Technology – transforming politics

Technology – transforming politics

In the realm of politics, technology has always played a significant role, shaping and influencing political campaigns and communication. Over the years, technology has evolved, transforming the way politicians connect with the public and conduct their campaigns.

One significant milestone in the intersection of technology and politics was the 1960 presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which were broadcast on television. These debates marked a turning point, as they showcased the visual impact and persuasive power of televised political discourse.

However, the true digital revolution in politics can be attributed to Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008. Obama’s team harnessed the power of digital technology in groundbreaking ways, leaving a lasting impact on political campaigns. His campaign leveraged various digital tactics, including releasing YouTube videos, creating a Facebook page, sending text messages to subscribers, and deploying targeted emails to voters in key states. These strategies, commonplace today, were revolutionary at the time and helped Obama connect with a new generation of voters.

Notably, Obama’s campaign exploited email outreach, sending a staggering 1 billion emails during the campaign. This digital prowess contrasted starkly with his opponent, John McCain, who did not use email. Moreover, Obama’s social media presence, with 2.5 million Facebook friends and over 115,000 Twitter followers, dwarfed McCain’s online following.

Political parties in Bhutan have learned this, too, and social media of different types are used to keep in touch with their supporters; for introduction, consultation, and familiarization. Sometimes, it goes beyond these lines, too.

The advantage is that hundreds of users can learn about politicians, policies and statements, interact with political leaders, organize, and voice their own opinions on political matters. Political campaigns are mostly conducted through the use of social media sites to reach voters using political advertising.

All existing and registered five political parties of Bhutan have their official Facebook page, Instgram and twitter. Politicians send personal messages through sms to their supporters. And all politicians have different groups – WeChat, WhatsApp and Telegram. There are different groups at diverse levels. There are groups at the chiwog level; the gewog level; the district level and then the national level. Unique that our culture and traditions are, people are not even informed that they have been added to a group. The coordinator or candidate from a constituency takes it as their natural responsibility to add people. Thus, many find themselves in the groups of all five parties.

While technology is definitely a powerful weapon, it has limitations, too. There would be potential voters or supporters who do not have gadgets like even a simple phone. They would not be getting the messages. Similarly, all Bhutanese do not have smartphones, thus creating a digital divide amongst voters, too, as messages disseminated through the use of WeChat and/or Telegram will not reach them. As emotional human beings, this group of people would surmise that they are insignificant.

Further, social media platforms can also give political parties an unprecedented amount of information over the population. This can be used to track certain individuals, such as political opponents, and censor dissent. Similarly, if a supporter from one party joins or is included in another party’s social media platforms, a lot can be learned.  

Social media platforms also have a large impact on personal relations. This is one of the ways how technology has changed public relations. Parties and politicians can converse with their supporters who live hundreds of kilometers or even abroad. A relation is then forged.

In most Western democracies, political parties have increasingly used digital technology during campaigns. From mobilizing voters to organizing volunteers, new technologies – such as smartphones and tablets, and innovative internet platforms and applications (“apps”) like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Periscope, and others – have revolutionized election campaigns. No longer are mass mailings, lawn signs, and television and radio advertisements sufficient to win an election. A campaign’s “digital strategy” is just as, if not more, important to victory.

Research suggests that technology enhances political campaigning and elections in three key ways. First, it empowers citizens with more information, fostering engagement with the democratic process. Second, it enables candidates and parties to connect with supporters and mobilize them efficiently. Finally, the internet fosters public debate on a range of issues, influencing campaign agendas and promoting transparency and accountability.

The internet’s capacity to provide vast amounts of data, its low cost of dissemination, and its ability to connect like-minded individuals have transformed the political landscape. It challenges traditional political organizations, encourages the formation of new political forces, and helps shape collective identities. However, with great power comes the potential for misuse, underscoring the need for ethical and responsible use of technology in politics. The impact of technology in politics is undeniable, and its evolution continues to shape the future of political communication and campaigning

In other words, it is said that the development of ICT for political communication basically rests on the traditional argument that citizens in a democracy need full information and an enlightened understanding of situations to contribute to democratic deliberation and make good decisions. ICTs make enormous quantities of information available to the public. The Internet provides new channels for information and expression, which are to some extent in competition with the traditional mediation processes.

The Internet facilitates contact between individuals who share common interests and helps co-ordinate joint actions. The Internet has the potential to challenge traditional political organizations (parties, trade unions and economic lobbies) in facilitating the formation of new political and social forces hitherto hindered by the lack of a structured apparatus or low resources. Use of ITCs also encourages the consolidation of collective identities, at a local community level or on a global scale, with the Internet providing the spaces for crystallizing and shaping social relations around a shared project.

Just as technology can be used, it can be misused too. And the trend is simple – as long as a purpose is served, questions can be asked later.

Ugyen Tenzin from Thimphu