According to tech entrepreneur and data researcher Matt Rattigan ’11 MA, ’12 PhD, your social media habits—taste in music on Facebook for example—can predict your choice for a presidential candidate.
“Two artists who were the most divisive when separating liberal and conservative voters were Erikah Badu and Lynyrd Skynyrd,” says Rattigan. “If one of those two were your favorites, there was a pretty good chance you were going to swing one way or the other.” But fans of the Beatles were right down the middle.
This is just a sampling of the small details that Rattigan brought to the forefront of social media data analysis, a study that is now nearly mandatory for all candidates in the 2016 presidential race.
The computer science graduate has studied thousands of pages of social media data. From where a particular voter base is located to what they had for dinner, millions of data points are available to an analyst on the back end of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Strategically digesting and interpreting this information is the role Rattigan played in one of the most groundbreaking political campaigns of the last decade—the Obama for America social media campaign of 2012.
“I was finishing my dissertation when I responded to a post looking for analytic staff in Chicago for a year,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Think of this as a really weird post-doc. You’re going to come here for a year, we’re not going to pay you very much and you’re going to work really hard.’ A year later, we were at the inauguration.”
Rattigan was a perfect fit for this job as his dissertation focused on digital analytics within social networking parameters. For Obama’s social media campaign, he applied his research experience toward pinpointing a network user’s influence or relationship with other users to determine how those connections could impact a particular campaign goal.
“Rather than knocking on a door or sending something in the mail, we looked at how we could get an online network of supporters to have the most impact,” he explains. “For example, we would find people in California with really good friends in Iowa who could then, in turn, remind their friends to vote.”
According to Rattigan, this push for peer-to-peer campaigning was a fresh idea that gave the campaign a clear advantage. “We found that when the campaign emailed people, the response rate was incredibly low,” he says. Personalizing the emails, however, made a notable difference.
“When we gave our supporters tools so that they could click and send a message to their friends, the response level was much, much higher,” Rattigan notes. “You tend to read messages and open emails that have your friend’s name in the subject line.”
With the 2016 presidential campaign heating up, Rattigan predicts candidates will continue to use this peer-to-peer platform and will rely on mountains of data to target their messaging. But a lot has changed since 2012.
“Using data to make decisions—that’s not changing,” he says. “However, a lot of the data we had in 2012 is not available in 2016. That’s because there’s been a push towards more privacy on social media and people are more in charge of their data, which is ultimately a good thing.”
Rattigan also notes that the demographics of social media users are changing. “The people who were on Facebook four years ago compared to people who are on now aren’t quite the same.”
As the need for this kind of data analysis continues to rise, it won’t supersede good old-fashioned canvassing, suggests Rattigan. Instead, it will be another tool to help amplify a politician’s voice to reach more influential audiences.
“There’s no substitute for a little old lady in Ohio or Pennsylvania knocking door to door,” he explains, “but we can give that little old lady really good lists of doors to knock on. That’s where the technology comes in.”
Looking back, Rattigan is still amazed at how quickly he moved from the computer science labs at UMass to the campaign trail. His ability to advocate for himself and communicate effectively played a large role in getting where he wanted to be.
“I did a lot of presentations at UMass, either within the department or at conferences, and I really learned how to tailor what I’m saying to my audience,” he says. “That’s helped me doing technical talks, pitching investors and talking at job interviews. Knowing how to convey ideas quickly at the right levels has helped me immensely.”
As the tech industry continues to boom, Rattigan encourages current students to enter the workforce with a purpose in mind.
“Get a good sense of where you are happiest. That’s the important thing to figure out by the time you graduate,” he advises. “UMass taught me how to be self-directed – not waiting for someone to tell you what to do, but to look for the direction yourself. Scratch your head and say, ‘What’s interesting here?’”
By Samm Smith ’08
Learn more about the newly formed UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences.