Text for the project "Persecuting US". 2012.
Social media tool for social change.

Social media tools can amplify social movements. However, both authorities and extremists can use the same tools to crack down on dissidents and opponents. A person’s political affiliation can be monitored and targeted, not just by the authorities, but also by any political opponent. The secret ballot is jeopardized by abuse of the data amassed by these new technologies and by encouraging people to express their political position on social media. Consequentially, new frontiers in voter intimidation and influence are opened.

Everything said publically over social media can be taken as evidence of a political leaning one way or the other. Mechanized political profiling is constantly operating through algorithms that score people and officials looking for opponents. Language and use of words is monitored through trivial interpretations, subject to mistakes, yet it can still be incriminatory.

Meanwhile, real-time manipulation of people’s opinion is sold off through constructed trends like promoted tweets or multimillion dollar promoted hashtags, a sophisticated and devious utilization of language and public debate. In addition to these new propaganda techniques, censorship over social media is sold off to authorities as well. For instance, Twitter now unveils details of dissidents and censors messages on a country-by-country basis [4], following the instructions of the local despot. This results in real political persecution, especially in those countries where Twitter collaborates with oppressive authorities.

Centralization of the information flow expands surveillance capacity. These are the consequences that everyone has to face when social media platforms sell out their users and hand over their data to the authorities, since social communication data isn’t independent but embedded within privately owned environments. Private social media platforms expose personal data rather than protect it, in order to generate more traffic and users so that the platform itself grows in value. But the larger the platform, the greater the political risk to each user and therefore, to politics itself.

Social media platforms should be constantly under public scrutiny to maintain independent, protected and fair communications. Media as tools that help to build social relations and enhance general knowledge shouldn’t be left in private hands for commercial and political exploitation. Rather, it should be in the public domain and kept autonomous for the sake of society.

Anti-social media.

Social media platforms are proud to claim that they allow social relations to grow, but they can destroy just as many, or ghettoize people in the same self-referential networks they were already in. It's too easy to mute people with different taste, and so dialogue never happens across the "filter bubble" [5]. This isolation increases political polarity.

Without interaction with others, no pacification or constructive debate can ever take place. Political fractions become fully isolated groups unable to communicate to anyone outside themselves. Politics becomes even more polarized as a result of miscommunication and isolation in a multiplication of micro-communities. And the isolation facilitates social sorting and subsequent manipulation of the micro-targets thereby generated.

In social media people mirror the flowing void of present political discourse. They reproduce the rhetorical language of their political masters in a sort of auto-demagogy. Lately, internalized political rhetoric has been driving political subjectivization, and users influence themselves in a self-defensive manner, forgetting the discursive aspect of negotiation between opinions that makes up politics.

Encounters with “the Other” happen only through conflict, because of restricted social connections dictated by the platform itself and a general low quality of communication mediated by these controlled platforms. We don’t confront others anymore, so we aren’t able to understand other opinions or ourselves in relation to them.

Social media are often being used to be hateful, and Twitter in particular can be easily used to publically defame people and hostility is frequently generated as well because of misunderstandings and generalizations that easily happen when the medium restrains communication, in this case restricting each utterance to 140 characters.

The limits and potentials of social interactions on social media are all about the design of the interface and the social algorithm applied to them. For this reason democratizing the design of the instruments can be beneficial for everyone, rather than leaving ownership of the infrastructure in private hands that can plan social control by constraining access to and use of information.

Social Sorting.

Political parties have begun to equip themselves with databases of millions of potential voters’ personal details to target them with individualized messages and monitor trends in opinion which they can then manipulate.

An entire new industry of political technology is growing with big, centralized databases of voters’ information created for profit and political control. These databases gather massive amounts of information on voters from several sources and from trawling their traces left on online platforms like Twitter, which still have poor privacy protections.

George W. Bush won two presidential elections by targeting voters with a database called VoterVault, a model later copied by the Democratic party with their database, Catalist, helping Barack Obama to win the elections in 2008 [1]. In 2011 the Republican party secretly created a new database [2], Themis, with the aim of significantly impacting the 2012 elections. Huge investments in advertising on traditional media platforms are shifting to sophisticated digital tools to create persuasive personalized messages. This shift keeps those with the economic means [3] in control of the political process, while moving their hegemony to the most influential contemporary media space.

These voters never gave permission to log their data like this, but that’s not the only concern. The main threat is to the democratic process itself and malicious use of this data could even lead to future anti-democratic politics. Profiling citizens politically means exploiting people’s opinions for political gain; it allows new forms of effective political manipulation and starts a process of monitoring every aspect of each person’s life to collect material for political sorting.

Persecuting.US is an artwork that will show people the extent to which their political privacy has been compromised for political gain. The artwork raises concern through press and personal reactions to an artificial scenario with hundreds and thousands experiencing the purgatory of being exposed by social profiling.

The Time:

The 2012 was the first year in which both political parties heavily used media such as Twitter to conduct their campaigns, and filled databases of people by aggregating large amounts of personal information.

The “Hashtag Election” of 2012 represents a new brand of hyperconnected electioneering, or the major use of Twitter to generate polls or statistics which influence political strategy. Voters were targeted to vote for a particular party in a form of direct manipulative language, bordering on intimidation.

They were further encouraged to participate by expressing their political opinion on social media, while political leaders attempted to target them with their message, engage with key demographics, and stumble on a genuine political “moment” on the same platforms, fueled by the same networks.

Some numbers about the 2012 presidential election on Twitter:

- During the conventions, Twitter users generated 14,289 tweets per minute in the wake of Republican nominee Mitt Romney's speech. When Michelle Obama finished speaking at the Democratic convention, the tweets were flying at a rate of 28,000 per minute. After President Obama's speech, Twitter reported a 52,757 tweet-per-minute pace.

- The first Presidential TV Debate generated 11.2M related tweets, the second generated 12.2M and the third debate 7.8M.

- During the vice presidential debate, women drove the social conversation by generating 55 percent of the tweets. There were 72,000 tweets (32 percent of the overall Twitter volume) about the economy. Next came Medicare and entitlements, at 45,000 tweets (20 percent), and Afghanistan, at 25,000 (11 percent).

- The Obama Administration purchased Twitter terms trending during the debate, including Jack Kennedy, Malarkey, Afghanistan in 2014 and VPDebate.

- The Republican National Committee, and the Republican-leaning super PAC Americans for Prosperity shelled out an estimated $120,000 each for a Promoted Trend - a phrase or slogan like RomneyRyan2012, FailingAgenda and 16TrillionFail.

- In 2010, The Washington Post purchased the hashtag #election

- In 2012 the presidential campaign set the record for highest spending ever, with a total of $2 billion.

How it was done.

In total secrecy from June to November 9th 2012, a huge amount of data was harvested from Twitter, collecting in total over one and a half million Twitter profiles from one hundred thousand tweets. Every bit of data was collected by following the rules and limits of Twitter’s API, without violating any of the built-in protection of the web platform, but simply by exploiting the openness offered by Twitter. One single script through one single Twitter account was harvesting data from Twitter every hour for five months.

The script was instructed to harvest all the tweets with selected hashtags which were updated after each new development in the campaign for the presidential election, such as after TV debates, popular memes or scandals regarding the candidates. Using those hashtags was strongly indicative of political affiliation.

For every tweet with those hashtags that the script intercepted and stored, the author’s data was harvested along with some of their followers. This resulted in several Twitter users harvested for every single Tweet. These types of relations already provided suspects for the later sorting process.

The first filter established was to avoid Twitter users who were media outlets or public figures, and in doing so focusing only on random people in the general audience. Other types of filters were established during the data harvest to avoid noise and spam on Twitter.

After the process of harvesting was completed, the database was filtered and sorted through keywords and rules to score the profiles. The method used to sort people is described in the following script that indicates the instructions and keywords that generated the rating of political affiliation. This script indicates the steps to recreate this conceptual work with any other pool of data.

- Download the Script and Lists of keywords and hastags used to sort the data (txt files zipped).


[1] Democrats Take Republican Database Model to Target Swing Voters

[2] Koch backed activists use power of data in bid to oust Obama from White House

[3] Why we must 'follow the money' of 2012's political ad spend

[4] Twitter able to censor tweets in individual countries.

[5] Eli Pariser "The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think".

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