Think tech tilted the 2016 election? Just wait for 2020

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For better or for worse, the 2016 United States presidential election is behind us. We have the better part of four years until the circus whirs to life once again.

Four years is a long time in terms of technology. Four years ago, Snapchat could only share still images. The Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign was just wrapping up. The iPhone was still available with only a 4-inch display.

When the next election rolls around, the tech we use daily will once again change significantly. While we don’t know exactly how that’ll play out, we can guess based on trends that just rising in the 2016 campaign. And it appears that online persuasion will become even more important, perhaps dominating all other venues.

Power of Persuasion

American politics and new technology have a long relationship. From the first televised campaign ads back in 1952, to Barack Obama’s unprecedented use of social media in 2008, campaign managers are always on the lookout for new ways to reach voters.

Social media was once again a key part of the 2016 campaign cycle. Facebook’s streaming figures for the first presidential debate dwarfed the online broadcasts offered by the likes of CBS and CNN, and Donald Trump’s Twitter presence was a frequent cause of controversy – and news.

“The diffusion of computers has led to new uses for interactive technology; including the use of computers to change people’s attitudes and behavior.”

Yet while the technology behind those examples is new, the way they’re used isn’t. Often, candidates are simply looking for a bigger platform from which they can state their claim on the presidency. But computers, smartphones, and the various other devices that litter our homes and pockets offer more than just a platform. Unlike a television broadcast, or a printed newspaper, they can be used to interact with individuals directly.

“The diffusion of computers has led to new uses for interactive technology, including the use of computers to change people’s attitudes and behavior—in a word: persuasion,” reads a chapter in The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook entitled ‘Motivating, Influencing, and Persuading Users.’

The text, written by persuasive technology experts B.J. Fogg, Gregory Cuellar, and David Danielson, goes on to illustrate how persuasion permeates software design. Great software is often described as “intuitive,” but sometimes it’s just as accurate to describe it as “persuasive.” Often, an app must persuade the user to take certain actions to enable whatever task the app is supposed to carry out.

Think of an installer wizard. Its purpose is to install the software in question, so its primary goal is to persuade the user to complete every step of the procedure. The very idea of a wizard is to persuade someone that installing the program is going to be quick and easy, and elements like a progress bar can be implemented to grease the wheels ever further. Similarly, the standard Amazon product page is designed with the intent of converting a viewer’s interest to a sale—persuading them to buy the product.

Social media is a hotbed for this kind of design. When you log in to Facebook, you’re encouraged to add a phone number to your account to protect your security. The site’s standard UI asks visitors, “what’s on your mind?” at the very top of the page, coaxing them to be an active participant. Even adding a new friend on the platform results in a call to “send a message to say hello.”

Don’t Forget to Vote

If you’ve visited sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit over the past few days, you may have been confronted with a reminder to go out and vote on November 8.

These messages are an example of the way technology can be used to persuade. Tactics like pop-ups and eye-catching changes to a common user interface demonstrate the ways sites and services can influence their user base.

Over the past few weeks, households across America have been inundated by phone calls and personal visits by supporters from both parties, hoping to secure a few more votes. The practice of canvasing is hugely important to any successful campaign. But could a chatbot be the perfect canvasser?


In 2020, this kind of campaigning might be delegated to artificial minds. You might be watching television one evening, when a Facebook message or an SMS reaches your phone asking who you’re planning to vote for.

There was a time when chatbots were a curiosity, used to fool friends into thinking that they were speaking to a real human, more than anything else. However, the process to implement them for less frivolous purposes is already well underway.

Financial institutions like Bank of America and MasterCard are already fielding chatbots to interact with members of the public. They’re only being used to handle simple queries for now, but the end goal is to turn them into “full-service automated financial assistants,” according to a report from the New York Times. Facebook and Microsoft both launched high-profile bot platforms earlier this year.

Over the next few years, expect to see all kinds of organizations attempt to persuade users to speak with chatbots about subjects that would previously have been handled by a human. That includes important but routine matters, like making online payments, and diagnosing medical conditions.

A chatbot could have access to everything that both candidates have said over the course of their campaign.

And the technology could also be fruitful in the context of a presidential campaign.

A chatbot could have access to everything that both candidates have said over the course of their campaign — or indeed, decades earlier. It wouldn’t be subject to emotions as a human canvasser would, so there’s no chance of the situation turning ugly. It might even be able to use information collected about its target to inform its approach.

Campaigns are already profiling voters to target groups of the electorate without breaking the bank. A company called Deep Root Analytics used consumer information purchased from the likes of television ratings specialist Nielsen and credit score service Experian to inform ad placements ahead of the 2016 election, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. “These are calculations we just couldn’t do before,” observed Alex Lundry, one of the company’s co-founders, speaking to the publication.

A chatbot canvasser could either put the focus of campaigning back on the facts, or make the tug-of-war for voters even more competitive and unpleasant. It all depends on who is wielding the tech, and what their intentions are.

Next Time

Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, many social media users have found their chosen window to the world made a more unpleasant place thanks to presidential tension.

Facts don’t seem to count for much when you’re slinging mud in the comments section. However, at least conflict has two sides — the echo chambers intended only to praise one candidate and bemoan the other were scary places to be ahead of election day.

Hundreds of thousands of Reddit users coagulated on subreddits designed to foster support for a candidate. The sixth rule of a subreddit called The_Donald states “no dissenters,” making it clear that the space is a platform for one viewpoint, rather than a space for discussion and debate. The five steps detailed in a guide to “assimilation,” posted the day after Bernie Sanders fell behind in the primaries, crystallize that intent.

A persuasive computer program used carelessly could exacerbate these problems. The best-case scenario is a campaign where voters are educated about the realities of each candidate’s platform. The worst-case scenario is unsavory campaign managers being given a tool that can profile voters, prey on prejudice, and transform a political process into a shouting match.

In 2020, candidates will have access to bot platforms far more mature than those we have today and, likely, access to a wider variety of them. They might be willing to take a chance on a canvassing chatbot, or another form of persuasive computing — and we should be wary of that precedent when it comes.


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