Political campaigns of the future

2016 was a wake-up call. A number of things, to say the least, have fallen out of the 2016 Presidential campaign. Amongst them, the use of social media as a major political platform, the spread of “fake news”, and the realization we are all living in echo chambers that reinforce our biases.

The 2016 campaign caught people off-guard. You can tell this because no one talked about fake news or living in bubbles in 2015/early 2016. Maybe, some of us thought about it, but it wasn’t a main focus or a problem to be dealt with at the time.

So in an effort to be more proactive rather than reactive for the next campaign cycle, I thought it’d be helpful to do a little thought experiment for what the 2018/2020 campaigns might be like. Hopefully, that way more of us won’t be taken as off-guard in 2–4 years.[1]

What could happen in 2018/2020

Let’s say you were put in charge of a candidate’s campaign in 2018. You know the objective of a political campaign is to win the election, period. You may try and say it’s about pushing the correct policies or the person running, but let’s be honest, it’s about winning. Your policy platform or candidate means nothing if you don’t win the election.

So what would be the best way of getting the most people to vote for your candidate? Tell people what they want to hear.

This isn’t anything new. All political campaigns do this and have done this for a long time. For example, let’s take a traditional presidential campaign. Early in the campaign, a candidate will pander to the core party base. They do this in order to win the party’s nomination because the people who vote in the primaries are staunch party supporters. Then after they win the party’s nomination, they tend to shift their message to a larger audience: independents, their party’s moderates, and even moderates of the other party. In order to win a general election, you need a lot of different types of people to vote for you.

This is how it goes traditionally. But you realize there’s opportunity to do things differently. If we ignore how things were done in the past, and instead focus on what we ultimately need to do, tell people what they want to hear, and we consider the tools available to us at present, we realize there’s a new way we can run our campaign.

Let’s start with some of the things that fell out of the 2016 campaign: social media, fake news, and echo chambers. We know that more and more people are spending an increasing amount of time on social media. That means social media is the platform where we need to get our message out.

We also know that messages grounded in truth and facts don’t really matter as much as we once thought, as long as they tell the message the people reading them want to hear.

Finally, we also know that a lot of people live in their own echo chambers. That might be physically, by living in a neighborhood with people of similar backgrounds, views, etc. Or it could be digitally, where all of the people you follow, are friends with, etc. share the same views. Most likely, it’s both.

Now consider the tools that are currently available. The way most businesses appeal to potential customers is through marketing. One of the best ways to market your brand to potential customers is through advertising. That used to mean advertising in print or on TV. But as anyone not living under a rock knows, a lot of advertising is moving to digital, and in particular social, platforms.

The advertising tools for digital platforms are very sophisticated. Take advertising on Facebook for example. When you run an add on Facebook, you can target age range, likes, interests, etc. Apart from giving me your name, I can know a heck of a lot about you for almost nothing.

What does all of this mean for our political campaign?

Well, if the goal is winning and in order to win you need to tell people what they want to hear, we now have quite a platform for doing that to a larger audience than was ever possible before.

Your campaign could know what types of echo chambers different people are in by gathering the targeted advertising data, which Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms make readily available already. Then you could send a message to those people that said exactly what they wanted to hear. And this doesn’t have to fall along party lines. You could tell someone who identifies with the other party exactly what they wanted to hear. Who says you only have to pander to your party?

You could run an advertisement on social media to groups of people who say they like guns on their social media accounts to say your candidate supports the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms and will do everything in their power to fight for it. At the same time, you could run an advertisement on social media to groups of people who like groups who back gun-control laws to say your candidate supports gun-control laws.

If people are in echo chambers, they’re going to share these messages with other people who share the same views. This spreads the message in that particular group that your candidate supports their views.

But obviously someone’s going to see the hypocrisy here! I would hope so, otherwise things are far worse than I think. However, a prepared and strategic campaign could be ready to counter this. It’s not hypocrisy to defend the 2nd Amendment but also think we need better gun control laws, is it?

Why not brand things as fake news? Trump is already using this strategy by labeling the entire mainstream media (except for Fox News of course) as fake news. Did your candidate say they supported reducing guns to a gun-loving crowd? If it’s a gun-loving crowd asking, no that’s obviously fake news. And vice-versa, ad infinitum.

Now this can get into quite a head-spin very quickly, but it’s also not entirely inconceivable. On top of that, I used a major issue as an example, maybe it starts with more minor ones first that are harder to pin a candidate down on.

To make matters worse, or scarier, consider this article. It shows that there’s technology that now exists to alter video and audio to make it look or sound like someone is saying something they actually never did in quite convincing ways. Just imagine where it’ll be in two years. You could produce the Donald Trump bus tape whenever you wanted.

And don’t think this kind of stuff wasn’t already happening in 2016. This article shows how the Trump campaign was using online data analytics from social media to target voters and seems to have worked quite well. In 2–4 years, there will be even more data and better algorithms.

Where do we go from here

So if you’re like me, going through this thought experiment makes you scared as hell. If we thought 2016 was a crazy bumpy ride, imagine what 2018/2020 will be like when you have a really hard time distinguishing what is real and what is fake.

But the point of writing this is to get people thinking, to realize what’s possible, so we’re not caught off-guard in the next campaign season. It’s imperative we start to think about what the implications of these tools are and get out in front of this trend/technology. We need to build more tools that help people distinguish fact from fiction in an unbiased way.

Is this going to be easy? No. It’s going to be extremely challenging. But the same technology that can be used to create these tools can be used to combat them as well. The first step is being aware that they exist.


[1] As a technologist, I am coming at this from a biased angle but you cannot ignore the prevalence of technology in all aspects of life today. This is especially evident with how much technology ended up impacting the 2016 campaign, and I’d argue that it was because of underestimating technology’s role that a lot of people were surprised by 2016.

Alexa can now help you vote

Another reason to #govote this year

I’ve got some exciting news, Informed Voter is now an Alexa skill! Now Alexa can tell you where you can vote for this year’s election. Just ask 🙂


“Alexa, ask Informed Voter where I can vote”

Alexa will be able to tell you when and where you can vote, including early voting information. Happy voting 🙂

What if all of America voted?

Introducing Informed Voter

All political systems are flawed. As Americans, we hold our own system as the golden standard, yet you don’t have to look very hard to find its flaws. For example, until recently in American history, a number of different groups of citizens in this country weren’t even allowed to vote.

Even now that all citizens have the right to vote, only slightly more than the majority do and turnout for non-presidential races is worse. The typical winner in a presidential election in the US receives around 50% of the vote. Which means, although the US prides itself on being the golden standard of democracy, its own president is chosen by only around a quarter of its voting age citizens.

The 2016 US Presidential Election might make this number even lower. Right now it appears whoever wins this year’s election will receive less than the majority of the vote. If turnout for this year’s election is similar to other recent presidential elections, then that will mean less than a quarter of eligible voters in the US will have selected the President.

No wonder most Americans feel like they aren’t being represented by their elected officials, because they’re not! But we have no one to blame but ourselves if we don’t vote.

What would happen if all Americans voted? Maybe we would have a less toxic political atmosphere.

This year’s election is far too important to sit on the sidelines. That’s why I’ve developed an app called Informed Voter to help you find information about where you can vote this election. Its also got an iMessage app so you can send your friends their voting information. No one should be left out this election. We all deserve to be heard. While this app won’t be the only thing needed to get all Americans to vote this year, I hope it’s a step in the right direction.

Early voting has already begun in a number of states throughout the country. So if it has started in your state, download the app, find out where you can vote, and go vote. And if you need someone to chat with in line at the polling station, use the iMessage app and get some friends to go to the polls with you (for most early voting, you can vote in a number of different locations).

This isn’t a political issue. It’s not partisan politics. The politicians in the US are supposed to represent its people. It’s about time they do. So if you’re not registered to vote yet and can, please do. You can do so easily here. And if you are registered to vote, then download the app and find out where to vote this election or use it to tell your friends where they can vote.

Let your voice be heard this November.


You can find out more about the Informed Voter here.

Will there ever be a third party president?

Michael Bloomberg announced yesterday that he won’t be pursuing a third party presidential candidacy after all. Can’t say I disagree with his logic. It does seem like there would be no clear path to winning, especially if/when Hilary is the Democratic nominee. His policies are too similar to her’s and it would cripple them both leading to a Trump presidency, which is by far the worst case scenario (as he noted).

But that leaves me to ask, will there ever be a third party president in America?

Historically, and at first glance, it doesn’t appear likely. Yes, there have been presidents in the past that were neither Republican nor Democrat but only because the Republican and Democratic parties that we know today hadn’t come about yet. Instead, they had an equivalent two party system like the Federalist party and the Democratic-Republican party. There have been many third party candidates for President in the past but they have often just swung the vote in favor of one of the other candidates in a major party. Much like Bloomberg feared he would do.

Will this continue to hold? I am not sure. On the surface, it looks like an impossibility. But if you look more closely you can already see the current political parties cracking at the seams. The current GOP is a prime example. Even before the 2016 election, the so-called Tea Party began it’s departure from traditional conservative policies. And while all Tea Partiers still run under the Republican party, the division within the party is clear and it will probably only be a matter of time before that portion breaks away.

And then you have Donald Trump. Trump is by no means a “normal” Republican candidate. And the GOP knows it. That’s why the party’s elites are trying all that they can to try and stop Trump. They don’t have any idea what types of things he will do in office, and the policies he is running on are already far different than the rest of the Republican candidates still in the field. So Trump could be the final straw that broke the camel’s back, so to say, and leave the GOP as multiple parties instead of just one.

The Democratic party doesn’t get away so easily either. Yes, they currently look a lot less dysfunctional than the Republicans do but don’t think Bernie Sanders’ rise was normal. Sanders is running as a self-proclaimed socialist. I bet 50 years ago anyone in America would have thought that would be impossible. But that’s where we are today. Sanders is hitting the same nerve Trump is, albeit in a much different way. But both show there are a lot of Americans out there today that are feeling left out and ignored and they’ve finally begun to find their candidates.

While the two major political parties continue to hold on by the seams, it will be interesting to see what happens in November this year and what the fallout from it will be. Maybe it will all pass over and we will act like it was all just a one time thing. But I think more likely, the two major political parties will start to fall apart and more populist movements will take over.

Now that almost everyone has a smartphone and internet access, it’s a whole lot easier to be heard than it once was. And I think that means more and more groups at the margins will begin to form their own parties. Will this lead to third party President? That remains to be seen.

Second-Order Effects: Apple vs the US Government

As we all find out in our lives, every action has a consequence, and each consequence has its own consequence, and so on. This chain of events is usually referred to as second-order effects. And while the concept is intuitive to us, we often overlook the second-order effects of the decisions we make because it’s easier to think about one decision than the chain of events that are caused once a decision has been made. 

One example of not taking into account the second-order effects of a decision happening right now is the case between Apple and the FBI. On the surface, it’s easy to look at the case as a mere one-off effort by the government to access a terrorist’s iPhone. But what about the second-order effects of that decision?

If Apple concedes and helps the government with it’s request, does that set a precedent and mean every time the government comes to Apple wanting information they have to oblige? Or what about if another country’s government (let’s just say China’s maybe?) asks for information from a user’s iPhone, does Apple now have to answer that request too since it’s already shown to have done it for one government?

What about the effects it will have for overall individual security? If Apple creates this tool for the government and it leaks into a bad actor’s hands (an inevitable scenario), now that bad actor has the ability to do whatever he/she wants with what’s on your iPhone. You would no longer feel secure about what you put on your iPhone because anyone could have access to it.

And finally, an increasing likely scenario that could take place is someone like Donald Trump becomes in charge of the US government. By making Apple concede to the government’s request now, means someone like Trump will be in possession of that tool and who knows how he would wield that power. A very scary scenario indeed.

Always be aware of the second-order effects for the choices you make.

What’s up with the “I Voted” sticker?

Seeing various people in my social media feeds during the primaries posting pictures of themselves with the “I Voted” sticker got me thinking, who started giving it out and why?

The reason I was interested in the “I Voted” sticker and it’s history is that the sticker could be seen has a basic form of psychological influence. Giving out stickers is (1) a reward (although tiny it still can have an affect) and (2) serves as a symbol of status (evident of people posting pictures with them). The use of rewards and status is a classic technique of psychological influence. So I thought it’d be interesting to find out who started it to see if they had any interesting motivations, as who actually shows up at the polls matters.

But after doing a bit of research on the subject, you can rest easy as there is no need to worry about a conspiracy theory or anything like that. Instead, it has more of a weird history that seems to have been started by a group of realtors in Phoenix, Arizona. Though, it seems not all polling places give one away and not all “I Voted” stickers are the same.

So while there doesn’t appear to be any real motivation behind the “I Voted” sticker, it’s always good to be aware of possible influences and biases since the only way to overcome them is to first recognize them.


For more information on the “I Voted” sticker, here are a couple resources:

(Not at all) Super Tuesday

Today is “Super” Tuesday, which means 11 states will cast their votes in hope of choosing their ideal candidates for President of the United States. I find the naming of the day ironic, especially in a political season marked by so much stupidity that Kayne West looks sane by comparison.

The dictionary defines super as very good or pleasant; excellent. Whoever named Super Tuesday as such, obviously hadn’t anticipated this election season. But nonetheless, many will still go to the polls today or whatever day their state’s primaries are and cast their vote.

I, however, will not be one of them. Despite my current state (Massachusetts) having it’s primary elections today, I am choosing not to participate (and I haven’t in the past either). Though it’s true that I am far from inspired by any of the current candidates running, the candidates on the ballot are not the reason I am choosing to abstain. Instead, it’s because of my political affiliation, or lack thereof.

I am registered as an unaffiliated voter (also known as an Independent for those of us who don’t speak like political pundits). This means, in the current two party-dominate political system that we have in America, I am not even able to vote in 11 states’ primaries. On top of that, even in a number of states that do allow Independents to vote in their primaries, voting is seen as a view of registration for a party.

Considering that all signs seem to point to a Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton face-off in November and most states primaries having little meaning anyway, I would much rather hold on to my Independent voter status than cast my vote in a primary election.

This actually bothers me because I think the right to vote is an important one (which I will exercise in the actual presidential election) but our current system (created by the two dominate political parties) actually tarnishes this right. And I would bet I am not the only one to feel this way.

It hasn’t only been this way either. Primary elections are only a recent phenomenon. It’s not like the Founding Fathers thought it’d be a great idea to have Iowa get this much attention.

There are a host of other issues with the primaries, but doesn’t it seem wrong that our current political system pushes out the more moderate voters from choosing our presidential candidates? Independents are increasing in numbers among American voters. So not only do we have more extreme ideological voters picking our candidates but they also represent less and less of the American population. Maybe that’s why we have the chaos and extremism we see today in the primaries?

Just a thought.

The Digital Security Debate Rages On

There is a very important debate going on right now about security. It was prompted by what is happening between the FBI and Apple. The immediate issue at hand has to do with the San Bernardino attack and one of the attackers’ iPhone 5c. A federal judge ordered Apple to help the Department of Justice unlock the iPhone in question. And that’s where things get hairy.

The problem is that what the FBI is asking for is not as simple as getting access to one terrorist’s iPhone. I think almost everyone would agree that allowing the FBI to access an individual terrorists phone is not a problem. What the FBI is asking Apple to do, however, is to create a new tool that allows them to bypass security measures that Apple has put in place for all iPhones. In order for the FBI, and for that matter Apple, to gain access to the iPhone in question, Apple needs to create a brand new tool that weakens the security of all Apple iPhones. That means a terrorist’s iPhone but also your iPhone. That is what Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, was trying to call out when he responded to the ruling with a letter to Apple’s customers on Tuesday.

For those without much technological knowledge, the important part is to understand how digital security works and why it isn’t as simple as saying “we’ve identified the bad guy, just give us his information”.

Digital systems are made for scale. You make one version of a piece of software and that version can be replicated any number of times. This is why an iPhone 6 is exactly the same no matter where you buy it in the world. What this means for security is if I figure out a way to access one iPhone 6, I can have access to any iPhone 6.

The debate is whether or not the government should have the ability to wield this power. On the one hand, you can see there’s a legitimate argument in favor of the government. The government is responsible for keeping it’s citizens safe. So the government wants every capability it can get in order to ensure this. On the other hand, who is to say this power will only be used for good? Right now you might think the US government has your best interest at heart but what if someone, oh say hypothetically, who is power hungry and wants to ban a certain type of citizen gets elected? Maybe then you’ll care what type of power the government has? Or what’s stopping other countries from asking Apple for the same tool? If the US government can ask, why can’t China? After all, Apple sells more phones in China than in the US.

The point I want to make here is that you can’t pick and choose security in the digital world. If a tool exists that can give access to one device, it can be used to get access to all devices. What if the government doesn’t stop at iPhones? What if the terrorist in question used a home security camera and the government wanted a new to access that type of security camera. Could it be used then to spy on you while you’re at home? Don’t assume just because it wasn’t created for that purpose that it won’t be used in that way.

This debate just makes another case for why we need to elect more politicians with technology backgrounds. The world is becoming more and more digital and if our politicians can’t understand the things they are ruling on, then we are going to get some pretty crappy laws.

 

George Washington’s warning about a two party system in America

In honor of President’s Day and George Washington’s birthday, I thought it would be good to share Washington’s opinion of the two party system that he could see forming while he was president. This quote comes from his farewell address:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind, (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight,) the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion, that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the Government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in Governments of a Monarchical cast, Patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in Governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And, there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

 

I wonder what Washington would think of our current political climate? In America, we need more leaders like Washington. Ones who can hear two opposing views (in Washington’s case Hamilton and Jefferson) and still find common ground to move the nation forward instead of stalling it because of disagreement.

The Ebb and Flow of American Democracy

I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein recently and there was a part of the book that focused on the Cold War era Red Scare. There are obviously a lot of similarities between the Red Scare and the current movement of fear of Muslims. Einstein, like myself and many others today, was concerned that this fear was removing the very civil liberties and freedom of thought that American’s hold dear. A passage from the book:

He stressed in scores of letters and statements that Americans should not let fear of communism cause them to surrender the civil liberties and freedom of thought that they cherished.

The same thing could be said today. But what jumped out at me the most was Isaacson’s comments about the American political system:

Einstein was not used to self-righting political systems. Nor did he fully appreciate how resilient America’s democracy and its nurturing of individual liberty could be.

And:

By then Einstein had finally discovered what was fundamental about America: it can be swept by waves of what may seem, to outsiders, to be dangerous political passions but are, instead, passing sentiments that are absorbed by its democracy and righted by its constitutional gyroscope.

Historically, Isaacson is completely right. The American political system has been through dangerous political movements before and each time has come out the other end looking no worse. As someone who has expressed my concerns with what is currently happening in America, I find comfort in Isaacson’s reflection on this topic. I hope he’s right. Maybe the current movement of fear is just one of those dangerous political passions that we’ve had before and will be absorbed by our system again. The sort of ebb and flow that a democracy inherently will go through from time to time.

That doesn’t make it any easier to go through these movements or give them an excuse for happening, but it does give us perspective. It’s hard to take a step back and look at things from a broader view, but there isn’t any other way to see the bigger picture.