Politics and technology

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The combination of politics and technology covers concepts, mechanisms, personalities, efforts, and social movements including but not necessarily limited to the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs).

A growing body of scholarship has begun to explore how internet technologies are influencing political communication and participation, especially in terms of what is known as the public sphere.

An influential and transformational communication and information technology is the mobile phone or smartphone, which can include: talk, text messaging, Internet and Web access, electronic mail, faxing, pictures, video, and a wide variety of apps. Mobile devices are proving to increase political participation and are now even being portrayed as a voting gadget in even the least developed countries. Increased availability of the mobile phone and subsequent access to the public sphere has enhanced the ability of individuals and groups to bring attention to and organize around specialized issues.[1]

More recently, social media has emerged to become one of the main areas of influence for politics, where millions of users are able to learn about politicians' policies and statements, interact with political leaders, organize, and voice their own opinions on political matters.[2] For instance, the influence of mainstream rappers like Stormzy, Professor Green and Kano, on young voters through the use of social media has brought an increased amount of young voters to the polls.

In the 2017 London election the spike in youth turnout changed political analysis, with age replacing class for the first time as the best predictor of voting intention. In the 2019 London election, of 18-25 year olds 56% voted Labour and 21% Conservative. Although this cannot ever be wholly contributed to the backing of Corbyn by UK artists, the effect cannot be underestimated. In a letter to the Guardian, put together by the Grime4Corbyn movement, many artists urge voters to back Labour to “end austerity, rebuild our communities and take back the means to change our lives for the better”.[3] Securing the backing of Stormzy, one of the UK's biggest recording artists, is a major coup for the Labour party and after lending his support in 2017, Stormzy was credited in part for the “youthquake” that boosted Corbyn's party in that year's election.

There are also a wide variety of online tools that are meant to promote political participation and combat the spread of misinformation.[4] A comparison of civic technology platforms can be useful in differentiating the different services offered by each platform.

The digital public sphere[edit]

The idea of the public sphere has generally come to be understood as the open social spaces and public spaces in which private citizens interact and share information and ideas relevant to the society. These can include, for example, town halls, public squares, markets, coffee shops, or what ancient Greeks called agoras. Scholars have argued that these spaces are vitally important for creating and maintaining an active and informed public in a democratic society.[5]

In Jürgen Habermas' book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, he defines the public sphere as "a realm of social life in which public opinion can be formed."[6] In principle, the public sphere should be open to all citizens, and free from influence from governments or private businesses. Habermas goes on to argue that:

"A portion of the public sphere is constituted in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public. They are then acting neither as business or professional people conducting their private affairs, nor as legal consociates subject to the legal regulations of a state bureaucracy and obligated to obedience. Citizens act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely."[6]

Howard Rheingold states that, "There is an intimate connection between informal conversations, the kind that take place in communities... and the ability of large social groups to govern themselves without monarchs or dictators."[7] Rheingold and others[8] have also gone on to argue that virtual spaces created through the Internet and related information and communications technologies have led to the emergence of a new type of digital public sphere. Some scholars have conceptualized this alternately as a virtual public sphere[9] or a networked public sphere,[10][11] while still others have similarly described what they call a networked society[12][13] or networked publics.[14] Essentially, these new virtual spaces can be used in much the same way as traditional, offline spaces; that is, as a "free space"[15] to discuss and debate ideas of public importance. Just as the public sphere is a combination of "every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public"[6] the digital public sphere also comprises all forms of new media, such as chat rooms, website comment sections, and social media, in which private citizens engage in discourse as a public. Virtual spaces may overlap or interact with offline spaces as well, forming what has been called "hybrid networks".[16]

Scholars argue that social media affords increasing opportunities for political discourse and mobilization within the digital public sphere.[17] Research has shown that increased use of social media correlates with increases in certain types of political engagement and participation.[18][19] Rabia Karakaya Polat, a politics and technology scholar, finds that the internet leads to a more informed and better society. The internet enables information to be dispersed at an increased rate compared to traditional means and for a cheap cost. For most users, the amount of information can be helpful to understand various political atmospheres but can also overwhelm users.[20] The digital public sphere thus has the potential to enliven democratic culture[21] and enhance the ability of citizens to challenge the political and economic power of governments and corporations[17] such as through online protests, activism campaigns, and social movements.[13][22] Other scholars have also highlighted, alongside economic globalization, the role of Internet technologies to reach across national borders to contribute to a growing transnational public sphere.[23][24]

Criticisms[edit]

Social exclusion[edit]

The traditional, offline public sphere has been criticized for not being as inclusive in practice as it is in theory.[25] For example, Feminist scholars like Nancy Fraser have argued that the public sphere has historically not been as open or accessible to disadvantaged or marginalized groups in a society, such as women or people of color; therefore, such groups are forced to form their own separate public spheres, which she refers to as a counter-public or subaltern counter public (see Public sphere § Counterpublics, feminist critiques and expansions).[26]

Some scholars contend that online spaces are more open and thus may help to increase inclusive political participation from marginalized groups.[27] In particular, anonymous online spaces should allow all individuals to speak with an equal voice to others.[28] However, other have pointed out that many contemporary online spaces are not anonymous, such as Facebook. Avatars and social media profiles often portray an individual's offline identity, which can lead to practices of online discrimination and exclusion which mirror offline inequalities.[29] Now, more and more historically disadvantaged or marginalized groups are also using Internet technology to carve out new online spaces for their own "networked counterpublics" such as through the use of hashtags like #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter.[30][31]

Another example of social exclusion happens when users homogenizes their information by finding information that reinforces their own opinions or websites that have the most content or are promoted consistently. This can lead users to ignore sites that are less frequently promoted. Evidence of this was conduced by Steven M. Schneider found that participation was overwhelming on internet chat rooms discussing politics of abortion. Though the chat log was influenced and controlled by users that contributed the most content.[32] Bystanders or those to respond less can typically agree or adjust their opinions based on more contributing users.

The digital divide[edit]

Another factor which affects access to the digital public sphere is the digital divide, which refers to how people from less developed countries tend to have less access to information and communications technologies compared to those from more developed countries. For example, the most developed regions of the world, such as North America and Western Europe, have the highest Internet penetration rates at over 80% each, while the least developed countries such as in Africa and South Asia have less than 30% each.[33] On the other hand, the reduced cost and increasing availability of mobile devices such as smartphones throughout less developed regions is helping to reduce this disparity at an exponential rate. In just two years, between 2013 and 2015, the number of Internet users in developing nations has risen by 9%, according to the Pew Research Center.[34] Other research has shown, though, that even within more developed countries like the United States, the digital divide continues to persist between upper and lower socioeconomic classes[35] and between different education levels.[36] Furthermore, scholars like Mark Warschauer argue that it is not just access to technology that matters, but the knowledge of how to put that technology to use in meaningful ways.[37]

Use of Bots and Sock Puppets[edit]

Internet bots, also known as a web robot, robot or simply bot, is a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet.[38] Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone. The largest use of bots is in web spidering, in which an automated script fetches, analyzes and files information from web servers at many times the speed of a human. More than half of all web traffic is made up of bots.[39] This aids in the detection of bots as through qualitative coding, software can confirm the presence of bots. An example would be the Bot-a-meter developed by Indiana University, where they evaluate 7 different factors to determine whether or not an accounts is a bot.[40]

A Sock Puppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception.[41] The term originally referred to a false identity assumed by a member of an Internet community who is pretending to be another person. This includes other misleading uses of online identities, such as those created to praise, defend or support a person or organization, to manipulate public opinion, block evasion, ballot stuffing.[42] There is significant evidence to indicate that the Internet Research Agency, a group of professional Russian Trolls, created fake accounts on major networking sites, online newspapers, to promote specific Ukrainian, Middle Eastern, and American political issues, even advocating for Trump as early as December 2015.[43]

Ease of manipulation[edit]

Citizens involved in politics have developed a sense of security amongst the physical attending of a polling place or submitting their vote through mail. Like many physical experiences, they also have a digital counterpart. In areas such as the United States, online voting have been developing in the form of smartphone applications or secure websites. Online voting allows more citizens to exercise their right to vote by breaking down the physical barrier that may keep a voter from voting.

As an unwanted result, online voting is easier to manipulate. Social media apps such as Instagram or Facebook have taken the initiative to get people registered and motivated to go and vote. Despite their efforts, there are social media account engineered to misinform the public causing a jaded perspective in electable candidates or understanding of policies.[44]

Another way users are manipulated is directly with their choice of a candidate. In the 2016 U.S. election, J. Alex Halderman, a computer scientist and director of Computer Security at the University of Michigan, advocated for the Clinton campaign to request a recount in the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania which were thought to be won through computer manipulation of voting machines.[45]

In the 2020 Iowa Caucus, the Iowa Democratic Party used a new mobile app to count and transmit primary election results live in real-time. Official users of the application suffered from reporting issues, leading to incomplete data, and a bottleneck during transmission. President of Verified Voting, Marian Schneider released a statement that says,

"The situation with Iowa's caucus reveals the risks associated with technology, in this case with a mobile app, but more importantly that there needs to be a low-tech solution in order to recover from technological failures -- no matter the cause, There needs to be a way to monitor, detect, respond and recover. It's clear that mobile apps are not ready for prime time, but thankfully Iowa has paper records of their vote totals and will be able to release results from those records." [46]

Since the Iowa Caucus, other state's Democratic Parties have declined their use of Shadow Inc. application for their state's primaries.

Leapfrog Democracies[edit]

This is the divide of the different political parties in Estonia where in the 2013 elections, over 133,000 people (roughly 21.2% of participating voters) voted over the Internet. The 2013 elections were also the first elections to allow vote verification with mobile devices.

Leapfrog democracies[47] developed in the field of industrial organization and economic growth. It was a term first used at the Personal Democracy Forum in 2014. The basic concept of leapfrogging is that small and incremental innovations lead allow radical innovations with new firms or countries to "leapfrog" old and ancient ones, including with different governmental institutions and ideas. Countries that have huge developments that more typically advanced countries might only have much later.

Tunisia[edit]

An example of this is the new Tunsia constitution. Learning from America and other countries, Tunisia developed a constitution that provides more rights that typical constitutions with issues concerning climate change, healthcare, women's rights, and workers' rights.[48] They have provided rights that the United States' government does not cover for its citizens. Tunisia has set the stage for many other countries to follow in their footsteps including Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Although these countries' attempts at democracies have not been nearly as successful as Tunisia's constitution.

Estonia[edit]

Another example of a Leapfrog democracy is Estonia being one of the first countries to use online voting. Nearly 99% of their public services are available online, and a reported 44% of Estonia citizens use the online services.[49] Electronic Voting in Estonia has been occurring since 2005 and can cast votes through an app on their mobile device.[50] Through Estonia's national ID infrastructure, National ID cards have the ability to perform cryptographic functions to authenticate their access to different websites and make legally binding signatures on documents if needed. These cards work through the use of two different RSA key pairs. However, there are still some drawbacks of this voting process as there are inadequate procedural controls that change several times or are not followed, lax operational security, and insufficient transparency. These weaknesses can allow for client side attacks on the voting system.[51]

Presence of online tools for political participation[edit]

With the increasing use of technology in the political sphere, many new platforms have emerged in an attempt to provide unbiased information to the general public in a manner that is accessible to all. The idea of spreading unbiased information has become a popular platform for many apps to get started on. Many of these apps hope to be able to spread this information so that voters may be more educated about the political sphere and make more of an informed decisions when voting.[4] Some more examples include Liquid.us, Countable,[52] Capitol Bells,[53] Fiscalnote,[54] and Councilmatic.[55] Technology is progressing rapidly to making a significant impact on our future campaigns.[56] A comparison of civic technology platforms highlights the similarities and differences between different online tools used for political participation.

PopVox[edit]

An example of this is PopVox, as they provide a holistic view of every bill and resolution that has passed or is currently in discussion with our government.[57] Popvox also provides a platform for voters to share their opinions on different bills being discussed in Congress at the moment, and from the start of the app over 350,000 people have used the app from across the country to share their opinions on bills and become more informed.[58]

iSideWith[edit]

iSideWith is an application that seeks to provide voters with a more educated guess of who they would politically side with.[59] They have an in-depth survey on their website that asks about the users' political opinion on common issues discussed or debated within the government currently to give the voter a ranking of which politician best aligns with what stance they have on the current political sphere.[60] This gives voters more of an educated guess of who they should be casting their vote for. The more time the voters spend filling out the survey, the more accurate the results will align with their political stance.

Change.org[edit]

The logo and slogan for change.org

Change.org is a website that allows for people to take a stance on something they agree or disagree with and actually petition for others to rally behind their cause.[61] People can search up petitions that have been started already concerning a cause that they may feel strongly about or they have the option of starting their own. The website displays past successful petitions that have made an impact and the petition does not necessarily have to be related to politics as well. There are many different surveys started by different people that could just be targeting different issues within their neighborhood but can range up to a social issue that they believe the whole world should be aware about.

D21[edit]

D21 is a platform that allows people to participate in voting on issues through a form of "modern democracy."[62] It is also known as the Janeček Method which allows people to cast both a negative and a positive vote.[63] They wish to inform users more accurately about different issues happening within their community and provide them with a platform for them to be able to voice their opinions on. This is a platform that is used mainly in the Czech Republic to target corruption within the Czech government. Though it has not yet been used in any general elections, the Janeček Method has been used in several participatory budgeting programs around the world, including New York City in the United States.[64] The Czech government introduced the game Prezident 21 which is an interactive website created to aid people in familiarizing themselves with the D21 system.[65]

Verified Voting[edit]

Verified Voting is a website uses its online presence to discourage the movement of voting towards the more digital age. Specifically having a section about Internet Voting, they speak about the dangers and information leaks that come with using the internet or anything digital to cast votes, even with blockchain. Verified Voting defines internet voting to even include email or fax voting or any voting through an online portal. This is due to the fact that any form of electronic voting can cause the vote to be susceptible to a large number of security threats including cyber-attacks that can skew voting results and preferences.[66] According to NIST, it is difficult to make sure that votes are coming from verified and registered voters and it has not been changed in transit. This is difficult to verify over the internet and thus makes casting votes in person and through paper ballets more effective and safe, even with the flaws that it may have.[67] Verified Voting has a "verifier" visualizer to locate provide detail to local election equipment in various counties or cities in all states.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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