Last week, we looked at how digital politics came of age over the past decade, in a follow-up to November’s snapshot of online campaigning in the now. This week, we’ll explore digital trends I think will change politics in the decade to come. Let's start with a big one.
The rise of a global, connected activist generation.
Look across the world at the beginning of 2020. From Iran to Hong Kong and the courthouse hosting the first Harvey Weinstein trial, what do you see? Protests against The Way Things Are. In country after country, people are fed up and hungry to do something about it, and naturally, they're using their phones and computers to help.
We've grown so accustomed to enthusiastic digital activism at home that we may not realize how big a change it’ll bring to other parts of the planet. Our own political system has been adjusting to an inflamed citizenry since at least the grassroots resistance to the 2003 Iraq invasion, in the process absorbing waves of movements like the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the Trump Resistance.
We now expect citizens to be active parts of the political process: to advocate, to volunteer and of course to donate to our campaigns. A far cry from the days when their sole role was to soak up TV ads and vote accordingly.
Of course, we've seen citizen movements try to transform countries many times in recent years, from the post-communist Color Revolutions to the Arab Spring, and they often have failed. What's different this time? In part, a connected generation. They've grown up with cell phones and social media, and they can see that conditions in other countries are different from their own. Most strikingly, they're learning from their peers across the world.
I'm not surprised that teenaged climate activist Greta Thunberg was inspired by the Parkland Kids, or that tactics developed by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have migrated to Catalonia and Indonesia. The fires at these protests have been lit mainly by local sparks so far, but we'll see activists coalesce around causes that cross borders as well.
A global crusade against corruption? A youth uprising against climate-hostile policies? Beware the dark side, though. Popular movements have a habit of being hijacked by dictators-in-waiting.
An audience of one.
Meanwhile, those same digital channels also keep fragmenting us into smaller and smaller tribes, as we explored last week. With consumer data and AI-driven targeting growing ever more sophisticated, we may soon each form an audience of one, all of us drowning in advertising intended to get us individually to act.
Message-personalization, automated marketing — including chatbots — and relational organizing tools, which leverage people’s real-world connections, may help cut through the barrage. But the power of algorithms and our own desire to validate what we already believe will naturally try to subdivide our media even more. As we've seen in the Trump era, information bubbles can have thick walls.
Therein lies a central tension inherent in the internet: the same tools that connect us with people across the world also encourage us to abandon shared truth. Which trend will win in the 2020s? The answer may determine whether we can act on problems that threaten our societies and even our existence. No biggie.
Speaking of double-edged swords, let's talk about social media. In the near term, I suspect that Google and Facebook simply cannot suck up most of the advertising money that used to support local and national media and expect to avoid taking on some of the gatekeeper role that TV, radio, and newspapers used to fill. So far, Twitter's copped-out and Google's tried to fix the wrong problem (it's not the microtargeting, it's the lying).
Meanwhile, Facebook's taken the route with the least responsibility and the most financial reward. At some point, these platforms will have to own up to their responsibilities — or take us down with them.
Looking farther down the road, I won't try to predict which yet-unbuilt social networks will catch on with whom to do what. But broadly, I don't think we're going to stop creating digital venues for people to create communities and express themselves in public any time soon.
Bots, fakes and hacks.
Also with us for the foreseeable future? Bad actors. Perhaps someday we'll all start asking the right questions when we see a story that's too juicy to be true or a link just begging to be clicked. In the meantime, everyone's a victim in waiting. I'll make one firm prediction along these lines: somewhere on this planet in the next ten years, fake video will start a war.
Email & messaging.
In ten years, will email be dead? Who knows! Though I bet we'll want to keep some form of universal messaging over the long term, whether it goes via SMS, POP/SMTP or a yet-invented protocol. I suspect the channels will blur over time, depending on how people like to receive messages. Perhaps a future "email" will be a rich-media package, data-personalized and designed to adapt to each recipient's information consumption preferences and the screen they're closest to. Regardless, list-managers and grassroots fundraisers will still have jobs.
And for the rest.
What about the big buzzwords, like AI and virtual/augmented reality? AI is already here: it helps us analyze data and target advertising, and systems built on AI-driven technologies will continue to form the foundation for much of our automated outreach for the foreseeable future. As for the others?
Virtual Reality: Yes, but for limited purposes, unless VR happens to completely take over from video as society's No.1 narrative medium. I suspect we'll see it mostly for training and for immersive demonstrations of a situation in a distant place or a possible future. Perhaps VR for candidate "appearances" at house parties?
Augmented Reality: Similarly, it seems useful for training or to demonstrate before-and-after policy situations or the like. Also, I would not be surprised if AR data-overlay techniques find their way into field-organizing apps.
Prediction is hard.
Everything you just read is probably wrong since human creativity and events beyond our control turn most predictions into fantasy quite fast. Our political future may well hinge on happenings no one could guess in advance. Fun.
But if you're reading this in 2030, perhaps via direct neural downlink from the hive-mind, please appreciate the effort.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-four-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.