We all love technology and the convenience that comes with it, but that love stops right where the electoral process starts. More specifically, the technology that gives bad actors on the electoral scene the power to misuse data, spread misinformation, and manipulate voters to gain an unfair advantage.
When you think of technology in elections, voting booth systems and election databases come to mind. The truth is that the election vehicle has gotten much more sophisticated, and 2020 is set to be the culmination of years of massive efforts to use this powerful tool in shaping the government and, indeed, the world.
The rise of social media in election systems has been phenomenal and highly controversial. The Cambridge Analytica scandal might ring a bell, in which the company is accused of appropriating over 87 million Facebook user accounts illegally.
With its reach and powerful analysis tools, social media is a staple in the election process. The various parties spend a lot of resources on data gathering, reaching voters, and analyzing their political views to help with targeting.
Facebook is especially notorious for this due to its “Custom Audience” and “Look Alike” features, which allow parties to upload user profiles for hyper-targeting users with political messages tailored for them.
Other platforms such as Twitter and Instagram are on record saying no to such activities, but they are still highly popular mobilization and sensitization tools. That is despite research showing that 55% of social media users say they are tired of political messages on social media.
While social media is particularly effective at disseminating information to large numbers of people by demographics, it is just one of the tools used. You have probably already received emails, text messages, calls, and advertisements on everything from TV to apps on your phone. This mass communication is modeled after marketing, in which massive ad budgets are spent to reach millions of people to amplify and enforce the messages of each political candidate. Mainstream media is, of course, a major force in the fray, but it tends to be regulated and moderated.
It is hard to think of election information dissemination without being critical of the technology infrastructure used and how it is being used. For communication to be effective, a lot of resources are spent on data gathering to help inform and build communication strategies.
The biggest source of voter data is the voter databases or voter files for each state. This data is commercially available and gives enough data points to profile each individual accurately.
Political parties go one further by gathering information through social media, polls, surveys, and from their own registration systems to build more accurate data on each individual. This data is then processed using sophisticated systems for use in microtargeting.
Data Analysis: AI and Microtargeting
One of the biggest and most worrying trends in the 2020 election is the use of powerful, data-hungry AI data analysis systems. Fed with such an abundance of data collected and updated on voters, they can provide various target demographics that political parties use to score voters based on their likeliness to respond to certain political messages.
For example, highly opinionated individuals might be reached out to for funding and mobilization. Those still undecided are prime targets for continuous bombardment with political messaging. The few in the lower scores are defined as having a non-response bias. They have something for those ones, too, but more subtle.
This technology goes deeper than that. Trump’s campaign app has been shown to gather far more data than previously thought, including location tracking data. Team Biden isn’t as innocent, and these apps can use everything from your GPS or Bluetooth to monitor your movements and blast you with political messages.
Trump has even been found to use Bluetooth beacons in yard signs, churches, and other areas to target people with messaging. Talk about sophisticated technology!.
Electronic Voting Systems
Two types of voting booth technology are currently in use: Direct-Recording Electronic Devices or DREs (such as touch screens) and machine-readable technology including optical scanners that can detect optical marks made on ballots.
During the 2016 elections, 94% of Americans used either of these electronic voting systems to cast their votes, while 5% still did it the old-fashioned way by mail. That is according to data from Pew Research.
Americans have valid concerns about the integrity of these electronic systems and how safe they are from tampering. Given the propensity of political players to use technology for their gerrymandering, it would not be surprising if a few were found to use foul means.
Technology in Election Monitoring
Not all use of technology in elections is dark, and can actually be put to good use with sufficient oversight and security. That is the reason why, even after the 2000 election scandal and widespread reports of rigging, we still use electronic means.
Election monitoring, vote counting, and information dissemination technology are subject to heavy scrutiny and monitoring to ensure no tampering. With DREs, for example, is a safeguard against vote stuffing and carousel voting by default. Optical scanners also maintain a paper trail record for recounting and verification purposes.
The integrity of these electronic systems starts in the sourcing, testing, and deployment of such units in voting. One fear is that such systems might be tampered with at the source to record votes cast differently. Another one is that tampering on election day might happen when skilled persons with malicious intent come into contact with such devices.
Even with the most sophisticated software, anti-tamper technology, and tracking technology, electronic voting devices also need to be protected by a whole system of legal, political, and procedural frameworks.
Technology has and will play a pivotal role in the results of the 2020 election, but not in the way many people think. The players in the election game have moved to more sophisticated systems aimed at manipulating the people, not the ballots.
All this technology used might not be acceptable or even legal, but it still finds popular use. Our greatest safeguard is to be thoroughly and objectively informed so that we can maintain an objective and patriotic stance as we head into these defining polls. The future depends on it.