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.
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.
 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.