Tech and Politics: Worlds Collide


In 2011, protests across the Middle East were captured on social media, including platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Vine. Ultimately, Hosni Mubarak, then-president of Egypt, was overthrown. Many credit the viral social media “campaign” as the impetus for what was termed the Arab Spring.

In the past 9 years since, the impact and use of technology ( in the political sphere have only grown. In fact, technology is responsible for the success of many campaigns and has changed the way we interact with and respond to candidates forever.

Social Media, Marketing, and the Spread of Information

Campaigns can share their messages through many different media, thus reaching a wider audience in order to raise money. No longer are they confined to television and radio ads and in-person speeches. Thanks to the rise of smartphones, tablets, push notifications, and more, people are more engaged with the news and likely to hear candidates’ messages, often in real-time.

Social media, as discussed briefly, has overhauled the way politicians communicate with their bases and the general public. Who can forget how former President Barack Obama leveraged platforms like Twitter and Facebook to claim victory in both 2008 and 2012?

Today, candidates have even more platforms and tools at their disposal, along with new ways to use them. They’re also using targeted advertising to connect with audiences who are likely to be swayed or need encouragement to vote.

Along with targeted ads on social media platforms and websites, many political campaigns are also using personalized emails to reach voters. For example, even just using tags to include the recipient’s name in the subject line or greeting can add a personal touch.

Big Data Collection

With people leaving such enormous digital footprints, there’s an abundance of information politicians can collect to inform their campaigns and target individuals.

For example, in one strategy, the companies behind apps you’ve allowed to access your location data will sell it to brokers, who in turn sell it to others, including campaigns. Using mobile advertising IDs, essentially a profile of a user, political campaigns can then gear their advertising based on people’s preferences and demographics.

However, some question the ethics of politicians using big data, especially since it sometimes occurs without the subjects’ knowledge. While many websites now alert visitors if they’re using cookies, which store information about users when they access these sites, other strategies are less obvious.

Just take the Cambridge Analytica data breach. The firm accessed more than 87 million Facebook profiles without the users’ permission and, because it worked for Donald Trump’s campaign, used it for targeted political advertising. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to testify before Congress, and the Federal Trade Commission ultimately fined the social media giant $5 billion.


Technology may even change the way we vote. Given concerns about security and unreliability in current voting systems, including those involving paper ballots, some companies are experimenting with blockchain technology for this purpose. A blockchain is an encrypted chain of records that are unalterable, so some believe this could lead to secure voting, as well as make it more accessible to the masses since they would be able to vote online.

With FollowMyVote, for instance, each vote is recorded as a permanent record on a blockchain. A similar system, the app Voatz, was used in West Virginia in the 2018 midterm elections. However, when a team of MIT researchers analyzed Voatz, they found a number of issues with the platform.

“We find that Voatz has vulnerabilities that allow different kinds of adversaries to alter, stop, or expose a user’s vote, including a side-channel attack in which a completely passive network adversary can potentially recover a user’s secret ballot,” they noted in a recent paper entitled “The Ballot is Busted Before the Blockchain: A Security Analysis of Voatz, the First Internet Voting Application Used in U.S. Federal Elections.” They also found servers could alter ballots.

It’s clear that technology has changed the face of politics forever. In the future, we’ll likely see it play an even greater role in the way we interact with politics, candidates, campaigns, and the government.

However, it’s also obvious this is a double-edged sword. While technology opens plenty of doors for accessing more voters and citizens, it can be used irresponsibly — even illegally. In order to use technology effectively, those in the political sphere will need to act in compliance with regulations and maintain the trust of citizens.