Every presidential election, new tech trends emerge. Here are the innovations — good and bad — that powered the 2016 campaigns.
The 2016 presidential election season is, at last, over. Polls and the press were reasonably certain Hillary Clinton would emerge as the country’s first female president. But the winner, to the shock of many, was Donald Trump, a candidate written off early by the Republican establishment, and then by the Democratic establishment, as a sideshow.
Yet Trump, now the President-elect, managed to win by pulling an electoral college coup, winning in places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio—states whose electoral votes went to President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. In a race that was unpredictable through Election Day itself, what seems most certain now is that the normal rules of campaigning no longer apply. You can tweet out that the electoral college is a “disaster for democracy” — and then rely on that electoral college to make you president four years later.
As the Democratic and Republican parties scramble for new tactics, they will turn to, and on occasion joust with, technology more intensely — though not always in the ways we might expect. This year, bots took on new prominence; cybersecurity breaches exposed the inner workings of Clinton’s campaign; and the influence of Silicon Valley heavyweights grew even larger.
Here’s our rundown of the stand-out tech moments of 2016. Please add your own suggestions at the end.
Following the third debate, automated pro-Trump accounts on Twitter pumped out seven times more messages than pro-Clinton accounts. Most of these accounts, it turned out, were powered by chatbots: the newest tool in computational propaganda. “It’s definitely one of the most significant digital aspects of this campaign season,” says Samuel Woolley, a researcher with the Political Bots Project.
Bots began their social media careers as a way to artificially increase a candidate’s follower count. In 2011, for example, Gawker reported that as many as 80 percent of Newt Gingrich’s 1.3 million Twitter followers were fake. This year, bots grew in prominence and numbers, with about 400,000 of them tweeting out hashtagged messages for and against Trump and Clinton. They are the new robocalls, influencing and persuading voters in their Twitter timelines.
These automated social media bot accounts are created by people familiar with Twitter’s API. Individual bots are then organized into larger collections called botnets to send out propaganda for political users or groups. It’s a trend researchers say is bound to stick around unless social media companies start moderating politically oriented content. “Bots will continue to be used in more sophisticated ways by people to game the polls that go on online, to stretch the limits of truth, to circulate fake stories,” Woolley says.
Twitter was a big propellant of Trump’s campaign, even as the platform has struggled to secure its own future. Twitter offered Trump a workaround of what he considered the biased mainstream media, and his tweets almost always carried an anti-establishment tenor. As Garry Wills observed last week, “Trump seems to ‘tell it like it is’ because he voices [his followers’] dissatisfactions.”
Clinton’s Twitter feed, meanwhile, was its antithesis. Her tweets remained largely scripted and uncontroversial, often even referring to the candidate in third person. Elizabeth Cohen, assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, sees this as a telling misstep. “Trump doesn’t have the voice of a campaign. He has the voice of himself, and I think that has really gone a long way in helping him get this far,” Cohen says.
Cohen researches ghost-tweeting, which is when a campaign surrogate controls a candidate’s Twitter account and sends canned messages. Though these tweets carry the air of a carefully considered message, they also increase how distant people feel from a campaign. Both Clinton and Trump used ghost-tweeters, but Trump cut through most effectively when he posted as himself and replied to followers on Twitter.
The desire among constituents for online realness isn’t going away. “Social media’s a two-way medium, and now we expect our candidates to interact,” says Cohen. “We expect a different type of access to them.”
One of the main storylines to emerge during the 2016 campaign was the increasing influence of Silicon Valley on national politics. Over the last 20 years, the tech industry has contributed almost $60 million to politicians, second only to the oil and gas industry. But in 2016, tech’s bigwigs were especially visible.
Clinton’s campaign drew the tech elite most tightly into the fold. The fallout of the hacked emails published by WikiLeaks revealed that Google co-founder Eric Schmidt had expressed interest in acting as an outside adviser to Team Clinton, while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was “hungry to learn” about politics from Clinton’s inner circle, according to emails between Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Clinton’s campaign also considered Apple’s Tim Cook and both Bill and Melinda Gates as possible vice president picks.
But Trump — who reportedly does not use a computer and is generally tech-phobic—also benefited from his immensely powerful Silicon Valley friends. Peter Thiel supported Donald Trump even before speaking at the Republican National Convention in July. At a National Press Club event last month, he succinctly captured the disconnect between the media and the voters. “The media always is taking Trump literally,” he said, adding, “I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously, but not literally.”
It wasn’t just Thiel. In September, The Daily Beast unearthed the fact that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was funding a group dedicated to online “shitposting” of Hillary Clinton through meme warfare. Less widely recognized is the technological influence of billionaire Robert Mercer, a major financial backer of Trump and co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. While at IBM in the 1970s and ’80s, Mercer pioneered the use of big data in natural language processing — a transformational idea that garnered him a 2014 lifetime achievement award from the Association of Computational Linguistics.
“Until just a few years ago, the perspective in Silicon Valley was to have nothing to do with Washington,” tech entrepreneur Ben Casnocha told FiveThirtyEight. “It’s only in the last few years that tech companies have really established a significant lobbying presence in Washington.”
Speaking of WikiLeaks, can someone teach John Podesta what spear-phishing is? Perhaps the biggest, juiciest, and scariest element of this year’s presidential campaign was the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and of Podesta. Among the thousands of hacked emails, disseminated widely by WikiLeaks were messages that seemed to suggest the DNC was working against Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
In October, the New York Times reported that Russia was behind not only the hack of the DNC, but also the hack of Podesta’s email account, a caper executed by sending Podesta a seemingly authentic email asking for his Gmail account information. The email was actually a way to infect his computer with malware and then scoop his emails. As news of these hacks came out, Trump’s campaign denied having any contact with the Russian government, although Russia’s deputy foreign minister told a state-run news agency after the election that Moscow did have “contacts” with Team Trump.
As the final weeks of the campaign passed, Trump repeatedly seized on information exposed by WikiLeaks to prop up his verbal attacks against Clinton. Though previously secret information about Trump made its way to the news cycle as well—see his comments, revealed in an old “Access Hollywood” tape, about making moves on married women—he wasn’t targeted by WikiLeaks in the same way. According to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the group received no information, hacked or shared otherwise, to release about Trump or his campaign. (There’s now a Change.org petition calling on Trump to pardon Assange.)
Future campaigns would do well to — at the very least! — consider email encryption or other cybersecurity measures to prevent their own fiascos. Or they might try a time-tested technology to keep their conversations from going public: the telephone.
Staffers working for Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary were amazed when they managed to draw 381 supporters to the candidate’s first official campaign event in Oklahoma only three days after telling people about it. Days later, 338 people showed up to an event in Tulsa. Sanders, who ultimately lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton, won Oklahoma by 10 points. To rally the troops in Oklahoma, campaign staffers turned to the same tool they had been using since the Iowa caucuses: Hustle. The app allowed them to send up to 50 text messages per minute and put them in touch with 8,000 people in-state in just the first weekend.
Originally created to help advocacy organizations and nonprofits build relationships with donors, Hustle fit in naturally with a political campaign. Data the startup compiled on how the app helped Sanders’ campaign showed that texts from staffers received a response 30 percent of the time, versus 10 percent of the time for phone calls. According to CEO and co-founder Roddy Lindsay, senators and governors seeking re-election in 2018 are already talking to Hustle about how they can use the app to reach voters. “We have to find new ways of reaching people where they are, and for most of us in 2016, where we are is mobile,” he says.
Trump’s campaign also made use of text messages. At his rallies, signs bearing his name invited supporters to “Text TRUMP to 88022.” Just one problem: In April, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the campaign alleging it had violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act by sending text messages to people without their consent. Now the Department of Justice is deciding whether to wade into the controversy. Trump’s campaign might soon find itself in a place with which the new president-elect is quite familiar: the courtroom.