The use of technology in politics dates back to the Industrial Revolution. However, in the 21st century, technology’s presence in politics now plays a major role in shaping the political landscape. It does this in three major ways — by acting as a tool for political actors, as a divisive political topic and as a public tool to check people in authority.
Technology allows political actors to better identify, engage with and rally members to their cause.
In the 2016 presidential election, candidates spent more than 1.4 billion dollars on online advertising. These advertisements were fine-tuned to target specific demographics; for example, a women in her 40s living in the Midwest would likely receive different ads than a young male teen living in Los Angeles. The precision of such ads stemmed from a large collection of data including browsing and Facebook activity, location, credit card data and social media likes/dislikes. The data generated is essential because it is used to create marketing campaigns that directly address common issues and trends faced by constituents.
Technology has become a divisive topic in the political landscape.
Many constituents and politicians feel strongly about securing the rights of individuals to privacy. Their concerns are not unfounded, given events such as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal that rocked the nation in 2018. Cambridge Analytica was a political data-analysis firm that worked on the 2016 Trump campaign; it is said that the company had enough data to build extensive personality profiles on every American. Exactly how the firm got ahold of such large heaps of data prompted individuals to accuse the firm of secretly accessing private information of 50 million Facebook users. For many, this was a cause for concern and a blatant violation of the right to privacy. Some political circles such as the Libertarian party now consider the right to personal privacy as important as freedom of speech.
Another widely debated political topic is the regulation of major tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. Both Republicans and Democrats believe that these and other large tech platforms don’t do enough to censor radical and propaganda-type political content, stifle competition and innovation by containing monopolies and misuse sensitive consumer data. Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren holds an extreme view on the subject, making it one of her goals to break up Big Tech — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. At a keynote speech at think tank New America, Warren said, “Google, Apple and Amazon have created disruptive technologies that changed the world and every day they deliver enormous value. They deserve to be highly profitable and successful. But the opportunity to compete must remain open for new entrants and smaller competitors who want their chance to change the world again.”
Technology acts as a tool for the public.
The rise of social media has given citizens the tools to affect concrete political change. The success of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, which led to the takedown of political actors across the Middle East, hinged on social media applications that allowed citizens to quickly organize and broadcast their message via WhatsApp. Facebook and Vine videos of the protests went viral and were quickly broadcasted on global media outlets like CNN and BBC.
Similarly, technology enables people to expose unethical and illegal behavior. For example, the “trail” that digital media leaves behind led to the downfall of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, who was engaging in inappropriate behavior on Snapchat with a minor.