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How Technology Is Radically Reshaping Politics

Photo of Mark Mulligan
by Mark Mulligan

As I write this, the UK is in the midst of a potential constitutional crisis following the UK government’s proposed changes to political norms in order to push through Brexit. In some ways this is what you get when a country only has a part-written constitution and never quite got round to phasing out archaic tools such as proroguing parliament(a monarchical prerogative that was used by medieval Plantagenet kings such as Edward I and Edward II in the 13thand 14thcenturies). However, the implications of this are directly related to the current political situation in the US, Italy and other countries, and the cause of it is far, far more modern. In fact, technology is fundamentally reshaping politics, in ways that will transform how political parties operate and how the electorate itself engages.

The weakening of broad-church political parties

Participative national politics in the West broadly manifest as either two main parties or a collection of smaller parties competing for an electoral majority. In the US and the UK, it has traditionally been the former model of two big parties. Given the broad spectrum of political views and interests in any country, this has resulted in the big national parties becoming broad churches of diverse constituencies of interest. This model, while cumbersome, functioned reasonably well in the analogue era, when communication to the electorate happened through a finite number of linear media outlets across broadcast TV, radio and newspapers. In the age of on-demand and filter bubbles, however, the model is bursting at the seams. The connected electorate no longer needs to dilute its views or have its world view shaped by media outlets that nearlymatch its beliefs, but can instead immerse itself in media, content and discourse that are anexactmatch for its beliefs and principles.

Politics in the era of the filter bubble and the rise of super-niche politics

The combined effect of the decentralisation of media and the hyper-personalisation of social media is to provide audiences with a view of the world that is both unique to them, and often not subject to traditional standards such as objective editorial and fact checking. Just as Netflix or Spotify are enabling music and video super-niches to thrive in ways that traditional media could not, digital and social media are nurturing the rise of super-niche politics. Crucially though, audiences are most often not even fully aware that their personalised view of the world is unique to them, or that a myriad of algorithms are working furiously behind the scenes to determine what they see and hear. This was a dystopian view of the future put forward inE li Pariser’s 2011 Ted Talk that has come to pass.

The voter as a consumer

In this post-mainstream and post-truth world of alternative facts, political discourse can no longer be dumbed down to broad-strokes politics where patchworks of compromises bind together loose federations of highly disparate views. For better or for worse, the electorate no longer has to compromise its beliefs and politicians are realising that votes are at risk if they do not cater to their electorate’s needs. Technology is transforming the relationship between politician and electorate into one that more closely resembles that of service and consumer. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Italy where the new Five Star party – which was largely formed online – just asked its 100,000 online members whether it should form a coalition government with the centre-left Democratic Party.

Opposition is fundamentally reactive

Over time, traditional broad-church political parties will find it impossible to sell compromised, lowest common denominator policies to the electorate. Instead, data-savvy politicians across the political spectrum are zeroing in on issues that matter to specific interest groups with highly targeted policies. Often these policies – e.g. building a wall to keep out illegal immigrants – polarise the electorate and split political parties down the middle. However, while the interest groups may be unified around their support for the issue, opposition is often fragmented across a wide political spectrum. 

All that needs to happen is for targeted advertising to motivate slightly more of an interest group to vote than a disparate remainder to vote otherwise. The beauty of targeting political niches is that you mobilise a group of likeminded people around a passion point, while the resulting opposition is normally a loose coalition of otherwise disparate people and interests. More importantly, the former is active (‘build the wall’, ‘leave Europe’, ‘cut immigration’) while the latter is inherently reactive: it is defined by being opposed to an idea rather than by being an idea. 

The fragmentation of political representation

This process is already tearing traditional political parties apart. In the UK, Boris Johnson’s pursuit of the hard-Brexit voter niche has just pushed 21 Conservative MPs out of the party(including the Father of the House of Commons and Winston Churchill’s grandson). Either at this election or the next, the Conservative party may well split in two. The main opposition party, Labour, is in a similar position with the hard left and the reformist middle fighting for ownership of the party. In the US, the rise of the so called ‘Squad’ of progressive Democrats alongside left-leaning senators like Bernie Sanders looks a million miles away from presidential candidate frontrunner Joe Biden. 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump was able to mobilise the political infrastructure of the GOP behind him because the Republicans were terrified of having him on the outside rather than the inside, despite his views being radically different from those of many sections of the party. In some ways, politics has always been thus, horse-trading principles for influence and support. What has changed is that the voter-as-consumer electorate will no longer stand for compromise. 

The dark side of post-truth

Politicians serving the electorate’s needs in a targeted fashion should be a good thing. Unfortunately, it is not proving to be a wholly positive force thus far, because:

  1. Targeting just enough voters with polarising policies results in a tyranny of the majority, where often less than half the electorate (due to voter turnout) elects the ruling party or candidate and some or all of the remainder feels unrepresented. 
  2. Media fragmentation can often provide the electorate with a biased, inaccurate view of the world that feels like ‘truth’ to its target audience.

Back in May we published a report called “Truth and Trust in the Era of Fake News” in which we explored the second point in detail. This quote from it feels more pertinent this week than ever:

Now that a vanguard of non-traditional news providers has declared war on the traditional establishment, they have persuaded their audiences to question whether objectivity is simply code for liberal bias. It almost does not matter whether there is any credence in the critique. Instead, what matters is how audience perceptions are transformed. Whatever the political leaning of a news provider may be, and indeed whatever the operational structure, truth is now the product. The imperative is to convey to their audiences that they are the guardians of their truth, which in turn is implicitly the truth. No amount of fact checking from Facebook will change the new reality that no one has an exclusive on the truth anymore. Truth is now in the eye of the beholder. 

Perhaps the most profound question of all though, is whether democracy, a concept created before print media existed, is well-enough geared to survive the misuse and manipulation of the social media age?

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