It should come as no surprise that technology should have such a profound role in the playing out of elections, and the revelation of election results. Because technology affects every other part of our lives, it is hardly unusual that it has a role here too, and as tech becomes more and more integrated in our lives it is going to become more integrated with future voting too. Most of us are aware of this, but it is one thing being aware of it and quite another ensuring that we are clued up as to how exactly technology is having an effect. In this article we are going to discuss some of the impacts that technology has on elections, good and bad – and what kind of changes we might be able to expect in the near future too.
In the early days of social media, not many people could reliably predict that these online platforms would have such a dramatic, drastic impact on our democratic elections. But looking at here we are now, it seems absurd to have ever thought that it might be otherwise. At present, there are around a billion facebook accounts globally, and a rising number of twitter accounts. These two sites in particular are especially popular, and as such especially powerful when it comes to fighting election campaigns and influencing results of elections. Social media, it may turn out, might have quite a lot to answer for when it comes to democracy. Let’s take a look at how it might have affected things in the recent past.
The most honest use of social media in elections is when campaigners use these platforms to reach out to ordinary people in huge numbers. Where once they would have put a lot more time and money into television advertising, now much more of those resources end up going towards social media campaigns. They would not put so much money into these campaigns if they had no effect, and clearly they do. For one thing, people are on social media all the time, and especially so since the sharp rise in the use of smartphones. As such, you can expect to reach a lot of people this way, and achieving sheer numbers in that way is something that is always going to be hugely important here. It’s also true that it is easy to spread whatever message you want here, especially if you already have a platform, and often without spending a penny at all – except when you want to place an advertisement or sponsored post, of course.
All of this amounts to social media pretty much being the campaigner’s best friend, and it seems to have resulted in some strong results for a lot of people on all sides of various political spectra across the globe in a variety of elections. But there is a dark side to all this too, and there has been plenty in the news in recent years about people using social media to influence the results of elections in ways which are much more subtle, and in many cases, downright immoral and illegal. So what methods are these?
One which was particularly well utilized during the latest US presidential elections was the use of bots, which are automated accounts which tweet out a particular message or number of messages, often in response to other accounts from different political persuasions. Apart from clearly being a kind of cheat’s way to gain an advantage in an election, they are also often full of abusive language and behaviour, and are fundamentally a way of undermining any democratic exercise. It might not seem as though simple bots could do that much to influence election results, but the truth is that if you have enough of a number of these dding their ‘voices’ to the conversation day after day, it builds up until there is a real tipping point, and it can make a genuine difference to the outcome of any election. As such, it is something that most people would consider to be unfair, in particular because of the unnatural and dishonest nature of it, pretending to be real people.
Bots are not the only way in which social media can and has been used to influence elections in an underhanded or dark way. There have also been plenty of examples of times when campaigners and those they pay have used social media activity to work out the kinds of demographics of people who are likely to vote for a particular person, party or event. This information can then be sold on to the highest bidder and, along with a range of other dark tactics, can help to massively influence election results easily enough. This is what Cambridge Analytica got into trouble for doing, and they played a role in both Trump being voted in and Brexit being voted for by a slim majority.
As you can see, social media can play a huge and often disconcerting role in elections everywhere. But they are not the whole story, nor are they necessarily the main kind of technology behind changes in how we do elections. And many forms of technology are used in elections in ways which are much more innocent than social media – and might even provide a way of producing fairer and more transparent elections. Let’s see what those are now.
Transparency is always a big issue in elections, for the obvious reason that you want to know that they are fair, and therefore the genuine democratic right of the people is actually being expressed. Because of the issues with social media and so on which we have already discussed, that is something that requires a lot of work to be sure of, and a big part of it is going to be changing what social media websites are allowed to do, and how they process things like electoral advertisements, as well as what they do to combat bots and fake accounts along the way, not to mention abuse. But there is plenty that we can do away from social media to help make elections more transparent and ultimately fairer, and one way is to introduce electronic voting.
Although it has been around for a while, the notion of electronic voting is still a relatively rare thing throughout the world. Not many countries use it for their general political elections, but it is likely to become more and more popular as time moves on, and in the near future we can certainly expect electronic voting to suddenly come into the fore. So what are the benefits of the kind of electronic voting system manufactured and sold by companies like Smartmatic?
In general, voting electronically means that there is much less chance of accidental miscounts, as it is simply not possible for a machine to miscount. Of course, there are other concerns which we will always need to be aware of, but as long as the systems are fair and looked after properly, this is technically a way to make sure that voting is perfectly fair across the board. Electronic voting can produce more trusted elections, which is one of the things that we might say the world desperately needs in these modern, aggressively divisive times. People no longer trust politics, but with the use of technology in the right way, the public might have faith in the democratic procedure once again.
As is clear, there are many things that technology do to elections all over the world. The challenge now is to use it in the right way, for the good of all.