Investigators Probe Silicon Valley Link In Botched Voter Mailer Experiment

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One subplot in the ongoing saga of three political scientists whose research project is now the subject of an official investigation and intense debate among academics is that one of the researchers is involved in a Silicon Valley start-up whose work has, at least on paper, a lot in common with the now-controversial experiment.

The New York Times noted one of the researcher’s role as co-founder of Crowdpac. The researcher, Stanford assistant professor Adam Bonica, launched the startup last month with Steve Hilton, former adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Gisel Kordestani, a former senior executive at Google. The company, which received $2 million in startup funding, is developing a system to help people find candidates whose ideology aligns with theirs and then donate money to them.

Political blogs in Montana, where an official state inquiry is underway over mailers that Bonica and colleagues sent to 100,000 voters that bore the state seal and placed non-partisan judicial candidates on a partisan scale, have also made the connection and openly wondered whether Crowdpac had any role in the controversial research project.

Jonathan Motl, Montana’s political practices commissioner, told TPM that he was aware of the questions being raised about Crowdpac and said that his investigation would include looking at “whether this project or, another related project, got money from outside sources.”

Stanford University’s internal investigation is also “looking comprehensively at all aspects of research practices, including compliance with our conflict of interest disclosure requirements and our conflict of interest policies,” spokeswoman Lisa Lapin told TPM in an email.

“A connection to Crowdpac would be part of the investigation,” Lapin said. Bonica did not return direct requests for comment.

But in a Thursday interview with TPM, Hilton, Bonica’s business partner, said Crowdpac had not had any foreknowledge of the mailer experiment and had no involvement in it. He also said that the company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., had not yet been contacted by any of the entities investigating the project.

“No, we had no foreknowledge or involvement in the project that’s under discussion,” Hilton said during a phone interview. “We didn’t know about it in advance. We didn’t know about it until the news surfaced.”

Part of Bonica’s research is determining candidates’ ideology based on campaign contributions and other publicly available information. That was how they placed the Montana judicial candidates on a scale that compared them to President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. That methodology is also a part of how Crowdpac identifies candidates’ ideology and helps connect its users to the candidates who match them.

The fine print of the research mailer and Crowdpac’s explanation of its data model both linked to the same Stanford University website that outlines Bonica and his colleagues’ academic research.

Bonica does have a monetary interest in Crowdpac’s success as a co-founder, Hilton said, but he is not involved in the company’s day-to-day operations and he is not paid a salary. Hilton had also not met or heard of the other professors involved in the research project, Stanford’s Jonathan Rodden and Dartmouth’s Kyle Dropp, according to a spokesperson.

Hilton told TPM that he did not see a conflict of interest in Bonica’s academic research having — on paper — that kind of link to Crowdpac’s work.

“He’s an individual who’s perfectly able and free to work in different fields,” Hilton said. “This is a very common way of working for many academics in America. It’s very striking to me, actually, how different the U.S. is and I think in an admirable way where academics don’t just sit in an ivory tower. They actually participate in the real world in a very positive way, and I think that’s a good thing, and I don’t think that’s something that we want to discourage.”

“As with everything, the answer is to be open and transparent,” he continued, “and that’s exactly what we’ve been.”

As for the mailer experiment, Hilton said it was clear that a mistake had been made, but he was glad that the universities had apologized and he said that it would not affect Bonica’s role at Crowdpac.

“The way I see it is that there’s clearly been a mistake here, and that’s been made clear and Stanford and others have apologized. There’s a particular aspect of the implementation of the research program that was a mistake,” he said. “They’ve said sorry for that and I’m really pleased to see that.”

Image via YouTube.

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