Ever since the internet went mainstream in the 1990s people wondered about how it would affect democratic politics. In seeking an answer to the question, we made the mistake that people have traditionally made when thinking about new communications technology: we overestimated the short-term impacts while grievously underestimating the longer-term ones.
The first-order effects appeared in 2004 when Howard Dean, then governor of Vermont, entered the Democratic primaries to seek the party’s nomination for president. What made his campaign distinctive was that he used the internet for fundraising. Instead of the traditional method of tapping wealthy donors, Dean and his online guru, Larry Biddle, turned to the internet and raised about $50m, mostly in the form of small individual donations from 350,000 supporters. By the standards of the time, it was an eye-opening achievement.
In the event, Dean’s campaign imploded when he made an over-excited speech after coming third in the Iowa caucuses – the so-called “Dean scream” which, according to the conventional wisdom of the day, showed that he was too unstable a character to be commander-in-chief. Looked at in the light of the Trump campaign, this is truly weird, for compared with the current Republican candidate, Dean looks like a combination of Spinoza and St Francis of Assisi.
But the lessons of Dean’s approach to fundraising were not lost on later contenders, particularly Barack Obama, who put together a team of tech whizzes drawn from the big internet companies and deployed all the black arts of surveillance capitalism to target voters, motivate supporters and get out the vote – on two occasions, 2008 and 2012.
These initiatives were first-order effects because they were predictable: they merely harnessed the obvious affordances of online technology – the ability to communicate efficiently with a large number of people, solicit and process donations, disseminate campaign messages and so on. They changed the way campaigns were conducted but they did not change the nature of politics.
The second-order effects of the internet – the technology’s ability to mobilise and coordinate large-scale collective action – were first seen in late 2010 when the Arab Spring kicked off. As Helen Margetts of the Oxford Internet Institute and her colleagues argue in their book Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, the internet did what it had done in every area of commercial life, namely lower the transaction costs of doing something – in this case engaging in political activity. This is creating, Margetts and her colleagues argue, a new kind of “turbulent”, fast-moving, unpredictable politics.
Six years on, the Trump campaign has demonstrated quite how turbulent, fast-moving and unpredictable politics has become. We have seen how the internet (in the shape of social media) has become a powerful enabler of “post-truth” politics – defined by the Economist as “a reliance on assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact”. Trump’s brazenness is not punished, but taken as evidence of his willingness to stand up to despicable elites.
“Did you know,” asks Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times, “that Hillary Clinton has a body double? She was that blond woman waving at reporters in front of Chelsea Clinton’s apartment a few hours after Mrs Clinton felt unwell and left the September 11 commemoration at ground zero. Did you also hear that Mrs Clinton has Parkinson’s disease? Her coughing fits prove it, as does her latest bout of illness. She has epilepsy, as well as advancing dementia. She has managed to hide all these illnesses through almost a year and a half of a gruelling campaign because the man the world thinks is the head of her secret service detail is actually her hypnotist. He’s also a medical doctor.”
This is the kind of stuff that Professor Tufekci, an academic who has been studying the content of social media conversations about the US election, has picked up online. In an earlier media ecology, one dominated by the editorial gatekeepers of newspaper editors and TV news anchors, this kind of conspiratorial fantasising would never have seen the light of day. But now what the comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” – ideas that “feel right” or “should be true” – passes as fact on social media. The days when Daniel Patrick Moynihan could say that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts” are gone. And the internet is largely responsible for their passing.
In some ways, this was predictable, especially given that Trump turned out to be a genius at harnessing the affordances of Twitter: 140 characters is the perfect length for truthiness – just enough to make a baseless insinuation. But what makes this election campaign really distinctive is the way in which the intrinsic insecurity of network technology has begun to play a significant role. The United States has a long history of interfering in other states’ elections but this is the first time it has had to contemplate the possibility that a hostile state might be interfering with its own electoral processes.
It started in April with the hacking of the Democratic national committee’s computer systems. The intruders stole private emails, opposition research (including the DNC manual on how to deal with Trump in the general election), and campaign correspondence. In the run-up to the DNC national convention, WikiLeaks obligingly put nearly 20,000 of those private emails online, revealing embarrassing details of the Democratic party’s inner workings – including correspondence which made it clear how opposed its officials were to Hillary Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders. These revelations made a predictable impact on the convention, where Sanders’s supporters were mightily disaffected.
Although it is often difficult to attribute responsibility for hacking, in this case it was rapidly established that the hackers were working for not one but two of the Russian government’s intelligence services (and, ironically, that neither knew of the other’s activities). From this basic fact came a frantic outbreak of speculation and conspiracy theorising. Were the breaks just examples of Putin’s geeks doing what geeks do when they have free rein? Or were they part of a concerted campaign to undermine Clinton (who takes a conventional establishment line on Putin’s Crimean adventure) and boost Trump – who has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian leader? The pot was further stirred by Trump himself when, at a press conference in Florida, he urged Russia to hack into and release Clinton’s emails from the personal server she used while she was secretary of state. “Russia, if you’re listening,” he said, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
Pause for a moment to contemplate this: a candidate for the US presidency is urging a foreign adversary to break into his opponent’s email. And this in a country in which “national security” has quasi-religious status. The episode demonstrates how far Trump’s mastery of Twitter has enabled him to move the “Overton window” – the range of ideas that are deemed permissible in public discourse.
But the audacity of the Russian hacks has introduced an unprecedented level of unease into the election campaign. Ironically, Trump himself started it with continual assertions that if he were defeated it would be because the election was “rigged” by “crooked Hillary” and her satraps – a proposition apparently believed by nearly half of his supporters. But, as it happens, one doesn’t have to be paranoid to worry about the integrity of US presidential election returns. In the old, analogue, days the concern was about “hanging chads”; now it is about the integrity of digital infrastructure. Security experts have been warning for years about the chronic insecurity of American voting machines – which, as one professor put it, “barely work in a friendly environment”. And last month the FBI issued an unprecedented nationwide alert after voter databases in Arizona and Illinois were hacked and their data stolen by as-yet-unidentified hackers.
So one of the strange outcomes of this weird election campaign is that we are finally beginning to get an idea of the long-term effects of the internet on our politics. It has been obvious for some time that social media were moving us in the direction of a post-truth polity. The rise of Donald Trump (and Brexit) suggests that we have arrived at that particular destination. What’s more worrying, though, is the prospect that the technology’s intrinsic insecurity could undermine one of the fundamental principles of liberal democracy, namely faith in the integrity of the electoral system. If people start to believe that elections are – or may be – rigged, then the democratic game is over. “The only thing we have to fear,” said Franklin Roosevelt, “is fear itself.” Which is why we should be concerned by what’s been happening this year.