The arrival of President Trump in the White House marks a new and potentially ominous phase in the evolution of digital government, one reflective of Mr. Trump and an emerging world order that may be less open and less democratic. Along with consequences for the United States, there are wider implications for the world.
It is worth reflecting on the evolution of digital technologies in recent American presidential campaigns. Howard Dean’s unsuccessful campaign to become the Democratic nominee in 2004 was nonetheless notable for its innovative use of new communication technologies to reach grassroots. The lessons were not lost on Barack Obama, whose team made even more aggressive use of technology in 2008 in his challenge to the candidate favoured by much of the Democratic Party incumbency, Hillary Clinton.
In 2012, as Don Tapscott has noted, the digital emphasis of President Obama’s campaign shifted from “we need you” to “we know you” as big data analytics underpinned a micro-targeting effort in critical swing states. In parallel, devastating television ads effectively portrayed Republican Mitt Romney as a heartless investment banker, underscoring the fact that the divisiveness of traditional media could be greatly enhanced online.
In 2016, digital technologies played vital roles in shaping the outcome of the election. The first and most obvious was in pitting Hillary Clinton in a struggle with the FBI over her emailing habits when she was Secretary of State. Donald Trump took full advantage of the controversy to undermine her campaign, using Twitter to endlessly remind voters that Clinton’s motivations in using her own email system were nothing if not suspicious and deserving of a jail sentence.
Though it is unlikely that President Trump will follow through on his threated prosecution of Clinton, the email scandal resonated, as exit polls confirmed. The issue further tainted the Clinton brand in a year where bringing change to Washington proved to be the most coveted mantle. In short, technology worked against the Clinton campaign again, just as it did in 2008.
The second shining moment for digital technology in this election was the emergence of Trump as “Tweeter-in-Chief.” His handling of social media proved key in his hijacking of Republican primaries. Trump’s success was made with little of the traditional “political ground game” that depends on local mobilization of supporters by word-of-mouth. Instead, inflammatory antics and often questionable assertions, many delivered in the Twittersphere, created a vortex of attention and awareness that transcended all other forms of media.
What emerged is a new form of political discourse, one where assertions become truth before evidence can be mounted in support or to refute. (“Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. It defines the new adjective as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”)
Along with Twitter, caught in the crosshairs of the election has been Facebook, accused of being a venue for misinformation and fake news and an inadvertent enabler of Trump’s rise to prominence. Back in April, Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton wrote a story entitled, “How Silicon Valley Created Donald Trump.” The piece reported that some Facebook employees had even gone as far as asking founder Mark Zuckerberg whether the company had a responsibility to try to stop him.
Within weeks of the election, Zuckerberg announced it would launch initiatives to stem the flow of falsehoods and to bring more transparency to news sourcing and quality. Such steps amount to a partial retreat for the Facebook CEO who has long claimed that his company was not a media entity but rather a platform for openness and sharing (and thus agnostic to content and the responsibilities of curation).
Others, however, have argued that Facebook and other social media companies are the real winners of an election that upended traditional journalism and their pollster cousins. In an insightful piece in WIRED Magazine (11/15/16), Issie Lapowsky writes: “Social media was Trump’s primary communication channel. It wasn’t a platform for broadcasting pre-planned messages but for interacting with supporters and starting new conversations—however controversial those conversations often were.” She quotes a Clinton operative on the importance of an “earned media strategy”, primarily through social, that will now define politics.
Beyond social media, there is big data and its role in public safety and in shaping the fluid balance between privacy and security. For candidate Trump, however, there would be no ambiguity as he called for a public boycott of Apple when the company refused to assist the FBI in cracking the encryption of its flagship, iPhone. Separately, Trump added: “We’re going to get Apple to build their damn computers and things in this country instead of in other countries.”
Such comments underscore the heightened chasm that between Silicon Valley and Donald Trump’s Washington D.C. This chasm threatens to undo or at least recast many of the White House initiatives aimed at improving government operations through digital reforms and the importation of staff from technology companies (Obama’s so-called stealth team of tech activists brought into the executive branch).
More fundamentally, Trump’s emphasis on social messaging, border security and public safety denotes a major departure from the principles of openness and engagement sought, admittedly with mixed success, by the Obama Administration. The aforementioned OGP, therefore, may well become little more than quaint recognition of a mainly aspirational notion of Gov 2.0, namely more transparent and participatory governance. The new face of digital government is likely to become more inward, centralized, and control-minded, not only in the US but perhaps especially in those countries where democracy is most fragile.
If the Arab Spring personified the global hopes for an Obama Presidency as a catalyst for both positive technological and democratic change, today’s Middle East is a starkly different reality. Egypt is firmly under military rule, Syria lies in ruins, and Turkey is in full blown democratic retreat, led by an autocrat who has routinely sought to contain social media. It is impossible today to imagine Turkey as a onetime aspirant to the European Union. The EU, now facing an existential crisis in the wake of the Brexit vote, was dubbed “the first casualty of digital democracy” by Dhruva Jaishankar of the Brookings Institute.
As Turkey and Russia grow closer, moreover, there is much speculation that autocratic leanings may enjoin the leaders of these countries and President Trump in a new global compact predicated upon anti-terrorism. Russia is already a hotbed of online surveillance both domestically and abroad, and it recently suspended LinkedIn’s operations over its data sharing and storage practices. China, meanwhile, is reportedly seeking to leverage big data as the basis of a social credit system for all citizens and companies based upon worthy behaviour.
These shifting American and global contours of digital governance will undoubtedly impact Canada in important ways. Four groups are especially important in determining the sorts of impacts to be felt domestically: political parties, technology companies, the media sector, and the citizenry.
For political parties, comparisons and reactions to Trump are inevitable, perhaps most especially within Conservative ranks. For technology companies, strained relations between Silicon Valley and President Trump are bound to shape industry-government relations in this country, complicating Liberal Government efforts to extend political oversight to security agencies and ensure privacy protections for Canadians.
In the evolving media landscape, Canadians are mainly bystanders to the decisions of social media companies based south of the border, but wider and more complex discussions present themselves in terms of the coverage and reporting of political discourse in this country. Here too, Trump’s relations with traditional media and usage of new media will shape our own collective capacities for both thoughtful deliberation and divisive theatrics. Despite campaign and mandate letter calls for a new political culture, the Trudeau Government’s democratic reform efforts have thus far been largely muted by traditional photo ops and partisan fundraisers.
Finally, then, there is the citizenry, wearing many hats as voters, activists, and consumers. Much as the financial crisis of 2008 propelled the Brexit vote and the likes of Sanders and Trump, much invariably depends on the performance of a global economy facing renewed uncertainty. Beyond the economy, however, citizens must also and always decide on what sort of society is most valued and how collective determinations are made.
At a November Press Conference in Germany, just days after welcoming his successor to the White House, President Obama expressed optimism in the future due especially to the emergence of an educated, outward and tolerant millennial generation. Yet he also cautioned them to never take democratic freedoms and their current way of life for granted.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public
Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).