Big Data

The 2016 presidential election is far worse, and much better, because of technology

One of the ugliest presidential elections in American history has been powered by advances in technology. And yet, tech is making this election more democratic than ever.

For all of the divisiveness of the 2016 US presidential campaign, the election itself remains a celebration of the fact that Americans have created a nation where they will choose their own leader for the 45th time on Tuesday.

Traditionally, Americans dislike negative campaigning for the highest office in the land and often tune out when the elbows get too sharp. This year has been one of the most notable exceptions in our history, as both campaigns have spent the bulk of their time talking about why the other is unfit to be president.

By some estimates, only about 10% of the rhetoric from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been about specific issues. Most of the rest has been vitriol aimed at each other. And, social media, mobile devices, wireless broadband, and other technologies enabled them to deliver it faster, less filtered, and to more people than ever before.

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By contrast, one of the few bright spots in this morbid political season has been the way technology has acted as a democratizing force to get people to the polls. It has gotten more voters registered, better educated them about their ballots, and showed them the way to their polling place—even helping them find rides.

For the people who still want to vote despite having to choose between two presidential candidates with historically low likeability ratings, there's little doubt that technology will get more people to the ballot and make them better informed voters—the core values of a republican democracy.

So with all this, let's count down the top five ways technology has impacted the 2016 presidential race in ways that will have implications for decades to come.

SEE: Tech giants offer up last-minute Election Day help (CBS News)

1. Twitter has been Donald Trump's greatest ally

As much as Donald Trump has complained about the media, the strongest media trend of this election has been his Twitter account. He has amassed 13 million followers (compared to 10 million for Clinton), but the story goes far beyond those numbers. Throughout the campaign, Trump slung off-the-cuff, politically incorrect, and sometimes even self-destructive tweets that made it absolutely clear they were coming from the guy himself and not a PR professional or an intern carefully honing the message. As a result, both supporters and opponents flocked to his Twitter feed—and so did the media. How many times throughout this election did we hear a news anchor say, "Donald Trump just tweeted..." and then show the message on-screen? As a result, 2016 has been the Twitter election, and every presidential candidate that comes after these two is going to think differently about how to use it.

2. Hillary Clinton's emails put cybersecurity in the spotlight

IT has long been relegated to backstage and back rooms. So, the fact that "email server" has been one of the most used phrases in this campaign has surprisingly brought the importance of IT to the forefront. The fact that Hillary Clinton handled all of her email as Secretary of State through the address hdr22@clintonemail.com run from a server at her Chappaqua, New York home has led to intense public scrutiny and eventually an FBI investigation. She did it so that she wouldn't have to manage multiple email accounts and multiple smartphones, but it was outside of government controls and outside of the public record. Ultimately, the government concluded that Clinton was careless and technically unsavvy, but didn't didn't break any laws that come with criminal penalties. However, the issue has made abundantly clear the importance of cybersecurity and following good IT practices. It's likely that future candidates—and hopefully many other leaders as well—will take the security of their work data much more seriously now.

SEE: How the FBI might have processed 650,000 emails in Clinton probe (CBS News)

3. Data tells us more than ever about the sovereignty of the people

Perhaps the biggest untold story of this election cycle has been the rising importance of data—unless you've been reading TechRepublic's Dan Patterson for the past year. Data has enabled real-time fact checking during the debates, more efficient get-out-the-vote operations, detailed analysis of early voting trends, microtargeting of voters, deep sentiment analysis from social media, massive online fundraising from average citizens (more on that in a moment), and a new breed of more accurate polls. In a nation where sovereignty lies with the people and not its leaders, data is telling us more clearly than ever what the people believe, and what they want.

4. Social media echo chambers deepen our divisions

I'm not afraid to admit that I've avoided Facebook for most of September and October. I have a very diverse group of friends and family from many different walks of life, and I haven't wanted to think less of any of them by seeing their egregiously partisan banter, from both sides of the aisle. However, we live in an online world where it's becoming easier and easier to only congregate with people who think and believe like you do, and dismiss other belief systems as misguided and destructive. Even on Facebook—where people often have a worlds-colliding collection of different friends—it's easy to hide the kinds of views you don't like, and Facebook's algorithm obliges by showing you less of that and more of the kinds of things you click and give the thumbs up. While the American political system is balanced by the tension of opposites, it also only works when the two sides come together to moderate their views and forge compromises that enough Americans can get behind. Social media is undermining that at a fundamental level, and it could take us years or even decades to understand the full implications of it.

SEE: Can social media call the election? (CNET)

5. Bernie's grassroots fundraising portends a future revolution

The narrative that has emerged in American politics is that to run for president you have to be very rich and have the backing of multi-billionaires and deep-pocketed corporate interests. And then, Bernie Sanders came along. The political independent from Vermont made $205,000 in 2015, according to his tax returns, and had little to no support from big donors when he launched his campaign to become the 2016 Democratic nominee for president. And yet, he came remarkably close to winning the nomination. His unlikely grassroots candidacy was powered by millions of small donations collected online through his website. According to The Wall Street Journal, 94% of Sanders' donations were collected online, and the average donation was $27—a number Sanders famously bandied about during the campaign. In the early months of 2016, Sanders actually out-fundraised Clinton (backed by the billionaires and well-heeled corporate interests). He did it by getting more people involved. By April, Sanders had 4.7 million contributions to his campaign, compared to 1.5 million for Clinton. While Sanders eventually came up just short of winning the nomination, he has created a new avenue to the White House for anti-establishments candidates, and we should expect others to take this path in presidential elections in the decades ahead.

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About Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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