Sunday, June 3, 2012

Publicizing Individual's Political Donation History

Between beating up on the Washington Post, and now this post, I think we may have to start saying that journalism and the First Amendment are side issues for the blog. I think that's OK.

Apparently, researchers at Harvard are going through public records and mailing out information about political donations to individuals. You can read about the study here. You can also read about the, uh, less than stellar response it is generating here. Their stated goal is to: "study the implications of the public’s awareness about the open nature of campaign contributions." If that were true, then simply letting people know the information is available is enough. Actively singling them out and making them appear to be the only one in their area contributing to a cause is not raising awareness, though, that may simply be the examples we've been shown.

In addition, you haven't increased the public's awareness about the open nature of campaign contributions by mailing out their campaign contributions. You could do that by sending them a link to Open Secrets, which does a better job of this by not adding your street address to your donations. My way gets the information researchers wanted out there without getting into any messy territory.

Their way lets people know that the information is not just out there, but that you are watching them, and that their neighbors and employers may soon get a helpful note about where their political loyalties lie. It is like putting cameras in a public place; the place is public, people know that. The camera's intent is to chill or incite specific activities.

Let's ignore how a study designed to assess individual's behavior can be ethical when they do not give consent to be studied on, and let's assume that you can conduct studies on people without consent.If this is really an above the board study, then I think we have the right to ask to see the list of people they sent the messages to, the information contained in that list, the database they pulled their random subjects from. In short, since we deserve full and complete disclosure.

Right now it seems like they are looking for a surveillance effect (which both Legal Insurrection and Althouse are calling it). But, here's the interesting thing. We know what happens when you make public the name of political donors. Reactionary groups react with boycotts, threats and social pressure to conform or get out. In fact, exposing someone's donation history, despite the fact it is publicly available, has a real risk of damaging their livelihood. This is not some innocent trait, like hair color. A man who donated to the Romney campaign, after having his name made public, has had individuals snooping through his private life and trying to unseal his divorce records.

Now, the information is already out there. But, most people don't care who you donate to or don't care to look it up. But, when the information is put in front of their faces, they can be egged on to behaviors they normally would not take.

I've contacted Jane Calhoun (contact information here) with my questions on both the ethical nature of the study and if they can provide me with their method of randomization and the information they provided in the mailings so that we can determine the nature of all the letters, as opposed to those being shared. Because, frankly, this study seems like it could have a purpose, but right now, it just seems designed to chill speech. Which is not something that grant money from the government should be going towards. Harvard may not be Big Brother, but it still should not be in the business of disseminating information with an intent to manipulate people's behavior.



If you're not up to date on our other foray into free speech, follow the links from here. Since we're being told that more on the story we talk about there will break on Monday, I thought it would be nice to give a small bit more insight into my thoughts. The judge's decision certainly sounds faulty, but I don't have time to listen to the whole thing. But, it is an important point. You have freedom of speech, only so long as the good graces of the legislative and executive branches see fit not to trample on it. Therefore, it is critical that people who like to write and speak make it clear that those opinions cannot be used by a government to bludgeon them, either through the direct action of the government or through the manipulations of private citizens.

You can't be all Dragon Dice all the time (Though, late this evening will be the first big post linking to the bold new rules!)

Update: This story was too good not to include, since we're on a First Amendment and Free Speech day.

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