Once, not so long ago, the success or failure of a given political campaign rested on that candidate’s ability to command the airwaves. Entire presidential elections could be determined by whoever had the best, or the most sensational, television ads.
My, how things have changed. The rise of mobile technology, which has placed a computer, and access to the Internet, in the pockets of more than 60% of American adults, is going to steer the course of future elections in a way we’ve hardly come to terms with yet.
And this gradual pivot to more sophisticated technologies continues to shape the way elections are conducted. So far in the 2016 campaign season, candidates have relied on social media to a degree that’s more-or-less unprecedented.
To understand where things are headed, let’s first take a look at where we’ve been.
2014 and Beyond
The 2014 mid-term elections represented a new low in terms of voter turnout, engagement, and participation in the Democratic process in America — a 72-year low, if you want to be specific. With just 36.4% of eligible voters making it to the polls that day, I think it qualifies as a full-blown international embarrassment.
But there’s a very (very) small silver lining, and one that underscores the rising importance of social media on modern elections.
According to Pew Research, 16% of registered voters in 2014 followed political parties, public servants, or their favorite candidates, on social media. That’s a 10 percent increase since 2010—not bad, for just a four-year span. What this tells us is that those voters who do take part in the process are taking small steps toward becoming better-informed citizens. Of course, this brings with it a host of new problems and concerns, as well.
Pandering to the Next Generation?
Even though modern technology, and social media in particular, is proving to be an important tool in helping voters stay connected and informed, it also seems to bring out the worst impulses in would-be presidents.
I admire Hillary Clinton on many levels, but her use of social media has been a mixed bag. Then again, her public script has always read like a kind of Mad-Lib, with the former Secretary filling in the blanks in a script that’s been rigorously focus-tested, considered for mainstream appeal, and, ultimately, scrubbed almost completely clean of anything original, bold, or politically risky. Her social media team in particular has started to feel just a little bit like this:
Stephen Colbert, satirist-in-exile, has also found Clinton’s social campaign wanting, focusing in particular on her overenthusiastic use of Emoji, which culminated in perhaps the silliest moment of her campaign so far, where she asked her followers to “tell us in 3 emojis or less” how “your student loan debt makes you feel.”
Not a big surprise, maybe, when you consider that the Clinton campaign never really expected to have a serious competitor. Nevertheless they’ve found one in Bernie Sanders, whose affection from Generation Y has been steadily rising. Indeed, Sanders is all the rage on sites like Reddit, just as Barack Obama was back in 2008 and 2012.
And perhaps there’s a good reason: the Sanders campaign is hitting hard on the issues, using Twitter and Facebook to draw attention, almost relentlessly, to climate change, economic policy, and social justice. The Sanders campaign also, daringly, staged a digital town hall meeting for college students to discuss the issues that are important to them—on the evening of a recent GOP debate.
The only question left, naturally, is whether all of these new kinds of publicity are actually working. And so far, the signs point to yes.
Hillary Clinton, despite the ongoing controversy surrounding her handling of emails, Benghazi, and all the rest, has seen her poll numbers rise steadily, with endorsements from unions and members of Congress rolling in almost daily.
But Bernie is hot on her heels. Indeed, every debate so far has seen the Sanders campaign rake in more new followers than the rest of the field combined.
And you know what? That’s awesome and hilarious. A 73-year old candidate — our oldest in quite some time — is ruling the Internet as no other candidate seems able to do.
The Good With the Bad
Of course, just as social media and technology can be a force for good, or, at least, for the inoffensive, it can also be a vehicle for ignorance, hatred, and misinformation.
Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee (is he still around?), and Ben Carson, just to name a few, have been lighting up the Internet recently in an apparent attempt to out-crazy one another. Carson has been the biggest loser on this front recently, with a bounty of revelations coming to light about his apparent ignorance and his propensity for lying, which borders on pathological.
And the less said about Trump’s public comments the better.
The short version is that every major candidate, except for a very select few, have either actively embraced modern technology to give voice to their opinions, or have unwittingly been ensnared in its web.
What can we learn from this? Quite simply, that social media is just one layer of defense against terrible candidates. Because, depending on where you get your news, or how you choose to educate yourself, there’s still a very good chance you’re living inside the walled garden of partisan politics. If, for example, the only news sites you follow have a Conservative slant, you might never guess that there’s a rising populist consensus in America, or that your favored candidate might be a glad-handing sociopath.
A Look Toward the Future
I thought it would make some sense, before closing, to take a look at what the country’s best prognosticators are saying about the future of technology in politics.
For starters, there’s no shortage of opinions. This is becoming a well-traveled point of inquiry for journalists and folks in the tech industries.
Conny McCormack is one of the country’s most influential election officials, and his argument is basically this: technology companies have a moral obligation to improve voting throughout the developed world. Even in the United States, voters are held hostage by aging and unreliable voting machines and outdated practices (like caucuses). Tech leaders can, and must, invest in building more affordable, more accurate, and more tamper-proof voting machines to completely erase doubt from the tools we use to make our voices heard.
So we’re not just talking about publishing memes and emoji on social media — technology has so much more to offer, and it’s going to represent nothing less than a bottom-up rewrite of the process as we know it.
Finally, let’s look at money. Technology has fundamentally changed the way political campaigns can be funded — not just for this election cycle, but forever.
The Sanders campaign, along with a great many “down ticket” candidates like Zephyr Teachout and Tim Canova, have made extensive use of ActBlue, a secure, fair, convenient, and extremely well-built fundraising mechanism for public servants. ActBlue has helped raise more than $1.2 billion in campaign contributions since 2004, from average Americans just like us. It’s a bit like Kickstarter, where you can chip in absolutely any amount that makes sense for your budget, including automatic monthly donations. Sometimes there are perks, like free bumper stickers, books or magnets. The point is that it’s easier than ever to contribute, according to your means, to the politicians who best represent your values and your interests.
This is huge. While it’s true that money in politics is in general a big problem in the US, the larger problem is the folks who are empowered to put that money there in the first place. Previously, it was just wealthy campaign contributors — the “donor class,” if you like — who could afford to influence American politics. Now, everybody in America has a tool in their hand for purchasing influence.
And it’s working. The Sanders campaign is raking in a literally unprecedented number of individual campaign contributions from Average Americans. The working class has a voice again, and the means to push back against moneyed interests who can afford to funnel millions of dollars into the campaigns of their chosen candidates.
In this and in so many other ways, technology is leveling the playing field in America. Politics may be forever changed after this election cycle, in more ways than one. Seeing how technology continues to restore democracy to, well, democracy, will be one of the greatest adventures of any of our lifetimes. The Revolution is here, people.