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House of Cards’ Big Data: True or Fiction?

April 20th, 2016   ||    by Callie Wheeler   ||    No Comments

This season saw House of Cards’ big data references return bigger and better than ever. Always keeping pace with the current political climate, the show incorporated search engine manipulation, a data scientist, natural language processing, and more, as sitting president Frank Underwood and Republican governor Will Conway waged political war against each other.

But how much of House of Cards’ big data story line is real? How much of it is possible? We’ll sort out which pieces are already a reality, which could be, and which are exaggerated ahead. If you haven’t watched the season yet, there are a few spoilers.

Pollyhop: Search Engine Manipulation

Season four’s introduction to data science comes in the form of Will Conway’s relationship with the founder of Pollyhop, a Google-like search engine. Underwood’s campaign discovers that Conway is somehow manipulating search engine results and analyzing search engine data. The details aren’t clear, but the overall idea is: Conway is using Americans’ “private” searches to benefit his own campaign.

True or fiction? Mostly fiction: This story line heavily depended on Conway’s relationship with Pollyhop and the search engine founder’s willingness to help him.

While Google isn’t pitching in to sway opinions of a particular candidate, the real connection here is targeting. Programmatic display advertising and programmatic TV allow advertisers to take information, like search engine data or viewership data, and serve ads to a higher percentage of their target audience based on that data.

Personalized Campaign Messaging

One of the most powerful pieces of House of Cards’ big data story was a phone campaign targeted at those affected by gun violence. Aidan Macallan, the data scientist secretly employed by Underwood’s campaign, delivers the president a comprehensive list of Americans affected by gun violence. Claire Underwood then uses the data to record a personalized message to those households encouraging them to back a gun control bill. The phone campaign is a huge success: thousands of families call their congresspeople within 24 hours.

True or fiction? This one is basically true and already happening today. While politicians may not have access to the same kind of data Macallan uses, they are basing messaging on far more complex data points than they have in previous elections.

A great example of this is Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. A few months ago The Guardian reported the Cruz campaign is using “psychographic profiles” of Americans to create custom campaign messaging. The profiles obtained by data company Cambridge Analytica allowed Cruz’s campaign to deliver targeted messages to Iowa voters. According to Bloomberg, these efforts were so detailed that a group of 60 voters were targeted with messaging surrounding Cruz’s opposition to a fireworks ban the group opposed of.

Gauging Reactions

Another frequent data science element in this season’s episodes was Macallan’s ability to gauge public reaction and suggest specific words and phrases for the Underwoods’ speeches. Macallan notes that Claire’s speech about partnership worked, meaning she should continue to emphasize that aspect of her relationship with Frank. This level of insight gives the Underwoods an advantage, almost as if they were in Americans’ living rooms watching their reactions.

True or fiction? House of Cards never details how Macallan is getting his data, but the short answer is yes, this is indeed possible and already happens. Natural language processing allows data scientists to analyze content from sources like Facebook and Twitter for emotion and meaning. This would be an easy way to measure public response.

All in all, there is truth behind House of Cards’ big data themes. As data science progresses, data analysis improves and provides politicians and brands better insight into their audiences. In turn, they can use targeting techniques like online ads, programmatic TV, and audience segmentation to deliver personalized messages.

Interested in big data and how it can improve your advertising campaign? Contact Videa today.

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