Innovation

How tech has influenced politics, from the 800 number to Twitter and Facebook

"I thought (tech) was going to help us have the conversations together that would bring us closer together. Instead, it's pretty obvious that people are siloing," said political strategist Joe Trippi.

Joe Trippi, democratic political strategist and CNN contributor spoke to TechRepublic's Dan Patterson about the evolution of technology in the politics arena and now tech can help a campaign. Here's their conversation:

Patterson: In the political world, many people understand and respect your use and understanding of technology. You had first mover advantage on a lot of tech tools. But for those in the business, can you talk a little bit your background and history, especially going back to 2004 and before, with direct mail and leading up to the Howard Dean campaign?

Trippi: Well, first, great to be with you and thanks for having me. Gosh, it goes back a long way before Howard Dean. I installed the first computer in a political campaign back in 1980 for a governor's race in California. Along the way, got sick of politics in the late '80s, and went out back to Silicon Valley, and worked for a lot of ecommerce and cybersecurity-based firms.

That gave me enough of an intersection between politics that I'd been working in all that time and technology that, I guess, I became sort of dangerous, by about 2003, where I knew enough from both worlds to be a pretty big disruptor in the political realm, in the Dean campaign, where we pioneered a lot back then, because of where the Internet, and where technology was.

YouTube didn't exist. Most people didn't have enough bandwidth to do video online and things like that, but with it, I think we shook up at least the democratic side of politics that year. As technology evolved and as the tools evolved, and as more in politics understood how powerful use of those tools and empowering people was, it grew to the Obama campaign and now to Trump, who used social media in ways that most campaigns hadn't done in the past.

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Patterson: What did you learn about the advantages of the grassroots and communicating directly with the base as opposed to using legacy traditional media as an arbiter?

Trippi: Well, I'd always been, as a guy who worked in media for campaigns, as a media strategist, always been frustrated by the one way nature of it. Back in '92, I was one of the first to use the 800 number as a primitive way to, "Hey. Call us back. Let us know what you're thinking," kinda thing. It was for Jerry Brown's race for President. He ended up running, fundraising numbers of $8 million by people calling the 800-number. I'd always been frustrated with it.

One of the things about the 2003-2004 effort with Dean was finally, there was a way to empower people, to not just preach at them, but actually get them to own the campaign and its message, and to help move that message out there to their friends, family and coworkers. In a sense, the whole 2003-2004 Dean campaign was almost a naïve, idealistic, "Hey, we can empower people." I thought that's where it would go, and by, I don't know, 10-12 years later it's just as manipulative, if not more so, than television.

Patterson: Yeah. I'm so glad you brought that up. This is an interesting time for data and, particularly, social media. In 2008, the way President Obama used data was kinda championed, and that was repeated in 2012. Of course, we saw in 2016 a really interesting evolution of the use of social media. Now there is a narrative that social media might not be that great. What are your fears about technology and data?

Trippi: I thought it was going to help us have the conversations together that would bring us closer together. Instead, it's pretty obvious that people are siloing, and where they get their news is siloed, and who they talk to is siloed. It's actually helping drive us apart, not pull us together. That's one of the reasons companies are becoming more alarmed by it, because they want a medium that pulls us together. They want all sides to buy their product or to use their service, and I don't think anybody saw, not on the political side. This is one way where maybe we can learn from business: How do you use this medium to bring people together is gonna be a bigger? No one's figured that out, and it's driving apart. Not the other way around.

Patterson: Dovetailing with that, What narratives do you anticipate and realities do you anticipate through the 2018 and 2020 cycles?

Trippi: Well, look. Here's where this is going, and I don't want to get into the Russian stuff in terms of the grand conspiracy with Trump. What we've done is we've created this immediate pathway into messing with our elections. You can start a phony site, America'sBeautiful.com, you could put stories attacking the Republican on it or the Democrat. You can have a Russian platform pushing that out, and "Hey, I'm for Hillary Clinton and this is a bad story on Trump, so let me, a real human being, and an American, that's a great story I want to move around," and vice versa on the other side. You could just have a blast getting Americans on social media carrying weaponized messages against the other side, against both sides.

This is what I'm saying. I'm not getting into "Did it impact the last one?," and etc, but it's clear that you used to have to trick [ABC's] "Nightline" into putting some Russian commentator on the air at 11 p.m. to get your message across, if you were trying to put propaganda into our system, and still most Americans didn't take what happened on "Nightline" and run out in the streets, because they knew where it came from, good or bad, whether you believe that or not.

Right now, you have other people using the data. Other people from that side who can get both sides in America's polarized politics, and in these silos that we're in, to attack each other and attack the candidates and lose trust in each other. That's a driving thing that is clearly happening, and I think we're woefully, because of our openness in our society, which we all cherish, and the openness of the internet, and all these tools that I and others were excited about 10-12 years ago.

How do we go from, "Wow. Yes. We can share all this information. We can talk to each other and be that open," and at the same time have these other forces trying to use this to play into our divisions and divide all of us? It's gonna take an awareness of each one of us,that when we're seeing this information, "Where did it come from? Why am I so excited about pushing it to the next level?" and then it comes from Joe Trippi to Dan and you don't know where it came from. It keeps going and it's those ripples that worry me more than the initial targeting that's going on.

Dan Patterson: Last question, Joe. This seems almost rhetorical, but regardless as to how you feel from a partisan perspective, American institutions are under attack from adversaries who work to undermine faith and trust in institutions. Should massive corporations, SMBs, startups; should companies be concerned that the adversaries that have targeted government will next move to targeting Western enterprise?

Joe Trippi: Oh, no doubt about it. In fact, I think that was going on before the attacks on our political institutions. There's all kinds of evidence that patents, ideas were being stolen, etc. hacked. But companies don't talk about that. They try not to hold a press conference saying some of our best ideas just got stolen by a foreign hacker. It's does come out occasionally, but that's been going on for a long, long time.

In the public discourse, it's like the Dean campaign. There came a time back then where we could implement stuff. It didn't quite have the power that it did by 2008 or 2012 or 2016. YouTube didn't exist. Twitter didn't exist. The iPhone wasn't out 'til 2007. All those evolutions of the tools, just as we were trying to build this engagement with people, those same tools have opened up a way to disrupt and divide, and they've gotten more powerful too.

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By 2016, 2020, the ability to disrupt our institutions, break up trust, and attack more companies and businesses out there, not just on a U.S. scale, but international scale, is going to keep evolving faster. The disruption we've seen is only the beginning. It's gonna get worse.

How do we adjust to that? How do we find some mechanisms to slow that down, to stop it, or to at least understand how we're all being manipulated in ways that it would be much harder to do on television on the old broadcast networks that we assumed were propaganda machines, but nothing like what we're quite living through right now in this new environment that we all created and all wanted?

We're excited about what it would do to make things better. Will we keep allowing it to make it worse and keep us more divided? That's the whole for instance right now and where a lot of people should be thinking about within corporate and in our democracy.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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