The Coming "Cookieopalypse"
How moves by Google, Facebook, AT&T, T-Mobile and ordinary individuals threaten to up-end the best laid plans and tactics of today's digital political campaigners. (Plus, Great Mackenzie Scott!)
There’s a specter haunting the world of digital political campaigning: the privacy backlash, which some are calling the “cookieopalypse.” Just as the current generation of digital organizers finally got a seat at the table running campaigns, and just as an array of vendors, tools, data providers, and strategists figured out effective tactics for identifying and mobilizing volunteers and voters, there are signs that the ground is crumbling under their feet. Google and Facebook, among others, are warning that they are going drastically tighten how they let advertisers target people; telecom giants AT&T and T-Mobile are changing how they work with mass text messaging vendors in ways that may kill off so-called “peer-to-peer SMS”; and individuals are taking a variety of steps to protect their privacy (and sanity) that are steadily making it harder to engage them, including using ad-blocking on their web browsers, anti-robocall programs on their phones, and (if they’re Apple consumers) opting out of third-party tracking as they upgrade their smartphones.
The “cookieopalypse,” Bryan Whitaker says, “is really scary” and something “that we need to get ahead of.” As chief innovation officer for TargetSmart, one of the top Democratic voter-data firms, and previously chief technology officer for the DNC, Whitaker is one of the architects of today’s Democratic digital industry. Speaking at an online briefing put on earlier this week by Higher Ground Labs, the progressive tech accelerator, he was responding to a question about the implications of the push toward digital privacy for consumers. He explained the cookieopalypse this way: “Google, Facebook, and others are basically looking for campaigns, for users like us to come to them to do digital advertising and outreach with what those of us in the data business call first party data. We need to have a pre-existing relationship with an individual, either via an email opt-in or otherwise, in order to be able to engage with them through Facebook, Google and other online platforms like that. And so something that TargetSmart and a number of others continue to think about is how do we, en masse, try to convert third-party and second-party data into first-party data so that we don't have to go to jump through the hoops and go over the barriers to be able to accomplish large-scale voter contact, volunteer recruitment, and in fundraising campaigns.”
In plain English, this means that there’s a real chance the Big Tech companies are going to force political data vendors to prove that the people they want to advertise to have agreed, in advance, that they want to be targeted. In some theoretical universe where political advertisers didn’t spend the last few decades bombarding people with emotional and manipulative messages and instead built relationships based on mutuality and common purpose, that might be possible. But nearly all political actors don’t live in that universe.
Worse yet, as Whitaker noted, the threat to existing voter contact programs isn’t just that sometime in the next year or so Google is planning to stop supporting third-party tracking cookies in its Chrome browser—the key tool that advertisers use to target and track who is seeing their ads. Another key communications channel is being smothered starting now, he warned. “Mobile carriers [are] trying to shut down our ability from the telecommunications perspective to be able to engage people through what they deem as unsolicited text messages.” Indeed, AT&T, T-Mobile and other carriers are currently moving forward implementing new rules called “A2P 10 DLC” (Application to Person 10 Digit Long Codes) that will restrict who can be text messaged and how much. Like Google’s planned phasedown of third-party cookies, A2P 10 DLC would classify all person-to-person messaging as “application to person” and require people to explicitly opt into receiving messages. It would also require would-be texters work through pre-verified vendors that the carriers would vet in advance, a high hoop that none of the current Democratic vendors could fit through, strategists fear. MoveOn, State Voices, the Movement Cooperative and many social justice organizations are hard at work building a coalition to get the carriers to hold off on these changes, arguing that “large scale person-to-person (P2P) text messaging is a powerful tool for civic engagement and reaching communities.” (More information on that effort here.)
At the same briefing, Tessa Simonds, the head of Blue State Campaigns, who was recently senior advisor for digital organizing on the Biden-Harris National Coordinated Campaign at the Democratic National Committee, concurred with Whitaker and added, “I'm also concerned about robo-blockers, the inability to call supporters on the phone. It's becoming more and more possible to filter out legitimate political calls using robo-blockers. It scares me a lot.” She urged, “We'd love to see people thinking a little bit farther ahead about how we make sure that political calls get to the voters we need them to get to.”
From the perspective of powerhouses like TargetSmart, Blue State, and MoveOn the sky really is in danger of falling. Take the carriers’ threat to basically shut down P2P texting. There’s are good reasons why today’s campaigners love this tool. Something like 95% of text messages get read by recipients, compared to just 15% of emails and 5% of direct mail letters. According to Hustle, one of the big P2P text vendors, in 2020, 31% of Americans were reached via text during the election cycle with more than 475 million texts delivered through their tool. More than 75,000 people used Hustle to send text messages for more than 1,500 Democratic campaigns. National Democratic committees and vendors like Catalist and Targetsmart also invested heavily in getting accurate cell phone numbers for about 93 million voters, including 27 million under the age of 40. (Don’t forget, there often is no other number to reach younger voters.)
But as many of us have been warning for a while, the success of P2P texting has always been built on thin ice. People open their text messages because that channel has been protected from spam, unlike phone or email. When Hustle was first invented, it was meant to be used by field organizers as a tool for managing ongoing one-on-one relationships with their volunteer networks. But Hustle’s creators found a brilliant way around the FCC’s prohibition against blast-texting people; their tool enabled individuals—not a computer program—to rapidly send hundreds of individual messages. With just two or three clicks, a pre-written message could be sent in a few seconds. And so as early as 2016, groups started holding “text-banking” parties where in just a few hours a hundred people could collectively send out a couple hundred thousand text messages.
Open rates and conversion rates were phenomenal. Some groups were obtaining new member-donors so cheaply that I got a call once from the head of a state party asking if I had any ideas where he could borrow some money in the mid-five-figures in order to run a larger texting program, he was so sure it would more than pay for itself. The fact that recipients of these text blasts—especially those in battleground districts on the receiving end of dozens of different groups’ outreach programs—really didn’t appreciate the bombardment was not something vendors and campaign strategists cared much about. “The data shows this tactic works,” was what they would say. Instead of using Hustle’s workaround to build and sustain actual relationships, everyone piled in to blast messages from random senders to random recipients. Now, in a true tragedy-of-the-commons result, it’s quite possible they’re about to lose it.
“People are taking back control of their information online,” says Betsy Hoover, one of the founders of Higher Ground Labs, and a lead strategist for the whole field. Speaking to me after this week’s briefing, she admits that it’s frustrating to have to be adapting to such a tectonic shift just when digital strategy and marketing has finally been recognized as being as central to political campaigns as traditional TV media. But she knows the change is coming. “All of that basically says that the tools we use for mass communication online are going to become less effective,” and argues for putting more focus on tactics like relational organizing, influencer marketing and finding online communities where people are already engaged and figuring out how to win hearts and minds there.
Hoover also worries that with 2022 just around the corner, a lot of campaign managers are going to be caught flatfooted by disruptive changes in how their voter contact programs can be run. To not be able to count on a texting program after doing so successfully in the last two election cycles just isn’t on the radar of political planners. “I worry that we're going to hit a wall in the midterms, when we need really effective campaigns,” she says.
That’s one way to view the coming cookieapolypse. The other one is this: If the big tech platforms and telecommunications providers are moving to make it much harder to communicate with or advertise at people without their prior consent, they must be responding to a lot of consumer demand for more privacy and agency. Maybe the specific changes that these giant corporations are self-serving (after all, it’s not like Google, Faceook or any of the telcos are themselves going to make their own users opt-in before they target them). But until the invention of mass media and mass marketing, political organizing was actually more labor intensive and lateral. Now it’s capital intensive and mostly top down. So if the cookieapolypse or just parts of it come to pass, some political tech strategies and vendors may lose their edge—but others that figure out how to organize with volunteers and voters, and not just at them, may grow in importance. (See Libby Falck’s guest essay here on Digital Organizing As If Volunteers Really Mattered, for example.) Long-term year-round organizing and relationship-building, which is slower and potentially costlier, may gain as a response to the loss of short-term marketing blitzes. And that’s not something to be scared of—it’s something to pursue with gusto.
Mackenzie Scott continues to redefine the role of billionaire philanthropist, announcing $2.7 billion in gifts to 286 nonprofit organizations this past Tuesday. This time the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos continued her support for colleges and universities serving disadvantaged studies and organizations focused on racial equity, and also expanded her scope to include arts and cultural organizations. For me, the most interesting turn in her giving was towards social sector infrastructure organizations. As Scott explained in a Medium post (that is her only outlet), “We can begin by acknowledging that people working to build power from within communities are the agents of change. Their service supports and empowers people who go on to support and empower others….Social sector infrastructure organizations empower community leaders, support grassroots organizing and innovation, measure and evaluate what works, and disseminate information so that community leaders, elected officials, volunteers, employees, and donors at every level of income can make informed decisions about how to partner and invest. These organizations, which are themselves historically underfunded, also promote and facilitate service, which in turn inspires more people to serve.
It’s interesting which social sector organizations got funded, and a bit surprising how few of them have disclosed the size of their gift, or even acknowledged it publicly. From my scan yesterday afternoon:
Allied Media Projects (amount not acknowledged or disclosed),
Ashoka Innovators for the Public (amount not acknowledged or disclosed),
Decolonizing Wealth Project (amount not acknowledged or disclosed),
Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (amount not disclosed but “honored to be among the 286 orgs receiving funding”),
Donors Choose (amount not acknowledged or disclosed),
Metro Industrial Areas Foundation (amount not acknowledged or disclosed),
TechSoup (amount not acknowledged or disclosed),
The Laundromat Project (amount not acknowledged or disclosed),
Leaving aside the arguments about whether billionaires should exist (no) or whether great concentrations of wealth should be more vigorously taxed so big funding decisions are made more democratically (yes), one wonders whether Scott’s bold decision to give huge, unrestricted grants to historically under-resourced nonprofits will lead to beneficial outcomes, simply because suddenly having a lot of money is a mixed blessing. It’s not just lottery winners who often find their lives wrecked by a sudden windfall. Especially in the nonprofit arena, where so much labor is donated, big money warps the world. If you are a organization with a big network of volunteers or poorly-resourced partners, a $5 million or $10 million unrestricted gift may cause many of your colleagues to suddenly expect to be paid for things they used to do for little to nothing. I suppose that’s a good problem to have—but one-time cash infusions that don’t really change the ongoing conditions that nonprofits labor under may produce less than we might hope.
-Related: After all that bad news about Democratic political tech, here’s a potential bright spot. Impactive (formerly Outvote) is adding a dialer to its tool set, Shomik Dutta of Higher Ground Labs let slip during the briefing cited above. Since there’s no chance that any new dialer could be a worse product that ReadyTalk, hip hip hooray!
Odds and Ends:
-The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Indicators of Broadband Need map shows that outside of most metropolitan parts of the US (and oddly, most of North Dakota) most of the country is in need of highspeed broadband.
-Inside Amazon, the machine that is its labor management system is a completely dysfunctional mess that was overwhelmed by rapid growth in the last year, Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise and Grace Ashford report for The New York Times.
-New York state has paid three large vendors, Navient, IBM and Deloitte, more than $193 million to help unsnarl its overwhelmed unemployment claims program and people still can’t get through to a Department of Labor agent to get their benefits handled, Daniel Moritz-Rabson reports for City and State.
-Google’s ex-chair Eric Schmidt is helping fund a push for a 9-11 style commission investigation into the government’s handling of the pandemic, Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports for The New York Times. That’s interesting, given that Schmidt was seen not long ago standing alongside New York governor Andrew Cuomo after the nursing home scandal broke open, praising his handling of the crisis.
-There are now at least 165 local and national groups claiming to fight “critical race theory” in the schools, according to NBC News’ Tyler Kingkade, Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins. They also note that “activists and parents have launched 50 recall efforts this year aimed at unseating 126 school board members, according to a new report from Ballotpedia, a website that tracks U.S. politics and elections.”