Private email servers. Unsecured personal smartphones. Cyber-hacking. Online campaign fundraising. Streaming townhall meetings. Fake Twitter accounts. Fake Facebook accounts. No denying the digital world has swamped the political world and we now have an internet of political things.
That fact resurfaced this week with news reports President Trump persists in using his personal smartphone, despite US intelligence warnings that Russians and Chinese are listening in on his conversations. Trump has denied the report, but also has confirmed it.
The crack in confidential, sensitive information by Trump is ironic in light of his continuing attacks on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and the chants of crowds at his political rallies of “Lock her up!”
For Trump, the digital world is his oyster. His Twitter account, he says, is his “megaphone” to speak, unfiltered, to his political base. Trump has more than 100 million Twitter followers. Newsweek points out as many as 15 million of his followers may be fake. Trump complained Twitter is trying to suppress the number of people following him. His complaint came in a tweet.
Barack Obama perfected the art of social media engagement and fundraising in his presidential campaigns. Now social media is a standard, integral part of campaigns for the presidency all the way down to local school board races. One of the top positions in big-time campaigns is digital director. Social media is a perfect vehicle to mobilize supporters, recruit new followers and disseminate a campaign’s key talking points. Social media also is a platform that can be used to test messages to see how they play with the political base.
Campaign budgets tell the story. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, major campaigns spent between 10 and 20 percent of the budget on digital. The Trump campaign spent 50 percent of its budget on digital. Big data, which can pinpoint people’s behavioral tendencies, has largely replaced paper voter registration lists that connect a Democrat or a Republican to a house address.
Based on US intelligence accounts, hacking into emails, setting up fake social media accounts, spinning conspiracy theories and conducting cyber dirty tricks are now common campaign practices. We have been led to believe Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have launched digital attacks aimed at US political figures, political parties and news media. There is less revealed knowledge about whether the United States engages in similar digital disruption in foreign countries.
Members of Congress who are stuck in Washington, DC – or want to avoid live appearances – have taken to virtual townhalls, often using live streaming as the medium.
Political polarization has lapped over to “news,” resulting in clusters of online outlets that cater to the views of people on the far opposite sides of the political spectrum. Some pose as news media even though they are principally political provocateurs. They would stick out on a TV channel guide, but they blend in as part of the vaster, unregulated cybersphere.
Whereas people in the past conversed about political events of the day over coffee, they now engage in more highly caffeinated social media exchanges, sharing articles and trading insults in real time. You don’t have to wait for a daily newspaper to read your favorite (or most hated) commentator and offer your own follow-up comments. You can troll friends and foes alike online. You can associate with your political tribe and saber-rattle at your opposing political tribe. You can get – and give – political feedback on your smartphone virtually anywhere, anytime.
Like the internet of things, the internet of political things has created greater connectivity. In your home, you can remotely control your temperature and monitor your doorstep. In your political home, you can dial up whatever temperature you want and kick anyone to the gutter.
The internet of things can do a lot of good. You can monitor elderly parents living at home, reduce your energy bill and work without commuting. The internet of political things does good, too. You have more direct access to what political figures say and think. You have a wider range of political commentary at your fingertips. You can engage in political movements without leaving your own house.
For better or worse, the internet of political things is a reality. It is likely to become even more prevalent, though probably not to the point where you engage your refrigerator in a political debate. In Italy and other places, the internet of political things has evolved to electing representatives and giving them legislative direction via online direct democracy. That’s like inviting the legislative process for a sleepover on your computer.
The good news is digital change occurs fast. You won’t have to wait long for the next big internet of political things.