Who’s paying for that?

In the coming months we will be inun­dated with polit­ical mes­saging from a host of sources. This is always what hap­pens in the period leading up to a polit­ical elec­tion and this time it’s no different.

Well…one thing is dif­ferent actu­ally: this time we can use new data visu­al­iza­tions from pro­fessor David Lazer’s lab to help us better under­stand the money behind the mouths.

Supreme Court Jus­tice Antonin Scalia has said, “You can’t sep­a­rate the speech from the money that facil­i­tates the speech.” Lazer points out that a lot of that “speech” comes at us in the form of commercials.

In a well-​​functioning democ­racy, an informed elec­torate should not just hear those com­mer­cials, but under­stand who is paying for him,” said Lazer.

The new visu­al­iza­tions aim to help us do just that. Lazer’s team has turned bil­lions of data points from the Fed­eral Elec­tions Comission–which requires all can­di­date con­tri­bu­tions above a cer­tain level to be recorded–into a man­age­able form. “The data pro­cessing and the visu­al­iza­tion reduces the com­plexity to a point where people can inter­pret what is going on,” said Lazer. “These par­tic­ular visu­al­iza­tions make cer­tain things easy to see.”

The first video, which you can watch below, explains how to view these visu­al­iza­tions. Polit­ical con­tri­bu­tions from employees of com­pa­nies like Har­vard Busi­ness School, The Amer­ican Civil Lib­er­ties Union and Bain Cor­po­ra­tion are visu­ally asso­ci­ated with either the demo­c­ratic or repub­lican party. Each donator shows up as a little dot in either the top or bottom half of the screen. The dis­tance away from the middle indi­cates how much they donated. If they switch affil­i­a­tions or donate to both par­ties, they show up as a line crossing the center.

It is easy to see the tem­poral ebb and flow of con­tri­bu­tions,” said Lazer. “Whether people in an orga­ni­za­tion tended to move in the same direc­tion and whether people are con­sis­tent in their rela­tion­ship” are all con­cep­tual take-​​aways that the visu­al­iza­tions pro­vide above and beyond merely looking at the data (which would be incred­ibly boring and time con­suming, anyway, since it’s just a list of bil­lions of numbers).

After you watch the first video, you can go on to watch visu­al­iza­tions for each indi­vidual orga­ni­za­tion. There are cur­rently eight, but Lazer hopes the public will engage his team in con­ver­sa­tion and request visu­al­iza­tions for other entities.

You can see all the visu­al­iza­tions on their web­site, www​.vis​pol​i​tics​.com. They will be adding visu­al­iza­tions every Monday between now and the elec­tion.