On House of Cards, Pollyhop, and Digital Political Possibilities

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Could Will Conway and his search engine stooge actually fix a presidential election by controlling what voters see on a search engine? Ummm...not really.


Digital marketing officially registered its impact on the selection process of our national leaders during Episode 6 of the current season of House of Cards. President Frank Underwood's campaign advisor Leann Harvey is talking to her data analytics rabbi Aidan MacAllan about Republican challenger Will Conway's pact with a search engine founder. “They can manipulate what people search for...they can control what people see, they can force feed it. Even if they are not doing that, even if they are just tracking users, it's still enough to beat us,” MacAllan says.

When digital marketing gets its own subplot in a highly rated cable series, you know it's arrived, even though House of Cards writers apparently were investing digital methods with super powers. So unnerved was Underwood about Conway's unholy arrangement with the search engine “Pollyhop” to rig the election that he vowed to enlist the National Security Agency to “tap into every single home in America” in response. Sure, President Obama gave opponents a master's course on list-building and segmentation and, yes, Sanders and Trump have parlayed social media savvy into improbable presidential runs. But could the House of Cards scenario play out in real life?

Ari Levenfeld, senior director of privacy at Rocket Fuel and a fellow political junkie, thinks the make-believe politicos talked the talk fairly well, but walked the walk backwards in some regards. “They reversed the way this really works, which would be to find those voters who control a particular issue and then find undecided voters, so they could try to sway them,” Levenfeld says, rejecting the notion that any marketer could manipulate searches themselves.

When a reporter asks Conway about the Pollyhop issue, he and an advisor discuss it and conlude “our data is proprietary. How we want to use it is our prerogative.” Maybe, maybe not. Levenfeld points out that the European Union is investigating Google for manipulation of searches, and here in the U.S., Federal Trade Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed opt-in data regulations for broadband providers.

A scene in Episode 7 has Pollyhop founder Benjamin Grant joining Conway in a video explaining their benign campaigning techniques to the nation. Personally, I'm not seeing Sergey Brin shooting a campaign ad with Donald Trump. Google's got a business to run. (Now Marissa Mayer and Yahoo, that's another story.)

Levenfeld doubts that House of Cards viewers will put much stock in the digital subplot and its scary assault on personal privacy. There are much more riveting and sinister plot lines commanding their attention. For instance, will Frank react to First Lady Claire Underwood's betrayal of his campaign by running her through with a kitchen knife, as he dreamt? Or will Claire instead end up as his running mate? Levenfeld also thinks that average consumers are unaware that most digital marketers prefer not to sully their hands with people's personally identifiable information.

“We get emails from people saying, ‘Here's my name and email address, opt me out of everything collected about me by Rocket Fuel,' but I have to say I can't do it, because it's not there,” Levenfeld says. “We don't have any personal data we collect. That was one of the founding principles of our company.”

That was never one of the founding principles of the NSA. And Frank Underwood, summoning his inner Richard Nixon, does team up with data wizard MacAllan. Talking to the NSA team leader, MacAllan sounds much like many of the data solutions providers I speak with on a regular basis.

“Take firearms,” MacAllan says. “We start with everyone who legally owns a gun, track geo-locations through their phones. We start to put together a portrait of where gun owners live, eat, shop, everything. From this, we predict everyone who might want a firearm, but who isn't registered. They are likely to exhibit the same behavior as people who are.”

I detest when writers end stories with "stay tuned," but in this case we will have to wait for Season 5 of House of Cards to see if digital marketing still has a role.

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