In 2007, Marc Andreesen* and his wife Laura had an informal meeting with comparatively unknown Senator in his first term. The Senator was considering a crack at the Presidency and wanted to know more about how technology might help him.
At the time there were only around 20m Facebook users across the globe, and fewer than 20,000 Tweets each day on the fledgling Twitter. Hardly enough to make a difference…
When the Senator was inaugurated as President in 2009, it was hailed as the first social media political campaign. It didn’t just deliver the Presidency,; it raised a record-breaking $600m in campaign contributions for the unknown underdog candidate.
Technology wasn’t new in politics. A decade before the Obama/Andreessen meeting, Labour’s 1997 landslide was supported by their “Excalibur” rapid rebuttal database. Tory opponents were left punch-drunk and reeling by this brutally efficient tool; take a position on an issue, and within minutes Labour would feed the media with all those times your colleagues, party, or even you, had expressed a contradictory view, combined with enough statistics and 3rd party opinions to undermine every word you said.
It was effective, but seems like a thimble of data compared to the oceans of information that swirl around contemporary politics. Whereas once limited to polling data and crude targeting of personae like “Mondeo Man”, modern political campaign managers can micro-segment, micro-target and micro-manage their messaging.
There’s growing fascination with the manipulation of voters through social media. The Guardian and the BBC have both run stories this week about the way the Brexit and Trump votes may have been swayed by social media usage. The Republicans reportedly spent $70m on Facebook to get Trump into The Whitehouse.
As well as “legitimate” tactics, there are the concerns around digital manipulation of voters by unscrupulous means. Within hours of sacking his FBI chief, Trump has signed Executive Orders for the “Establishment of Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” and “Strengthening the Cybersecurity of Federal Networks and Critical Infrastructure”.
Unless you work in digital communication, the speed with which social media’s become such an influence on politics must seem inconceivable. Indeed, unless you work in digital communication, I think it is unlikely you can conceive the extent to which it has an influence.
I’ve shown Facebook’s advert targeting to clients and seen them amazed by its ability to reach specific targets – and these are people that use Facebook every day. We all use digital media, but simply using it doesn’t give you any insight into the complexity, or the power, of the algorithms that create your own media bubble.
Digital media messages don’t shift strongly-held beliefs (at least, not overnight), but elections aren’t won or lost by reaching out to the die-hard voter. But campaigns only need to convince that small, vital percentage of changeable opinion (and it may be fair to say that those people are most vulnerable to social media bombardment). Social media analysis can tell you who those people are, where to find them, and what they need to hear to change their mind.
Will we, the individual voters, become more sophisticated political consumers in response to this new communication? It seems doubtful, when most voters have little idea of the manipulation they are experiencing. This manipulation can feel so natural, so coincidental, that it is imperceptible. It isn’t a leaflet through a door, or a candidate’s face on a television; it is a friend sharing a comment or article; a peer nudging our opinion.
This may end up being the year that exposes some of the less savoury techniques that technology has been used for in recent elections, or it may be the year shows the horse has already bolted and our current approach to democracy isn’t up to the task.
Who knows where we’ll be in ten years from now.
*creator of the pioneering Mosaic web browser, Netscape, board member of Facebook and eBay, and much, much more.