-- TimothyKim - 30 Apr 2016


The Rise of the Internet in Establishment Politics

In the 2010 midterm elections, the Democratic Party suffered historic loses, losing 63 seats in the House. The defeat was fueled primarily by depressed turnout among Democratic base groups—the so-called “Obama coalition”—costing the Democrats dearly at the polls.

Paradoxically, 2010’s disastrous results turned out to be blessing for the Democrats. Chastened by the shellacking, the 2012 Obama campaign launched its preparations with a sort of vicious ferocity. In particular, the revamped Obama campaign intensely focused their efforts on quietly amassing a colossal database that would serve to be its ace in the hole. That is, even if national polls disfavored the President, the campaign was ready to micro-target specific, high-value (i.e. left-leaning independent) voters living in swing states and still win the election. As a result, they created the single-greatest digital database and micro-targeting operation in political history.

Consequently, in 2012, the Obama campaign began the election year confident it knew the name of every one of the 69,456,897 Americans whose votes had put him in the White House. Those voters may have cast their voters in secret, but unbeknownst to them, the campaign had amassed so much data about their personal lives that it could guess their votes with near perfect accuracy. Unsurprisingly, the Obama campaign trounced Romney’s with a clean sweep of every swing state.


How the Pervasiveness of Social Media Changes Everything

In 2000, Robert Putnam discussed the decline of traditional social networks and civic engagement in Bowling Alone. In Bowling Alone, Putnam blamed technology for “individualizing” Americans by encouraging them to spend their time watching television instead of becoming engaged in their communities. And Putnam was partially correct—in today’s age, the town square, village green, and union hall are no longer primary settings for discussing political issues.

Social media, however, has filled much of that void by allowing people to develop social ties virtually. Today, citizens are more likely to talk about political issues online than at their local church.

The crucial difference, of course, is that all social media activity is being recorded, analyzed, and commodified.

But while it may seem relatively benign for a commercial retailer to leverage this platform to increase diaper sales, serious questions arise when considering the implications of merging social media data mining with the democratic process.

Facebook Could Determine the 2016 Election

The greatest threat to democracy does actually not come from the campaigns, but from the data collectors themselves. Facebook—the digital leviathan darkly lurking above this new political landscape—now has the power to unilaterally determine the outcome of elections.

In recent years, journalists have discovered the incredible power wielded by Facebook’s News Feed. The News Feed is what one of Facebook’s 1.6 billion users sees when logging into Facebook.com. It’s essentially the homepage of the site, although Facebook idiosyncratically tailors its specific content for every user. What dictates its content is determined by the elusive News Feed algorithm, a program that decides not only which statuses, photos, and news stories are displayed, but how many of each there will be.

Small changes in the News Feed algorithm can create huge traffic jumps for websites posting on the site. In the fall of 2011, for example, Facebook encouraged news organizations to build “social readers” for their content. Those went great—news organizations like the Washington Post raked in traffic—until, on one day, the engineers adjusted the News Feed algorithm again, and the Washington Post’s daily active users plunged from over four million to just about zero in a matter of days.

Obviously, Facebook carefully shrouds any details about its News Feed algorithm and it is nearly impossible for outsiders to determine exactly how changes in the algorithm are made. Without anyone noticing, it would be easy for Facebook—or even some rogue engineers—to subtlety tweak the News Feed to either advantage or disadvantage a particular candidate for office.

For instance, after determining which users are likely to be independent voters and live in swing states, Facebook could exercise subtle editorial control over their individual News Feeds, slowly and gradually removing—for example—any article that criticizes Hillary Clinton or supports Donald Trump.

But there is an even easier way for Facebook to influence an election. Since 2008, Facebook has displayed an “I Voted!” button like this on every major election day:


If you tell Facebook you voted, your name and picture appear near the button when other friends view it. Facebook then encourages your friends to go out and vote as well. In 2010, researchers at the University of California used the button and internal Facebook data to conduct an experiment in how social media influence impacts actual political mobilization. They found that someone was 0.39 percent more likely to vote if they were told by Facebook that their friends had voted.

That difference is non-negligible. An estimated 340,000 additional votes were cast in the 2010 election because of the “I Voted!” button.

If Facebook’s effects on voter turnout are as large as this research suggests, Facebook could easily skew an election. The 2000 Presidential election, for instance, was decided by a mere 537 votes. By selectively presenting the button to specific users, Facebook could impact turnout among favorable demographic groups while decreasing it elsewhere.

A New Political Paradigm

Just like how radio shaped the pre-WWII era and how television shaped the post-WWII era, the internet has brought about a paradigm shift in the balance of power between institutional interests and the larger public.

As for Facebook, it’s not a question of if it will wield its power but of when.

At the end of every week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg holds an internal question-and-answer session for employees. Before these sessions, Facebook circulates a poll asking what concerns he should address.

On March 4, a large number of employees voted to ask him the following: “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?”

Unsurprisingly, Facebook has yet to tell us whether and how Mark Zuckerberg answered this question. But either way, setting public remarks aside, how Mr. Zuckerberg privately answers that question could in fact determine the 2016 election, essentially leaving the fate of presidential election in the hands of a single person.


You should have linked your sources here, rather than just borrowing what they had to say. You owed the reader a way to learn more, not only to appreciate the synthesis you put together.

Events have shown, as you were writing, that political professionals now also appreciate. as only the crazy alarmists did until very recently, the effect of commercial data-mining on electoral democracy, which is just another form of product marketing.

Where you could have gone past your sources on the basis of what we have been discussing in this course:

  1. You could have explained how federated or decentralized social networking would result in the reconstruction of more "local" communities for political conversation, without the automated surveillance that is the blowback of centralizing the Web in the Facebook/Twitter style; and
  2. You could have discussed the First Amendment case for government's accepting (for reasons of protecting democracy, among others) a positive obligation to assist people in speaking on the Web in unmonitored and un-mined fashion.