How social media and technology have changed the election process

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.

The Debates

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.

Fact Checking

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.

Social Media

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.

Future Elections

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

U.S. Postal Service on the Brink of Bankruptcy Thanks to Email

It’s one of those situations where it only takes a matter of time, and that time is right around the corner for the United States Postal Service (USPS), which according to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, is on the verge of bankruptcy and will most likely default if Congress doesn’t step in and help out. It’s all mostly thanks to our migration to email and the Internet for sending things to our loved ones and peers. Anything to save 44 cents, right?

According to the New York Times, the USPS doesn’t have the funds to make a $5.5 billion payment that’s due at the end of this month. If they don’t get the funds, it’s very possible that the USPS could shut down in the coming winter months, a time when mailing gifts and holiday cards is always at an all-time high.

Thomas R. Carper, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the USPS, says that “the situation is dire. If we do nothing, if we don’t react in a smart, appropriate way, the postal service could literally close later this year. That’s not the kind of development we need to inject into a weak, uneven economic recovery.”

Around 167 billion pieces of snail mail will flow through the USPS this year, which sounds like an insanely large and healthy number, but that’s down 22 percent from five years ago. During that time, they have recorded around $20 billion in losses, mostly because they’re legally required to provide universal delivery to around 150 million homes and addresses.

Donahoe says that he wants to cut costs by closing around 300 sorting facilities, bringing the total down to 200, and reduce the workforce by 120,000 employees within four years. Donahoe is also pushing to eliminate Saturday mail delivery and closing up to 3,700 post offices.

Even though we send email and make online payments to various things, we still desperately need the USPS. We sadly can’t send goods and products over the Internet, and while there will still be UPS, FedEx and DHL, those services can’t match the USPS’s cheaper package rates.

Net Neutrality: A Lose-Lose Situation?

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Much has been made about net neutrality recently. But what does “net neutrality” really mean? In a nutshell, it’s the idea that Internet Service Providers should not be allowed to discriminate against any type of traffic on their networks, for any reason. While it has many more implications, it has become a hot topic of discussion with the rise of streaming video over the internet, which Netflix and Comcast currently find themselves in the center of the fight.

On the surface, net neutrality seems like a no-brainer, but is it really? The fact of the matter is that net neutrality is a very complex issue, and no matter the outcome, we, as consumers, will be the losers.

I feel there are two distinct sides to the issue, and many people may not be aware of the legitimacy of both arguments. This is America, and information is supposed to flow freely, much like the Freedom of Speech, provided by the Bill of Rights. However, bandwidth is not free, and companies like Netflix essentially make a profit using the property of companies like Comcast. Our great country is also based on Capitalism, and both sides understandably want their share.

A Lose-Lose Situation

Suppose the government steps in and enforces net neutrality upon all ISPs nationwide. That sounds like a dream come true to most people in our 21st Century society. Who wouldn’t want to be able to stream any video over the internet on demand, in the comfort of his or her own home, or even on the road? In many cases, this is the extent of the argument, case closed.

Unfortunately, providing network bandwidth is not free. When it comes to millions of consumers streaming terabytes of video simultaneously, it becomes quite expensive. ISPs have to maintain their networks and buttress their infrastructure in order to support the dramatic load increase brought on by the advances of technology. This increase in cost reduces their profits, while Netflix’s profits soar to unimaginable heights. This is a capitalist society, and the ISPs, unsurprisingly, are not happy when their profits fall. If the ISPs are forced to allow all types of traffic, monthly fees from your friendly neighborhood cable company will go up, in order to cover their losses.

Now suppose the government steps in and says ISPs can discriminate against streaming video services like Netflix. Netflix will have to pay ISPs like Comcast a hefty sum in order to provide their services to us, the consumers. Again, this is a capitalist society we live in, and Netflix would pass the cost on to the consumer. Netflix recently increased the price of their streaming subscription, so I have no reason to believe that they would not do it again.

The Bottom Line

If freedom of information wins, we lose. If ISPs win the fight, we lose as well. I hope I’m missing the third scenario where we win. Maybe I’d settle for a tie, because I’m having a hard time seeing the consumer benefit either way.

Nobody likes higher prices, but the bottom line is that bandwidth is not free, and economics dictates that the cost will be passed on to the consumer. As streaming video technology continues to evolve, with more and more HD video becoming available as we speak, I’d like to hear what you, our readers, think about the issue.

Image provided by Discovery Education

US Election 2010: Use Google to Show You the Closest Voting Location

If you’re in the United States, today is election day.  Whether you’re excited to cast your vote, or relieved the political television ads will be over, you can use Google to show you the closest voting location.

To find voting locations, search Google for where to vote and enter your location in the Find your polling place and voting information box that appears in your search results.  You can also access the voting information page directly, without a Google search.

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If the information is available, Google Maps will show you the closest voting location in you area.

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The sidebar contains a list of useful voter information, including a the candidates for your state and/or city.

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So get out there and vote – or don’t – the power is yours!

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