The Impact of Information Technology on Politics

In the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, the Obama campaign’s use of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were widely credited with helping secure the historic victory of President Barack Obama.  While this may have been the most publicized use of social media in politics, it certainly wasn’t the first time that technology and social platforms found their way into the US political realm. The Internet enables citizen participation, giving people a platform to mobilize and voice their opinions, holds politicians accountable and in a larger context, even improves human rights. Information technology tools are influencing political events and revolutionizing political processes all across the globe, in both developed and developing nations alike. Technological tools have been used in novel ways for improving responsiveness and contributing to the welfare of people during the Ebola epidemic, Syrian refugee crises and the Nepalese earthquake. Social media is reconnecting citizens with democratic processes in both political parties. YouTube and Twitter have become the main tools of communication used by both governments and dissidents, as seen in the Libyan and Syrian uprising.

The Historical Use of Technology in Politics

For nearly 20 years, the Internet and technology has been playing a role in US politics.  Here are a few historical highlights of how it has been used over the last two decades:

  • The GOP Internet forum FreeRepublic was set up in February 1997.
  • The political community MoveOn was constituted in response to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, in the same year Google was formed.  
  • In a then record for online fundraising, Sen. John McCain’s successfully raised more than $500,000 over the Internet in less than 24 hours after his 2000 primary win in New Hampshire.
  • In 2000, the Bush campaign used phone bank technology and email lists for get-out-the-vote initiatives action. An AdRelevance Nielsen Online’s service study reported that Republicans used a targeted advertising approach with 20 unique banners on thirty five sites, while Democrats ran only one banner ad on Yahoo. Republicans also used online marketing tools to build a database of 700,000 names.
  • In 2001, popular liberal leaning political websites such as Instapundit cropped up.  Jerome Armstrong initiated Internet based political activism through writing on MyDD. This political strategy came to be referred to as netroots.
  • 2002 saw the rise of popular political bloggers. Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos was one of the first bloggers to be given press credentials for covering the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
  • Arizona became the first state to implement online voter registration in 2003. In the same year, the Howard Dean campaign embraced technological innovation to run political campaigns, such as Meetup to organize monthly meetings, Dean TV to run online videos, experimented with SMS and used an online event tool Get Local.
  • Rock the Vote campaign partnered with Motorola in 2004, to register an estimated 1.2 million new voters to receive information on their mobile devices. The Democratic online fundraising outfit ActBlue was registered in the same year.
  • In early 2005, the popular video sharing site YouTube was formed by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim. It changed the face of political campaigns by empowering citizens to post their own video from campaign events, exposing politicians and their faux pas.
  • The Rightroots coalition was created in 2006 to support and raise money for GOP candidates online.
  • Blue State Digital created My.BarackObama.com in 2007, which advanced the cause of online political campaign further. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube saw a lot of political activity this year. CNN held its first YouTube Debate for the Democrats in Charleston, S.C. followed by the GOP’s November 28 YouTube Debate in St. Petersburg, Fla.
  • Ron Paul created the money bomb for online donations, which raised $4.3 million in 24 hours on November 5 and $6 million again on Dec. 16, 2007.  2007 also saw the launch of the Ustream.tv platform for live online interactive video broadcasts.
  • Tech innovations, such as the free Obama08 app for iPhone and Facebook Connect, played a huge role in the election of Barack Obama. The release of the Facebook API helped in the development of Act.ivi.st, which integrates a campaign with online communities in Facebook or Twitter through messages.
  • Democrat Scott Murphy’s Google Blast Advertising Campaign for special election in New York’s 20th congressional district used Google AdSense to run targeted ads to people in his district in 2009.
  • Smartphone apps, like the Walking Edge, were created in 2010, to come up with a database of voters and supporters using geo-location tools and Google Maps.
  • In 2012, instead of the big donor strategy Obama’s campaign encouraged small donations using the social media and mobile, and successfully raised nearly $1billion in contributions. In 2012, memes entered into political cultural discourse. Romney used custom ad targeting browser tools to harvest data and display banner ads. The Presidential elections of 2012 showed the importance of big data, and campaigns driven around state-by-state election data, public opinion to draw up political campaign strategy.

What Has The Impact of Technology Been?

Technology has impacted everything from how we hear about political and worldwide events to how to register to vote.  The new breed of politicians have embraced technology and harnessed the power of new communication mediums through channels like iTunes, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or podcasting websites, to sway public opinion. Some have fallen victim to technology, while others have reaped benefits. The Internet has liberated communication channels from the powerful gate-keepers in  traditional radio and television media networks. Social media enables peer-to-peer dialogue, public discourse and political messaging to reach more potential voters during campaigns.

Through the clever use of technology, politicians have woken up entire generations of new potential voters.  A candidate without some sort of online presence would now be at a terrible disadvantage over other candidates who are exploiting technology to help them gain attention, money, support and votes. 

Technology has given political candidates a platform to speak to constituents openly through Twitter and Facebook without any editing from campaign managers. Podcasting and blog writing has also allowed self-proclaimed political pundits to spread their message and influence voters.

As we described above, social media strategies were skillfully employed during Obama’s 2008 campaign and impacted how he was able to stay connected and engage with supporters, while big data drove the 2012 election campaign to reach new voters through targeted messaging.

What’s To Come In 2016?

With the Presidential election upon us again, 2016 may see new forms of Internet political activism take shape. It is highly likely that the next President of the United States could be elected by persuading voters through a targeted campaign using social media management and big data analytics, drawing on the huge cache of data available on social media, mobile and other sources. Big data and mapping technologies already gather intelligent information about the American public to determine the best way to get our votes. This year, the big data puzzle is all coming together by connecting social interactions, mobile geo-location data and CRM assets to better display campaigns delivered online seamlessly between mobile, video and Facebook, across multiple devices. Political parties are no longer skeptical about technology and online platforms. Rather they are ready to harness its potential to win elections. One thing is for certain: the Internet and technology will likely be part of our political landscape from here on, even as its shape changes with the changes in new technology.