Technology and Political Influence

Political organizations have always been among the early adopters of new technologies. Unlike other organizations, political efforts live and die relatively quickly. As a result, political campaigns always start from scratch, maximize resources and gain until they win or lose, and then start over again. Dan Wagner, Chief Analytics Officer for the Obama 2012 campaign turned private sector data guru, recently spoke at SXSW on politics, data science and the technology of influence. In our next two blogs, we will explore the technology of influence, how it changed history and continues to shape the future.

Ever wondered what post was the first to go viral? If you’re thinking about the early days of the internet, you are off by about 500 years. The first viral message was posted (literally) by a man named Martin Luther, who felt angry about the sale of indulgences in the church and decided to say something. The idea caught on and was shared by Luther’s friends and colleagues. But the real revolution wasn’t the idea. It was the technology that preceded it, the printing press. This technology allowed Luther to promote his idea through a sharable format, and with no history of power, this viral document led ushered in the Protestant Reformation.

About two centuries later, the United States was founded on another viral document, “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine. Though the credit still goes to the printing press, the new medium was the pamphlet, and without it, there likely would never have been an American Revolution. The pamphlet took a disparate colonial population and made them start to think of themselves as a collective nation. The printing press and pamphlet also led to the rise of negative campaigning, hitting its peak with the most negative campaign in history. Nope, not the primary between Clinton and Obama or the Cruz/Trump feud; it was Thomas Jefferson versus John Adams.

The next big shift came onto the scene with broadcast communications, which led to the political-industrial complex, the rise of fascism, and the most devastating war ever fought. Broadcast journalism would evolve, and the U.S. would lose its first war partly as a result. Even today, broadcast communications, though a well-worn technology, plays a major role in U.S. elections, with candidates and political organizations dropping tens of millions or more on television ads.

But now a new technology is changing the game again, and that technology is of course the rise of the internet, social media and comprehensive data collection. The Obama 2012 campaign was a direct result of this pendulum swing. We are now in the era of information technology. People react to candidates in real time and share their opinions with their friends. Data collection has moved from the census to the poll to a new area of databases, predictive modeling and testing.

In each instance that a major paradigm shift occurs, a new communications technology is the catalyst, and a new idea is the spearhead. The full potential of this medium has not yet been met. We are seeing in this most current election a change in tactics, a new set of strategies for maximizing gain. Every four years we get to start over and use these technologies in new ways, to reach more people, to learn more about voters and their preferences. Whether this change is good or bad is yet to be seen. What is inevitable is the continued reliance and early adoption of new technologies by political parties.

The online fundraising platform Raise The Money has to stay a step ahead of political parties. Money was once the lifeblood of politics, but now, even before funds are raised, data is king. RTM takes care of both. Process your donations and track the financial life of your campaign with Raise the Money. Join us in our next installment for more about the role of data in contemporary politics.