media were clearly advantageous to the insurrectionaries, and the Iranian regime, for example, blocked communications when things got hot.  Internet was blocked, satellites were jammed, cell networks were shut down.  Then, the tyrants got smarter.  They learned to track down the users of the social media, with deadly results.  They soon knew who they had to go get.  One of the first pundits to figure this out was the thoughtful and often delightful Evgeny Morozov, who has waged a relentless campaign against the “cyber utopians” who believe that the new technologies will inevitably make us free.  In fact, Morozov pointed out, Bush,  Obama, Hillary and Condi were slow to realize that the very use of the technologies carried a risk of disclosure.  In the free West, we worry about governmental and corporate penetration of our privacy.   In the tyrannies, it’s often a matter of life and death.  Just ask the many Iranian bloggers facing death sentences in Tehran’s Evin prison.

At the moment, the tyrants are doing well.  A while back, a non-governmental Western organization turned on a cell phone in downtown Tehran, programmed to send out text messages designed to catch the attention of the security forces.  The cyber cops found the phone in a matter of minutes, an example of their profound concern and unusual efficiency.

Advocates of the “revolutionary media” insist that the numbers favor the insurrectionaries.  “The cats will be well fed, but the mice will win out in the end,” one of them likes to say.  Perhaps that is true, but if the mice decide they can’t safely talk to each other, the big cat wins, doesn’t she?

Paradoxically, some of the mice have reverted to ancient methods of communication.  I know people who use couriers to carry messages, both internationally and within countries.  Sometimes those messages aren’t even written down;  they’re memorized.  It’s slow, but it works.  Ray Bradbury understood this well, as have other science fiction and fantasy writers.  It may well be that as the technologies become ever more effective, and the rulers know more and more “who to go get,” their most dangerous opponents will communicate through ancient arts:  telling stories, singing ballads, and posting messages and broadsides in public and private places.

In revolutionary Rome in the eighteenth century, there were several “talking statues,” so called because dissidents would post calls to action on the torsos of the statues.  One of them, a short block from Piazza Navona, still serves this function.

Maybe we’ll see some of Washington’s many statues used this way in the future.  There’s a great Einstein in a small grove at the National Academy of Sciences that’s ideal, if you’re wondering where to start.

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