Disclaimer: I realize this is a technology website, and while I have my own political opinions, I am not in any way attempting to push any sort of belief, or support either candidates in this post. I tried to be fair and balanced, and in no way intended to spark a political debate. Technological debate only!
Technology has changed our lives in more ways than can possibly be written about in one article. It has probably changed more things than we can even realize, and the fact that it is all around us is starting to be taken for granted. Recently, while reading various news articles about the latest debate and how people perceived the candidates, I finally realized just how much tech and social media has impacted something as important and life changing as the presidential election.
The Spread of Information
Undoubtedly, the biggest impact that technology has had is through the way that we spread information. In the past, things had to be looked up in an encyclopedia, or you had to find someone who was knowledgeable in the subject so that you could ask them some questions. Today, virtually every piece of information known to man is available literally at our finger tips.
Think about our daily interactions:
“Who played in that movie?”
“Let me check IMDB.”
“How tall is the tallest building?”
“Let me Google it.”
“How do you build a house?”
“No problem, let me find a how-to video on YouTube!”
These things drastically change the speed of information, and this is most evident in the current presidential elections. In the past, elections could be completely decided by how strong the physical campaign was for the candidate. It was relatively simple really: if you visit more places and speak convincingly, more people will be willing to vote for you.
Now, the political landscape is completely changed by social media and the easy access we have to all sorts of information. All of a sudden, the information asymmetry that candidates were counting on simply is gone. This has had a huge impact on how we perceive the candidates, and I believe, how we vote.
One of the biggest examples of the effects of social media during this election is in the presidential debates. In the past, debates were somewhat downplayed, and people thought that it ultimately could not sway the results of an election. Many people thought that while opinion may change slightly, it wouldn’t affect the outcome of the election unless one candidate flat-out humiliated or dominated the other one. Then, of course word would spread.
However, spreading the word in the age of the internet is infinitely easier than it was ten years ago. This means that people can tweet, post status updates, or send friends messages instantly to say what they feel about the presidential debate. Instead of being alone or with a group of friends/family watching the debates, we are now in groups of thousands and millions where tons of opinions are being thrown around. This also means that instead of forming your own opinion, you are more likely to be swept up in others ideas long before you realize what it is you want. In some cases this may be a good thing, but it can also be terribly destructive to one of the candidates depending on how the flow goes.
My favorite aspect of this tech impact on the elections is the “fact checking” websites that have popped up all over. The idea that they’re out there has a very positive effect on the elections, and on politics in general. In the past, candidates could spew lie after to lie to the general public, and if they were convincing, that was all that mattered. While this is still true in some situations, the fact that you can jump on your smartphone or laptop and check to see if what you were told was actually true really shifts the power away from crafty words and convincing personalities. Of course, you are often still left with how you feel about the person and how convincing they were, but if a point you really identified with was found out to be a lie, then you are much more likely to change your opinion.
Naturally, there is still some bias in these websites and articles that check the facts, and while campaign parties realize that it is out there, they still do their best to avoid telling the absolute truth. What seems to be a “win” these days is telling something that isn’t a lie, but isn’t 100% true. By staying neutral, and usually skipping the parts that you don’t want to bring up, it is much easier for the people who read about it to simply think of it as “strategy” instead of lying.
Something that I find extremely interesting, and that I think has a strong impact on the elections, is the social media that is used to discuss the candidates. For example, during the political conventions and the debates, live tweets were displayed in real-time on the screen so that viewers could get an idea what others were thinking about debate. While this may seem harmless, and even collaborative, it can really change the impact and the perception of the discussion. Tweets that are discussing what is currently happening in discussion effectively decide where the attention is being focused during the talk. Something as harmless as “Why does Biden keep smirking?” can lead to millions of people ignoring the words and only looking at facial expressions.
Another huge impact that these sites have, is how much people have been taking quotes or pictures from debates and campaign events and positing them online with funny twists. Places like Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter are hotbeds for pictures and quotes that are edited and changed for a funny purpose.
One glaring example, and the one that really made me think “Oh wow, technology really is changing the elections” is the Mitt Romney and his “binders full of women” comment. Something that was seemingly an innocent statement was picked up in minutes and had a Twitter hashtag, a Facebook account, a website called bindersfullofwomen.com, and a Tumblr page full of memes about Romney and his stance on women. If you ask viewers what they took away from the debate, you may get a mix of answers, but if you ask them if they heard about “binders full of women,” most anyone will say yes.
Similar things have been done against the Obama campaign, and it isn’t hard to find similar Tumblr pages or YouTube parodies that tear apart the Obama administration and try to take statements that he has said and put them in a negative light.
While I believe that all of these things have drastically changed public perception of candidates, it hasn’t altered the process enough to completely change politicians themselves. They still lie, they still say half-true statements, and they still do their best to manipulate the public. The smart ones are jumping on the tech wagon and using these things to continue to perpetuate the lies and the propaganda by taking to social networks or posting viral videos. The bindersfullofwoman.com site that I mentioned above? It was created by someone who is an avid Obama supporter and is linked with the campaign funding channels. Things like this that are seemingly funny and innocent, are pointedly political and calculated attempts to tear down the image of the other candidate. We will see much more of this in future elections, and it will continue to be hard to tell whether it was an innocent joke or a focused attack.
As technology continues to be more pervasive in our lives, more people will get their information from channels on the internet. Be it Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, or even a blog that you regularly read, these places are quickly and effectively changing the minds of many citizens who regularly access them. I would like to believe that in the future, this will lead to more truths being told, and less lies being allowed, but I am not so sure.
The internet has long been a place where facts are overruled by opinions, where stories that have no real base are picked up, and entertainment trumps anything related to sense and responsibility. There are many tools that are available to greatly improve things in the election process, but it remains to be seen whether these tools are used more by people who make positive changes or ones that take advantage and use them negatively.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons