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Some tentative evidence for a hypothetical claim

- February 13, 2009

“Last week”:https://themonkeycage.org/2009/02/a_hypothetical_claim_in_search.html I suggested in a post that the widespread availability of contribution data online might make people less likely to give money in future. This week, the “New York Times”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/business/08stream.html has a story illustrating the kinds of things that we can expect people doing with this data.

bq. For the backers of Proposition 8, the state ballot measure to stop single-sex couples from marrying in California, victory has been soured by the ugly specter of intimidation. Some donors to groups supporting the measure have received death threats and envelopes containing a powdery white substance, and their businesses have been boycotted. The targets of this harassment blame a controversial and provocative Web site, “eightmaps.com”:http://www.eightmaps.com.

bq. The site takes the names and ZIP codes of people who donated to the ballot measure — information that California collects and makes public under state campaign finance disclosure laws — and overlays the data on a Google map. Visitors can see markers indicating a contributor’s name, approximate location, amount donated and, if the donor listed it, employer. That is often enough information for interested parties to find the rest — like an e-mail or home address. The identity of the site’s creators, meanwhile, is unknown; they have maintained their anonymity. Eightmaps.com is the latest, most striking example of how information collected through disclosure laws intended to increase the transparency of the political process, magnified by the powerful lens of the Web, may be undermining the same democratic values that the regulations were to promote.

I’m not going to get into the very interesting normative questions here (although readers should feel free to talk about them in comments if they like). Instead, I’ll just point to the likely effects on political participation. It is plausible, to put it mildly, that people who receive significant threats are less likely to participate in publicly visible ways in politics in future (we don’t know _how many_ such threats have been received, but it may also be that the knowledge that unspecified others have been targeted may be sufficient to dissuade individuals from future participation). It also may be, if Mutz is right, that social pressure from peers (as reported by one professor who was interviewed by the NYT) will discourage future participation. Proposition 8 was of course an especially controversial proposition, but we can expect to see many similar efforts (perhaps with less dramatic forms of targeting) in the future. Accessible Google Map APIs and easily scrapable data provide an irresistible resource for even moderately competent groups who might want to do this kind of thing.