Recent news headlines locally and abroad, allude to far-reaching impacts of technology on politics. There have been titles such as: ‘Justice Lenaola protests to Safaricom over call logs’ - The Standard, 23 September 2017; ‘Leaked: The Ocampo Affair’ Daily Nation, 06 October 2017; ‘Rigging plot: Military documents don't leak, Mutahi Ngunyi says after KDF admission’ – The Star, 29 July 2017; and ‘Leaked documents link Trump’s Commerce Secretary to Putin cronies’-ABC News, 05 November 2017. These stories have a common denominator: the (mis)use of technology in “politricks”. Who would have guessed that technology would be at the centre of politics?
There’s no denying the influence of technology on politics- it’s futile to do so. If you are a political actor, technology is your friend. Politics and society are driven to a large extent, by the most prominent mode of production. The path to development for many nations in years of yore was through industrialization — typically starting with labor intensive manufacturing, followed by export trade. Information technology is now our generation’s most ‘fashionable’ means of production. Today, economics follows technological advancement - and freedom and democracy follow economics.
Let us debate on the place of technology in politics, now and in future – What trends are evident? For starters, pervasive devices are providing accurate and real-time data, which is now changing the rules for politicians, campaign teams and other political actors. Smart technology devices and sensors everywhere will drive better usage of technology. However, this will open new privacy concerns for wide sections of the population. Private information in public hands will be used in political maneuvering, intimidation and shaming of opponents. Did you know that your behavioral information is already being carefully extracted from devices that you use daily? With millions of sensors, political actors will accurately tell about what matters to you and how to drive legitimate communication, fake news and propaganda.
Large amounts of information, collected about many people, over many kinds of devices – Big Data – has permanently and completely changed the art of political analysis. This was recently seen in the US presidential election of 2016.It is alleged that persons, using Facebook, substantially influenced voter behaviour. This was reportedly done based on in-depth analysis of data and targeted, subliminal communication to selected US voter groups through Facebook. Government agencies have not been left behind in mining the vast treasure troves that online data provides – and to use these for political gain. Big Data has also changed the character of voter opinion polls and surveys. It is now possible to very accurately learn about voter intent using social media and other sources of big data.
The headline above from ‘The Standard’ is a clear example of how private information, obtained from innocuous technology can be used in political shenanigans. Such instances will become more and more commonplace. In short, your private data will be breached. Your political opponent’s private data will be breached. Your and your opponent’s data will be misused for political gain.
The digital divide will inform discourse on real and perceived socio-economic inequality. Inequitable technology adoption will elevate existing social inequalities. For instance, when low-income children lag their well-off contemporaries in adopting laptops for schools. Such a lag will elevate inequalities that already existed because inadequate resources in the rural schools. Inequalities - or the perceptions thereof- tend to exacerbate social and political tensions. Whereas technology has been heralded as an opportunity creator, it can become detrimental insofar as it creates new social classes – beyond what we’ve had in the past.
Political actors will record and transmit real and imagined grievances or inequality, using social media. Protests are no longer a preserve of street battles. #DigitalNatives run substantial civic campaigns and protests online.
Technological advancement will be a cause for conflict between nations. Nations with traditional economics such as manufacturing, and fossil fuel extraction will find their relevance increasingly under pressure. Advances in renewable energy, energy storage and electric cars will disrupt economic and political order. This will cause political upheavals in more traditionally inclined economies.
Political actors will have no option but to adopt technology for politics. There is nowhere to hide when their younger, more aggressive opponents are going the full hog- Not with a younger, smarter and ‘digitally literate’ electorate, comprised of digital natives. Political actors will style up by using technology to spy on opponents, captivate audiences, research issues using big data, contact followers, register voters, learn about the electorate and run digital campaigns. Their opponents will do the same – and then one better.
Political parties and campaign teams must start early and build advanced technological capability. Or how else will they deliver digital campaigns, targeted messaging and just in time opinion polls on topics of interest? They must be aware of their opponents’ machinations, and use technology to keep confidential information away from the opponents. On this and as is often attributed to Sun Tzu, ‘Know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories’.
How can you use technology as a force for political good? There will be a new world order driven substantially by technological advancement. Such advancement empowers citizens by putting information, truth and light in their hands. This will make politics and governments transparent. Technology will broaden the choices that citizens have.