Many fear that the growing role of technology in politics can harm our democratic systems. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the spread of fake news through social media, it is perceived as an uncontrollable and unpredictable new element of our lives. Surprisingly, this ‘fear of the unknown’ is present not just among the public, but in political parties and organisations as well. Most are not sure how to use the opportunities provided by the swift development of technology, due to the fear of possible wrongdoing. Therefore, they stick to traditional and outdated ways of collecting data, campaigning, and boosting participation.
The cautious perception of technological tools has resulted in a strange transitional phase. Political parties are open to new ideas, however the development of new strategic approaches in campaign technology and innovative tools to improve the state’s democratic system have come from smaller organisations.
After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, more and more people in the US felt the need to get involved in politics but were unsure how. Political tech start-ups help to answer this question, connecting people to politics with the help of technology.
Following the result of the 2016 election, the online media and action platform Hope was launched, informing users about the latest news in American politics and suggesting different ways to take action. Hope’s motto is ‘don’t freak out, act smart’ ; functioning as a personal political advisor, it sends messages via SMS, Facebook Messenger, and Android and IOS messaging apps. For instance, when Donald Trump tweeted about his transgender military ban, Hope built an interactive guide advising people on how start a conversation about the topic, even with people who do not agree ideologically. This intelligent communication platform has the potential to mobilize a new generation of political activists, help to solve the issue of political ignorance among the youth, and make it possible to respond to political news right away on platforms already in use.
Qriously provides a new, more effective alternative to traditional polling by using a “programmatic survey methodology” to gauge public opinion. They describe their method as essentially replacing ads with survey questions to drive engagement among smartphone users. Respondents can voluntarily answer research questions and clients can analyse incoming data in real-time.
Before 2016, the company served only corporate clients, moving into politics after the election. They operate on 1.4 billion devices globally and successfully forecasted the result of the Italian elections, predicted the Labour surge and vote share in the 2017 UK elections better than any other pollster, and predicted losses for the CDU/CSU in Germany. In 2016, they were the only firm who anticipated the victory of the Leave side in the Brexit referendum. This a fast and accurate method which has a massive global influence, even in hard-to-reach markets like China, India, and the Middle-East.
Swap My Vote (UK)
This initiative attempts to solve the problem of the high proportion of wasted votes in the UK’s current electoral system. In 2015 almost three quarters of the votes were casted for losing candidates, leading to a lack of direct representation for those voters. This phenomenon can sadly result in political disengagement and lower turnouts. Swap My Vote believes that the sharing-economy approach can be applied to political processes as well. They built a system that, with the help of social media, allows citizens to exchange their vote with another person and cast their ballot where it could actually make a difference.
Democracy Club (UK)
Democracy Club is a community of people working on different missions to improve the democratic system. The projects mainly involve collecting and crowdsourcing valuable information about candidates and elections and maintaining a public archive of campaign materials. With these open data resources, they seek to provide citizens the information they need for informed political participation. Instead of accepting that something is broken in the system, Democracy Club believe we should seek ways to improve it based on the citizens’ needs.
They ensure their collected database is easily available and understandable by voters by building applications such as “Who can I vote for?” which has had more than 1.5 million users so far.
Generally, we can identify three main benefits of the emergence of these companies. First, we can argue that political tech start-ups have the potential to create a more equal environment for candidates. Often political campaigns are entirely decided by available resources, but with the help of technology and social media, candidates with less money will also stand a chance at winning a majority. Second, innovators can boost political participation by informing voters of their electoral choices and laying out their options for activism. Lastly, technology can revolutionise the way that voluntary activist groups and political campaigns work, by reaching like-minded people and developing the best possible campaign strategies based on the quick analysis of digitalised data.
There is a clear recognition of these strengths from investors. For instance, a group of former Obama staff members started using venture-capital techniques to help progressive start-ups expand. Higher Ground Labs invested more than 1.5 million in 2017. But do these organisations actually stand a chance of shaping political systems and improving democracy?
It is highly likely that new progressive political campaign technologies have already contributed to the Democrats’ winning back of the majority of in the House of Representatives in November. Whether political tech start-ups have a significant positive impact on our democracies remains to be decided, but one thing is certain: technology will play a much more important role in politics in the near future.