Technology and the Political Process
The term ‘political mystification’ has been mostly used in academic and public discourse to describe efforts made by political leaders to conceal ill-intended policies. The traditional approach assumes mistrust: political leadership will always have something to hide. Hidden agenda is part of their DNA.
Distance, both physical and conceptual, is the defining factor allowing political mystification, especially in times of national crisis: most Americans did not know that FDR was a disabled person, just as they had no clue that their own government locked up in internment camps tens of thousands of law-abiding American citizens only because they were of Japanese origin. The ‘iron curtain of secrecy’ and the ‘need-to-know’ informational culture thrive in war time and crises.
The information revolution, marked by unprecedented access to information, unprecedented volume of co-produced content and an unprecedented ability to self-design informational feeds, has dramatically disrupted the traditional political landscape:
First is the disappearance of distance as the defining factor in politics. Political leadership may still have something to hide but the incentive to voluntarily expose their ‘behind the scenes’ is too powerful. Very few political candidates are able to resist the temptation to self-indulge in this instant, technologically-induced, ‘show and tell’ system. The demand for total exposure is so high that only self-centered, and often pathologically narcissistic personalities, can comfortably become part of the new conversation.
One of the results of this ‘de-mystification’ is the emergence of authenticity and reflexivity as the new source of political attraction. They have become the new political charisma. Political candidates are attractive when they are willing to nakedly and shamelessly display their true selves. They can lie, as long as they are doing so authentically. They can be ignorant, as long as they are not ashamed of it. They can be radically self-absorbed, as long as they do it unapologetically.
Second, is the impact of information overload. No civilization has ever produced more information. The volume and intensity are overwhelming to many. Information overload is impacting the political process in several major ways: (1) People now yearn for simplicity more than ever. The result: they tend to vote for candidates that offer simple solutions to highly complex problems. What is Brexit if not the triumph of a seemingly simple solution to a highly complex problem? What is the proposed border wall with Mexico if not simplicity overriding complexity? (2) People react to the intimidating barrage of unfamiliar, and at times contradictory information, by tightening their alliances with their tribe. Information overload increases anxiety which leads to the consolidation of tribal sentiments. Many observers tie this phenomenon to the rise of nationalism and populist parties. The fact is that the anxious reaction to information overload is also at the core of the entire ‘politics of identity’ conversation. DNA testing, hugely popular among millennials, is another expression of the need to connect with one’s tribe. (3) The evidently universal political polarization. Political conversations gravitate towards the extremes and the center is vanishing. Global political conversation has never been more stereotypical: liberals vs. conservatives, right vs. left, etc. The politics of nuance is out. The politics of labeling is in. One great example is the un-holy political alliance, known as ‘intersectionality’, which oddly connects radical left with radical right in their opposition to Israel, often tainted with anti-Semitism.
Third, is big-data analysis and the emergence of customized micro-delivery systems. Political candidates routinely collect information about voters’ behavior. The goal is not only to predict voting patterns but also to mobilize voters to action. Experts claim it is possible to collect up to 5K data-points on each internet user. Such a wealth of information guarantees an unprecedented degree of accuracy. Two other capabilities complete the picture: the ability to deploy micro-targeting delivery system, per user and device, and message customization. Political leaders with enough resources to deploy these techniques could ultimately enjoy a significant advantage.
Not only well-funded candidates, who engage in micro-targeting (Obama in 2008), could succeed in the age of information. As the surprise victory of Donald Trump has taught us, there is a way to by-pass the costly need to penetrate the voters’ individually customized news feed: a well-established brand name which transitions into politics can overcome the ‘niche conversation barrier’. Candidates who do not possess massive name recognition will enter the race with a significant disadvantage (Bloomberg in 2020). Some Democrats are fantasizing about Oprah Winfrey entering politics one day. They know why: ‘Brand Oprah’ is one of the strongest brands around, perhaps even stronger than ‘Brand Trump’.
Lastly, is the introduction of AI (artificial intelligence) into the political conversation and its implications. As expected, political leaders are quick to ‘appropriate’ the perceived problem by describing it as a most serious threat to democracy: ‘fake news’ and bots, they say, could alter election results.
Soon, we will hear about the dangers of a new algorithm, known as ‘deepfake’, as a most hazardous new political contaminator.
Faithful to their political instinct to cultivate anxiety political leaders respond hysterically to new technology, always identifying threat while undermining opportunity.
This apocalyptic view of technology and politics reflects the widespread belief in the obsolete linear approach to media effect: influence is achieved, they believe, by mere exposure to a transmitted message. The recipient, then, absorbs the message, internalizes its meaning and even acts upon it.
Media effect is far more complex. It involves indirect psychological, social and environmental factors. Political leaders conveniently ignore the complexity. For example, the deployment of deliberate disinformation, known as ‘fake news’, is as old as human interaction itself. Yet, it is being presented as an entirely new ‘threat’.
The same technology that gave the world ‘deepfake’ will provide an appropriate solution.
Ultimately, the demonization and scapegoating of technology by political leaders will stand in their own way to fully utilize its full potential to promote goodness in society.
* The writer is a Global Distinguished Professor for International Relations at New York University and a member of the advisory council of APCO Worldwide and Chairman of the Charney Forum for New Diplomacy. He was Israel’s longest serving consul-general in New York (2010–2016).