The effects vacillate between troubling and inspiring but are always worth our attention
Technology has always played a role in politics — think of the impact that televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon had on that presidential race — but digital technology really rose in prominence during Barack Obama’s first campaign for U.S. president. Energised by young, tech-savvy staffers and volunteers, his campaign used digital technology in ways never before seen. The slew of digital tactics included releasing YouTube videos of the candidate, creating a Facebook page, sending text messages to 1 million subscribers, and deploying targeted emails to voters in key states.
Today, such tactics seem ho-hum, but at the time, they were revolutionary. While Obama was busy sending emails — 1 billion by the campaign’s end — the American public learned that his opponent John McCain never used email. And, by the fall of 2008, the little-known senator from Illinois had 2.5 million Facebook friends, nearly four times more than McCain, and 115,000+ Twitter followers to McCain’s approximately 5,000.
Then, there was Obama’s fundraising. Conducted almost entirely online, fundraising efforts focused on securing small donations, which amounted to almost $750 million by the campaign’s victorious end. It was a record-breaking amount, surpassing all fundraising totals for presidential candidates at that point.
Obama and his campaign team understood what no other candidate did at the time: Digital tools were and are really, really, really powerful — and cost-effective to boot. Posting videos on YouTube was free, and viewers watched Obama’s videos for a total of 14.5 million hours. Had the campaign purchased that same number of hours during primetime TV, it would’ve cost $47 million.
Using YouTube and other social networking sites also allowed the campaign to speak directly to the public. Obama’s messages could be delivered without the interference of mainstream media and gave viewers agency. Rather than interrupting beloved TV programs, the videos could be consumed by viewers whenever and wherever they chose and, more importantly, shared via email or social media. It was the same for the campaign’s emails and Obama’s social media posts and regularly updated website. All that digital content was eminently shareable and encouraged community, a value Obama, a former community organiser, elevated during his campaign.
As we now know, the reception was tremendous and the initiative timely. According to the Pew Research Center, the 2008 election was the first time that more than half of voting-age audiences used the Internet to connect to the political process. Obama’s efforts coincided with the emerging digitization of politics and resonated with digital natives aghast at McCain’s repudiation of email.
So, while Obama was first in many important respects — first African-American U.S. president, first mixed-race president, first Hawaiian-born president — he’s also the OG president of the digital age. No less than the Association of National Advertisers and trade magazine Advertising Age recognized his skills in 2008, when he was named marketer of the year.
Technology as a Political Weapon
Politicians and governments worldwide have since taken Obama’s playbook and run with it. In America, evidence of this is seen in the viral videos produced by the Lincoln Project, AOC’s clapback tweets, and former President Trump’s skillful use of social media.
But the use of technology in politics isn’t limited to getting candidates elected (or unelected as the case may be). Technology can be used as a cudgel by, yes, political opponents but also by hostile governments. We see this in the psychological warfare or psyops enacted by countries such as Russia, Iran, and China upon the United States, where intelligence.
Officials began tracking efforts to influence and divide American citizens through social media. Indeed, disinformation campaigns — distinct from misinformation, which is unintentional — are considered a form of communications warfare and were extensively deployed online and via social media during the 2020 U.S. elections. This approach is in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s information offensive of gaining reflexive control over the United States.
A dusty Soviet concept likely unfamiliar to the average American, reflexive control involves meddling in another country’s decision-making until the results favor Russian interests. “Massive psychological manipulation of the population” achieves this goal, says Russia’s Ministry of Defense, which has built a formidable psyops machine composed of online trolls, hackers, digital proxies, and the country’s own state-controlled media. This army sows division by exaggerating conflicts over issues like LGBTQIA+ rights, gun control, vaccinations, and abortion, increasing animosity between political parties and their supporters.
Sometimes the issues are manufactured, such as the turmoil that leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s election campaign caused in 2016. The emails were hacked by Russian operatives said to be pro-Trump, but the hack wasn’t confirmed till after the damage had already been done. Even so, the emails became a touchstone returned to by both the left and right well after 2016, when Clinton was no longer in the public eye to the same degree.
But emails aren’t the only technology recently questioned. U.S. President Trump refused to concede his loss in the 2020 presidential race, repeating even to this day the false claim that votes had been compromised. His lies fueled the #StopTheSteal movement and prompted Dominion Voting Systems, maker of voting machines used in 2020, to sue Fox Corporation (the parent company of Fox News), OAN, and Newsmax for defamation after the networks continued to broadcast President Trump’s falsehoods and to link Dominion to the reputed fraud. And in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro is casting similar doubts on the country’s electronic voting system ahead of the October 2022 elections there.
Witness to lies at the collective level, harassed by social media trolls, and overrun by conspiracy theories, the American public, as well as publics in Latin America and the Caribbean, find themselves in crisis. The conflict-avoidant and the just plain politically exhausted are retreating from the political process altogether as distrust in government rises. That’s a serious concern, analysts argue. When citizens lack faith in government, they lose interest in public policy and fail to support institutional reforms that promote long-term growth and prosperity.
Indeed, the turmoil in the United States is contributing to growing alarm overseas that America is in decline and, more troubling, that democracy itself is a weak form of government. This perception has opened the door for authoritarian governments like Russia and China to strengthen ties with mineral-rich Africa and geographically key nations like India, which has been reluctant to join Western nations in isolating Moscow over the Ukraine war.
Controlling Technology’s Influence on Politics
Government officials, civic activists, and tech companies themselves aren’t taking the changes that technology has introduced to politics and society lying down. Their attempts to control that influence have been varied, occasionally (and impressively) bipartisan, and sometimes surprisingly responsible.
Antitrust and Data Privacy Legislation
The American Innovation and Choice Act and the Open App Markets Act, for instance, have bipartisan support in both houses of Congress as of this writing. The proposed legislation seeks to curb predatory pricing and the concentration of economic and political power among tech powerhouses accused of anti competitive behaviour.
In an interview, Robert Former, chief information security officer (CISO) at Acquia, mused, “What you’re seeing in the technology world with Apple and so forth, is that they’ve out-competed everybody else. They’ve become the focal point for a particular technology — social media is a good example. Highly unregulated, you know. Economic Darwinism prevailed, and now the strongest are seen as bullies.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has so far declined to put both bills to a vote, causing some to question his support of the regulations, but landmark antitrust legislation in Europe passed in July 2022 shows other governments are keen on reining in Big Tech. The European Union’s (EU) Digital Services Act will become effective on January 1, 2024, when people will be given greater control over what they see online. They’ll be able to learn why specific digital content has been recommended to them and can opt out of profiling. In addition, companies won’t be allowed to run targeted advertising to minors, and the use of sensitive data, such as religion and sexual orientation, will be forbidden.
The Digital Markets Act, which promises to level the playing field for digital companies no matter their size, will go into effect shortly after.
These initiatives follow the lead of the EU’s 2016 General Data Protection Regulation and the 2018 California Consumer Privacy Act. Both afford consumers greater protection over how businesses collect and use their personal information.
Even Big Tech has gotten in on the act, with Firefox, Safari, and Google voluntarily removing or phasing out third-party cookies, the digital tracking files created by websites other than a company’s own. In 2021, Apple also introduced Mail Privacy Protection, so Apple Mail users are no longer subject to the invisible pixels that email marketers use to collect information from recipients. The changes are meant to protect consumers, the companies say, but it may simply be easier for Big Tech to apply restrictions across the board rather than shift features and policies based on any given country’s data privacy regulations.
Protecting the Hardware Behind Today’s Technology
Even as the United States looks to harness the influence of technology and Big Tech companies on American politics and society, it’s also pushing legislation meant to protect the semiconductor industry. The chips it produces power many of the devices that define our world now. Fueling smartphones, laptops, electric vehicles, and wearable tech like smartwatches, semiconductors are as valuable as oil to modern economies — and militaries.
It’s another issue uniting America’s quarrelsome Congress, which passed the CHIPS and Science Act. Signed by President Biden this month, the bill will invest $39 billion in subsidies for the construction of semiconductor factories in the United States, as well as $11 billion in the research and development of semiconductor chips.
Is the legislation too late? It takes time not only to build the factories but also to ensure a healthy talent pipeline for them and the R&D community from which innovations arise. Decades of U.S. disinvestment in education, especially in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, have weakened that pipeline, leading to concerns about the country’s national security and global competitiveness. That context informs ongoing tensions between China and the United States over Taiwan, which produces 90% of the world’s advanced semiconductors.
That fact can’t be emphasised enough. China, the United States, and all developed nations need those semiconductors for their missile defence systems, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence research, along with a host of other technologies critical to their infrastructure, security, and way of life. So, while Taiwan is currently indispensable to global superpowers, each must develop its own semiconductor industry for their safety and advancement.
Access and Net Neutrality
To enjoy our wired lives, we need ready access to digital technologies. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored this requirement when school closures and remote work drove billions indoors. We taught and learned in virtual classrooms; held meetings, conferences, and events online; and conducted everyday activities like shopping and ordering takeout through apps. This transformation accelerated organisations’ digitization of their product portfolios, as well as their customer and supplier relationships, by at least three to seven years, reports McKinsey.
That acceleration in the private sector needs a counterpart in public infrastructure. According to the FCC, almost 30 million Americans lack reliable access to a high-speed, fixed Internet service. The passage of the bipartisan 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aims to balance that digital inequity, with $65 billion allocated for broadband infrastructure and government programs that support equal access for all.
A similar effort is underway in the U.S. Senate to restore net neutrality rules revoked during the Ajit Pai-era of the FCC. Net neutrality — the concept that the Internet should be open and equal for everyone regardless of device, application, or platform — was severely hobbled during that time, so the recently proposed Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act works to strengthen net neutrality protections. Unlike infrastructure, antitrust, and semiconductor legislation, however, the issue remains partisan, and the bill’s passage is by no means guaranteed.
Access can also be thought of in terms of service quality. For example, almost eight out of 10 Australian customers say digital government services should be personalised to an individual's specific circumstances, according to Salesforce Research. They found customers’ trust and confidence in governments is strongly linked to service quality. The report also found that government organisations that more quickly offered digital services during the pandemic were those with scalable, cloud-digital platforms.
Additionally, governments that digitised traditional services, such as by adopting modern project delivery approaches, enjoyed significant wins. Those approaches minimised delivery risks, accelerated value by months, and cut costs by almost a third. Traditional IT legacy systems were not part of this picture — instead, cloud-based digital systems punched above their weight.
Overall, forward-thinking government agencies are tapping into innovations such as 5G, cloud-native technologies, and edge computing to improve the constituent experience. They’re also turning to artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) to create smarter cities and improve the delivery of digital services.
Automation and Jobs
Advances in various technologies — robotics and AI spring to mind — also threaten livelihoods, with jobs in fields like food prep, manufacturing, and highway trucking at higher risk than those that are highly creative or technical. Research by economist Julian Jacobs suggests that people in industries most threatened by automation tend to harbor pessimistic views of politics, the media, the economy, and humanity. Since 2000, this group has come to support Republicans more and more, despite being left-leaning on beneficial economic policies.
Robotic systems construct a car at the Jaguar Land Rover factory in England (Source: Getty Images)
For example, when the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labour voted to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which provides funds that support the Department of Labor’s workforce training programs, not one Republican voted in favor of it. So, although 43% of businesses anticipate cuts to their workforce because of new technology, according to the Future of Jobs survey by the World Economic Forum, partisan politics prevents the United States from improving its reskilling programs, further distancing it from countries like Sweden and Germany that already have large-scale systems in place.
The Empowering Promise of Technology and Politics
While it seems like there are endless examples of the ways in which technology is driving political division worldwide, we should remember that it’s only a tool. “The problem is not the technology,” says Acquia CISO Robert Former. “It’s how it’s wielded.”
And it can be wielded for the collective good by citizen activists and journalists. The digital trail left behind in sexting dalliances by Democratic Congressman Anthony Wiener and Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham helped voters better understand their elected officials.
Then there was the pivotal role Twitter played in the Arab Spring between 2010 and 2012, when demonstrators in the Middle East used the platform to organise protests and other activities. Social media was also important in coordinating civic engagement during the worldwide Women’s March in 2017, the George Floyd protests in 2020, and, in a darker turn, the January 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol in 2021.
In Atlanta, protesters march on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death in 2021. (Source: Getty Images)
But the Women’s March and January 6, while at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, both exemplify an inescapable, hopeful truth: that the impact of technology on politics depends on the people behind the tech.
Open Source and Community
If we need an example of what that looks like, we need only to recall open source software (OSS), which offers its source code up for anyone to review and modify for any purpose. This transparency stokes collaboration, trust, and community as developers, teachers, designers, and organisations large and small touch the code. This decentralised community is defined by its diversity — in location, ethnicity, thinking, and background — which creates fertile ground for innovation as new approaches are continually introduced and weaknesses uncovered and improved.
Such traits may be why U.S. federal policy mandates 20% of all custom-developed code be OSS, though Acquia CISO Robert Former believes the percentage should be higher “simply because it’s a rich environment for development. It’s a rich environment for innovation.”
It needs to be done cautiously, though, he warns. “Open source brings up a lot of problems with software provenance. Where did it come from? Who vetted the code?” asks Former. “Your open source community will put out features much faster than your commercial community in general, but by doing things as open source, you accept responsibility for its safety. You accept responsibility for maintaining the system.”
The U.S. government does run the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) to ensure there are guardrails in place not just for OSS but any vendor who provides products or services to a federal agency. The program establishes a standardised approach to security evaluation, authorization, and the constant monitoring of cloud products and services.
“Federal agencies can only consume cloud products that have been through the process,” explains Former, but for the vendors that pass and receive an Authority to Operate (ATO), their security is automatically elevated. In fact, it’s “a good idea for commercial companies to track those ATOs because it’s an indicator, a barometer of a company’s commitment to their security and compliance program because it’s not easy to do.”
But for Dries Buytaert, CTO and co-founder of Acquia and open source software Drupal, the U.S. government is missing another opportunity beyond mandating a higher percentage of federal custom-developed OSS. If any software is developed with tax dollars, he says, “the default should be ‘developed with public money, make it public code.’”
There are some circumstances when that adage shouldn’t be applied, such as in the development of sensitive military software, but the United States can keep an eye on countries like Bulgaria that have implemented this idea to see how a national repository for source code could succeed.
Where to Go from Here
No doubt that, as technology evolves, its effects on political systems and processes will also morph. Likewise, as governments, politicians, and citizens remain dynamic in their relationships to one another and the world at large, they too will influence technology and its development. Both tech and politics remain in a dialectical relationship to one another, with people and communities unifying the two.
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