The travesty of political robo-calls.

The travesty of political robo-calls.

The travesty of political robo-calls.

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Dec. 7 2007 7:59 AM

Phoning It In

The travesty of political robo-calls.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Say hello to the latest wave in political campaign technology: "personalized educational artificial intelligence."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Better yet, say goodbye.

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The new technology, better known as robo-calling, starts with something familiar: picking up your phone and hearing a recorded message. It's causing a stir in Iowa, where software-generated calls are bad-mouthing rivals of Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Since the calls ask questions and adjust to the respondent's answers, the operative behind the scheme touts them as personalized AI. And he's not alone. Groups across the political spectrum have used robo-calls in scores of congressional districts. Mitt Romney, who's demanding an investigation of the Huckabee calls, hired the same robo-firm less than four months ago.

I'm a big fan of computers. In fact, I think the folks behind the Huckabee calls could use a bit more computer help, particularly in spell-checking words such as Islamo-Facism and Immigartion. (You know how it is these days—nobody speaks English.) But robo-calls aren't personal, educational, or intelligent. Nor are they meant to be.

Education is the euphemism political consultants traditionally apply to nasty and misleading TV ads. Personalization adds a second layer of spin. Through "interactive voice response," the computer that phones your home supposedly tailors its script to your needs. It's a "sophisticated interactive phone technique" that gives voters "information … based on the things they think are important," according to the president of the outfit behind the Huckabee calls. The company that made the calls boasts that respondents "get the chance to express their views and have them counted and relayed … to those that represent them at every level of government."

Visit the Web site recommended by the Huckabee calls, and you'll get more blather about "involvement," "activities," "grassroots," and "volunteering." It's this kind of human touch that ostensibly inspires the love for Huckabee. "He is authentic and genuine," the site promises. "When you talk to him you know he is the real deal."

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Well, good luck talking to him. In fact, good luck talking to anyone. The reason you're sitting there listening to a robot instead of a human being is that the people who write all this drivel about interaction, involvement, and personalization don't believe a word of it.

The ultimate in personalization is a candidate showing up at your door. The next best thing is a visit from a volunteer. If that's too much trouble, volunteers can ring you up from a phone bank. Or the campaign can hire people to phone you and pretend they care. But if you aren't worth even that much time or expense, the campaign can resort to something still easier: hiring a computer.

Robo-calling is dirt cheap:  5 to 15 cents per call. It's more efficient than TV ads, because operatives can directly select the households they want to target: independents, married women, Catholics, whatever. And it's incredibly fast. A Democratic firm offers 200,000 calls per hour; a Republican firm offers 3.5 million per day. To speak to that many people, volunteers would need weeks. Through the miracle of parallel processing, a massive order for robo-calls, like an order to sell stock, can be "executed," in industry parlance, during a precise time window. Want to start at 6:49 p.m. and finish by 7:17 p.m.? Done.

Remember Conrad Burns? He's the former Montana senator whose defeat last fall handed the Senate to the Democrats. One factor in his demise was a robo-call campaign by a firefighters' PAC. "Senator Burns thinks firefighters are lazy and incompetent,'' a spokesman for Burns' challenger crowed, recalling Burns' criticism of a recent firefighting operation. "It sounds like firefighters have decided to let folks know how they feel about Senator Burns."

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Now there's a lesson for you. Call firefighters lazy, and they'll leap to their phones. Or maybe, on second thought, they'll outsource the job to a computer.

Another convenience of robo-callers is that they lack human compunctions. If you can't find enough phone bankers willing to spread lies, like those that sank John McCain's presidential bid seven years ago, just record your message once. Computers will do the rest, as easily as they'll send spam, viruses, or porn. Want to call the same number again and again, to make sure the irate recipient stays home on Election Day? Want to wake people up in the wee hours? No problem. If folks complain, you can blame it on a "glitch."

A truly interactive phone call starts with a human being at the other end. You can interrupt questions, challenge premises, rephrase issues, explain your uncertainties, and add unsolicited comments. You may be ignored, but you'll be heard. On a robo-call, you can't do any of that. Last year I got phoned by the same group that's now doing the pro-Huckabee calls. "Do you support medical experiments on unborn babies?" the robot asked. "Yes," I answered. It was the only way I could protest the question's absurdity. The robot paid no attention. It simply moved on to the next topic.

In Huckabee's case, the calls begin, "This is Election Research with a 60-second political survey." Don't ask who Election Research is; the computer won't say. Don't ask it to stop calling you; it can't hear. If you track down the company's Web site and find the page where it invokes "exceptions" to the national Do Not Call registry, don't click the link; it goes nowhere. This is typical. Here's how the Billings Gazette described a voter's search for answers last year: "Her first attempt to trace a robo-call connected her to another automated message. The message told her the call couldn't be traced until she had received three calls from the same number. Next, she called Qwest, only to be told that she would need a subpoena before the company would release the name of the caller."

The natural reaction, when you get a robo-call, is to blame the politician mentioned at the outset. "I'm calling with information about Jane Smith," the caller will say. You hang up; the phone rings again; it's about Smith again. You dial 411 and demand the number for the Smith campaign. You shout at the campaign receptionist that you'll never vote for Smith again. But the joke's on you. The people who sent the robot after you don't want you to vote for Smith. And the poor receptionist can't possibly explain this to you and all the other people jamming her lines. Even a bank of Smith volunteers, working the phones all day, can't fix the damage done by a half-hour of robo-calling. They're only human.

There's one good way to defeat the robots. When they call, don't hang up. Note which candidate they're badmouthing, and vote for him. That's the kind of feedback political operatives understand. The fast learners will stop using robo-calls. The slow learners will scratch their heads and wonder what message voters were sending. Next time, maybe they'll ask.