“How does communication infrastructure organize the campaign?”—QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Fenwick McKelvey and Jill Piebak are working a paper called “Porting the Good Campaign” on how U.S. campaign technology is imported and used in Canada for the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research.

The full abstract is below the jump and on the conference page.

Here are questions and answers from an email interview I did with them about their research.

RKN: You work on the import and translation of political technologies across borders, political cultures, and contexts. How would you say this connects to core concerns of political communication research? Are there particular researchers or schools of thought you see yourself as being in a dialogue with?

FM & JP: We’re looking at the spread of political campaign software, so far, from the United States to Canada. By political software, we mean the technology that runs the back-end databases, keeps track of donations or manages voter contact. We’re still working on a survey of the field to give a sense of the features offered.

JP: The industry ranges across from marketing to large-scale, big-budgeted campaigns to non-profit, low-budget advocacy groups with products ranging from customizable and expensive to one-size fits all or open source.

FM & JP: Encoded in this software is a lot of the processes of political communication.  The good practices that make winning campaigns, if you read the sale brochure. We’re interested in what practices travel with software from one political culture to another.

FM: If you look at the advertisements, this software usually promises political players greater control over their messaging and organization. These are core tasks of political communication. How does communication infrastructure organize the campaign? I am very intellectually indebted to the work of the organizers of this pre-conference who have focused on the different ways of organizing through digital technology either as passive democratic feedback, computational management and mundane technologies. This branch of organizational communication — one that I am slowly learning — connects to issues of framing and agenda setting in political communication. Keeping the voters in the system to ensure you can craft the right message. Software stabilizes — or as Kreiss & Anderson claim make durable — these two aspects of political communication.

JP: Another term rather than control that they offer is to target and speak directly to individual donors, voters, potential volunteers. The company’s stress that it’s not just about controlling a message it’s about having the ability to reach out to each person and getting the information about what their stake is in the election or campaign. Segmenting the population down to the individuals rather than speaking to the broadest base of voters. “Reach the voters that matter with the right messages” according to CampaignGrid or “Reach the right people with the right message at the right time in the right place” as SalsaLabs says.

FM: I hope this work compliments what I would call the literature of digital political communication. Philip N Howard, Andrew Chadwick and Lance Bennett introduced me to how changes in political communication relate to the Internet. Howard, in particular, helped me start thinking about the potential of digital technology to increases the control of the voter in the communication system. What he would call managed citizenship. Whether you buy this claim or not, Howard put me on a question that Lance Bennett and Jarol B. Manheim pose nicely as a shift from a two-step to one-step flow of communication. Their basic claim is that the social conditions of political communication differ enough from the assumptions of Lazarsfeld and Merton to require more observation and attention to the practices of political communication.

FM: It’s a period then of change and experimentation into the techniques of control in political communication. The United States, for reasons likely to do with size and the ongoing campaigns across the country, has created a whole industry attempting to master this one-step flow. With great work already on this American context, I thought it would be helpful to then look at how these new practices circulate as software products from the USA and abroad.

FM & JP: If some strategies and tactics have proven effective in the United States, will they work elsewhere? It always struck me as an interesting question to look at this process of adaptation of this software. Can you store the data in the same way? Do the same best practices hold true? What products can make this international transition? What is the work involved in a party adopting this technology? How can this help with reflecting on the nature of political communication in a digital era? How have these practitioners in outside of the US adapted or made-do with the product in order for it to work best in a Canadian political environment?

RKN: In your abstract for the conference, you make it clear you draw on work from well beyond traditional political communication research. In addition to those mentioned above, where did you find the main theoretical and methodological inspirations for your work?

FM: I have always seen myself as an interdisciplinary researcher for better or worse and I have been inspired by a few sources. I’d point to the concept of the political and media studies embedded in web archiving.

FM: I think of the field as it relates to the concept of the political — a word I came to understand through Laclau & Mouffe. The political refers to the irresolvable differences inherent in society. Republicans or Democrats or in my own Canadian way, New Democrats, the Bloc, Liberals and Tories all have different ways of seeing the world or the future that cannot be resolved. Their differences create antagonisms that play out in the democratic campaign with winners and losers. Mouffe especially rejects the idea of a rational deliberative democracy with its promise in consensus. Instead, campaigns and elections resolves these differences in very contingent ways and imperfect ways. This is never settled and its what I’ve called a Permanent Campaign in my work with Greg Elmer and Ganaele Langlois.

FM: I’d also point out that my interest in software from an applied media studies necessary for web archiving. I began my research in political communication at the Infoscape Centre for the Study of Social Media in 2006. There I joined a project looking at the discussion of candidates for the leadership of the Liberal Party in blogs. We were looking at these platforms as intersections between traditional elites and new elite actors. (This I would add distinguishes political communication from the more narrow interest of political science with politicians).

FM: Methodologically, we drew on the work of Kirsten A. Foot and Steven M. Schneider on political web archiving. Their work in retrospect included a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods. One can’t really separate these quantitative results from the very qualitative studies of the platform or even in interpreting the quantitative results. An example of this approach is that we could find the most popular links among Canadian partisan bloggers. From this quantitative count we’d then have a reason to dig into a part of the data and be able to tell a certain story about blog activity during the campaign.

FM: At the Centre, we began to notice that as social media developed, the platforms became more complicated and I had to spend more time studying how that platform worked in order to scrape it. Eventually, these questions of a very applied media study had me start wondering about the back-end of technology. What was the software running behind the scenes? This research looking specifically at the political campaign software is part of answering that question. So while, I see a direct relation to the study of software in political communication, there is also a component of media studies or Internet studies in the work.

FM: There is some tremendous work being done on platform studies that looks at channels of communication and interaction online such as Tania Bucher, Ganaele Langlois, Robert W. Gehl and Carolin Gerlitz to name a few of the scholars I really try to follow.

FM: I’d add that as a junior scholar I’m learning about my own education as a Canadian researcher and how its national communication studies diverged from the American tradition. The Canadian field has then always had a strong qualitative side perhaps best summarized in the ‘dirt research’ of Harold Innis. While that emphasis has a convoluted history before it reaches me, it still encourages an attention to things. It’s good to play around with it as much as I can. I’m excited to be integrating interview with this attention to software to understand the processes of adaption and internationalization.

RKN: Few scholars challenge that qualitative research excels at depth, detail, and precision in terms of understanding particular cases or processes. But some would question whether findings can be generalized. Do you see your own findings as generalizable? If so, how and under what conditions? If you don’t, does it matter to you, or do you you think about the reach of your work in different terms?

FM & JP: We’re not, at this point, aiming to make a generalizable claim, but rather make a focused observation about the flow of American political technology to Canada. That process, while specific and unique, speaks to a broader phenomenon. American political technology firms have been active across the globe, especially in the lead up to the  European Union elections. We assume that these technologies will need to become more internationalized, staff will need to be trained and data imported will need to be added the new system. Further research will be looking at how this work will be comparable to the work being done in Canada.

FM & JP: We’d say it matters because its analyzing changes in the nature of campaigning and democracy in a Canada. We’re talking about a small part of this change, but one that could inform comparative work globally. So we’re not worried about being generalizable because I see this process as being really specific and focused, but common to many other countries.

RKN: Imagine you are talking to a colleague at a conference who does mainly fairly conventional forms of behavioralist, quantitative political communication research, i.e., studies agenda-setting in lab experiments or advertising effects on attitudes through survey research. Is your research relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

FM: I would cite Bennett and Manheim that I really think offer a way to work across these fields. To instrumentalize, we need to understand the present context. How might we be able to identify some new techniques that will be used in the next election based on knowing the changing political infrastructure? Blue State Digital sold a feature in the last US election called Quick Donate. They suggested that a campaign could not only target voters, but at particular emotional moments such as “right after a campaign rally, in response to a Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan speech and so on”. It’s a whole other approach to targeting, not just the segments, but targeting specific emotional moments. Does this work? Is this effective? I’d really appreciate quantitative work that discusses this issue and also helps us understand — here I put on my hat as a policy researcher — whether its something that requires new regulation or governance. Door-to-door sales have a ‘cooling-off period’. Would political donations require that too? It’s something that both qualitative and quantitative political communication could answer.

Full abstract below.

Porting the Good Campaign: American Campaign Management Software in Canada

By Fenwick McKelvey and Jill Piebiak (Concordia University)

American­-style attack politics threatens Canadian democracy! At least concerns over US influence permeate the latest political headlines and speeches in Canada. When the ruling right­wing Conservative party hired a US voter contact firm for voter suppression, media framed the story as the ‘robo­calling scandal’. The Conservatives, however, also played on the same fears when it accused environmental groups of being fronts for American lobbyists. Environmental advocacy, they warned, undermined Canadian sovereignty. Despite these accusations, all parties actually rely on American political technology. The Conservative party uses Mailchimp to run their mailing list. The centrist Liberal Party uses the Democratic NGPVAN to run their database, mailings and canvassing. Progressives rely on the Nationbuilder to manage their organizing and advocacy. The difference between the worried headlines and the reality suggests that American political technology does influence Canadian campaigning, but this influence is not well understood. If all politics is local then how are global political technologies localized?

In this paper, we follow the actors importing and adapting American political software to Canada. We interview political consultants in Canada and software developers in the United States about their work in ‘porting’ political technology. We assume that software travels as modular, semi­stabilized assemblages across the border. Their features and design have to be translated to different Canadian contexts. Consultants, activists and developers work to translate software from one context to another. Our interviews consider their work. How do local actors choose one of the many products developed by the US political software industry? How much customization needs to be done to port software designed for a US political system to Canada? Does the flow of software across the border lead to the flow of political tactics and strategies from the US to Canada?

Our research contributes both to the understanding about the trans­national flows of political technology and knowledge about the encoding of politics into software. Firstly, the case of Canada will interest international political communication scholars researching the tensions between the specificity of national political systems and the globalization of political consultancy. We discuss how flows of political technology relate to existing literature on global alliances between ideologically­aligned parties and advocacy groups. Second, our interviews will question if software functions as a vehicle to spread tactics and practices. How does software encode the politics of its development context and does this encoding complicate its circulation or influence its adopter? Our research balances the social construction of technology with the materialism of software studies. The paper demonstrates the importance of qualitative methods in political communication. Interviews and a focus on actors help understand the changing technological infrastructure of voter content and the work done in circulating these technologies.