There are a lot of hot button political topics out there. However, some are so deeply rooted in political discourse that they not only manifest as a hot topic on the campaign trail, but impact the machinations behind the scenes, and even the way that we, as private citizens, view politics and consume political information. Technology plays a major role in shaping the political landscape. In this blog post, we’re going to take a deep dive into three major ways technology influences politics– as a tool for political actors on the campaign trail, as an often divisive political topic and as a potential landmine that can upend political aspirations.
Technology as a Tool for Political Actors
Perhaps the most obvious way that technology impacts politics is as a tool for political actors such as politicians, governments and other organizations to better identify, engage with and rally members of the public to their cause, as well as broadcast political messaging. We see this in action every time we watch a campaign commercial on TV, see a political ad on Facebook or receive a flyer in the mail.
Two of the most powerful methods for using technology as a tool include data collection and the use of digital media. For example, Barack Obama famously rose to the President of the United States in large part thanks to a revolutionary and unprecedented effort at collecting granular data about the demographics and voting patterns of key voters all over the United States. Data collection has always been a key aspect of political and information campaigns, but President Obama’s capitulation brought the potential for the state of data collection to the forefront of national attention.
In the following years, such focused and granular data collection – about everything from past voting behavior to household income to internet browsing patterns – has become an essential part of any modern (and successful) political campaign. The data is used to create marketing campaigns to broadcast political messages, cultivate donor relationships to solicit extra donations, as well as identify and assist new voters with getting to the polls.
Along those same lines, another way that technology impacts politics is more subtle: in establishing authenticity with certain voting blocs. For example, Beto O’Rourke has built a presidential campaign on the unconventional use of social media. Whether he is sharing a video of himself chowing down on local cuisine during a campaign stop or vlogging his thoughts about the rigors of being on the road, O’Rourke is hoping that his extensive dependence on technology will resonate with millennial voters who often spend their time in similar ways.
Technology as a Political Topic and Campaign Platform
More controversially, most political candidates and many political organizations have strong stances on many topics that have to do with technology, such as data privacy. Many politicians (and members of the public) feel strongly about securing the rights of individuals to privacy. The “right to be forgotten” has become almost a household term, and in some political circles, such as the Libertarian Party, this right is as crucial to personal liberty as freedom of speech.
Another related topic is equitable access to technology. Many areas of the world, even in some highly developed countries such as the United States, lack access to high-speed internet and this inequity begets more inequity. Access to high-speed internet can play a major role in alleviating many social problems, such as educational and health disparities. Disruptive educational platforms, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), as well as innovative health technologies, such as telehealth and fitness apps, are often completely inaccessible to the areas of the world that could benefit most from them.
Residents of major and mid-sized cities often take access to high-speed internet for granted, even expecting it in most public places, such as libraries, schools, parks and downtown plazas. But just an hour outside of a small city, broadband can be hard to find, often limiting residents’ opportunities. It’s not uncommon for senators from states such as Wyoming or Iowa, who have broad influence on Capital Hill due to the small number of Senate members, to prioritize their constituents’ access to broadband internet in their campaigns.
Finally, another political hot topic is the regulation of major tech companies who are growing more and more powerful. It’s not difficult to argue that companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon or Apple are more powerful than many countries in the world, and so the interest of these entities is also a common topic on the campaign trail. In March, President Trump blocked the acquisition of tech infrastructure giant Qualcomm by Broadcomm, citing national security. This was a controversial move, even to some members of his own political party, who deemed such regulatory moves to be detrimental to economic growth.
Technology as a Tool for the Public
Politicians and political organizations aren’t the only ones that utilize technology to shape politics. The rise of digital platforms, especially social media, has given private citizens the tools to affect political change on a level like never before. For example, many experts largely credit the takedown of political strongmen all over the Middle East during the Arab Spring of 2011 to the power of social media and chat apps, such as WhatsApp, that empowered citizens to quickly organize and broadcast their message around the world. Facebook and Vine videos of protests and police brutality went viral and were broadcast on global media outlets, such as CNN and BBC.
Another way that technology impacts politics for the better is through a more controversial, but nonetheless effective, method: exposing unethical or illegal behavior. For example, the “trail” that digital media leaves behind led to the downfall of Anthony Weiner, once a shining star in the Democratic Party, who was engaging in inappropriate behavior on Snapchat with a minor.
Technology as a Double-Edged Sword
As any IT manager knows, the same advancements in technology that allow us to work and play in ways like never before also allow nefarious actors to cause disruption or harm like never before. While some hackers spend countless hours trying to access personal or financial information, many are dedicated to disrupting the political world. These efforts often go beyond simple hacking for the sake of hacking. For example, the hacktivist organization Anonymous is dedicated to exposing sensitive political and governmental information to the benefit of the public.
Along similar lines, but with a more mission-focused bent, is the advent of “fake news,” a term coined during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Fake news is media written and published usually with the intent to mislead, in order to damage an entity or person, or to gain financially or politically. Fake news often utilizes sensationalist, dishonest or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership. The internet has given fake news an unparalleled platform for distribution. Whenever you are browsing the internet and see an outrageous headline in a sidebar, you’re probably seeing clickbait, which is earning revenue from distributing fake news.
Politics and Open Source
We’ve explored many aspects about the intersection of technology and politics. The one thing that all of these topics have in common is passion. Citizens have strong opinions about the role of technology in our lives, so it’s no wonder that political actors and organizations incorporate it into their campaign strategies and platforms accordingly. This same passion about the role of technology comes into play at Acquia, thanks to our strong commitment to the open source community, which is built on a philosophy of collaboration, access, diversity, and egalitarianism.
While it is unlikely that the nominees for the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election will stake their campaign on an issue regarding open source software, it is very likely that they will have stances on issues related to Acquia’s platform and mission, and some of which may event impact our work. These could be somewhat mundane, focusing on intellectual property laws or taxes. Alternatively, they could be very controversial, like net neutrality or diversity in the workplace, both of which are issues that reside in the same technological and ethical fault-lines from which the open source community was borne.
Technology and politics have always been connected, dating as far back as the Industrial Revolution, which led to some of the most seminal issues in American history, such as labor protections. But in recent years, they have become more or less inseparable. You can’t engage in politics without engaging in technology, and you can’t use technology – whether you’re a tech visionary, consumer of digital media, or avid Tweeter – without engaging in politics.