Date:March 6, 8, May 30, June 12, 19, July 17, Oct 18, 2012
“Message Machine,” a news application, takes an innovative approach to decode how the presidential campaigns were shaping fundraising appeals and other communications to potential voters. Going into the election cycle, there were reports that the presidential campaigns were gearing up to use "data science" -- sophisticated quantitative analysis and statistics -- to "microtarget" messages as never before. They had little interest in explaining what they were doing, however, for obvious strategic reasons. When a couple we knew told us they'd received similar emails simultaneously from the Obama campaign, each asking for donations, but in language that differed in subtle, but important ways, we set out to reverse engineer how the campaign was altering its tone and content to specific audiences. ProPublica News Application Developer Jeff Larson created a system to automatically gather tens of thousands of campaign emails and analyze how they were targeted. He used the same sophisticated techniques, such as machine learning and natural language processing, used by the campaign. There were a huge number of stories done after the campaign about the “geniuses” at Obama For America, but ProPublica was virtually alone in providing real-time, deep analysis of the operation while the campaign was still happening.