During every Presidential election cycle there is a reference to the importance of an emerging technology. Whether it was radio in 1925, television in 1960 or the internet in 1996 or 2000. And today it’s no different thanks to things like social media and mobile devices. But what are some of the emerging trends helping to galvanize voters through technologies like virtual reality, hyper-targeted ads and search data? These are some of the ways that the media, political parties and others are experimenting to elevate voter engagement and interest.
I’ve had the opportunity to cover the elections from a technological standpoint since 2000 when websites were shiny, online polls were new and email lists were the coin of the realm. I also covered the election in 2004 when e-voting machines were increasingly implemented across the nation – often with much hand-wringing by computer security experts. And I covered the events in 2008 when President Obama and John McCain battled it out on social media (we know how that turned out).
Today, we – as voters and media – also have a much greater opportunity to dive into data that helps illuminate voter interest (if not entirely voter sentiment). With Google Trends, which offers anonymized, aggregated data on what people are searching for going back to 2004, we can share everything from search interest around a candidate down to a county or city level, the types of top questions that people are asking about issues and people (e.g. spikes around “how to move to canada” or “what was in hillary’s email?”) and when search interest spikes during live events like debates or candidate forums. And of course there are numerous examples of social media and through YouTube where technology is both a boon and a blunder.
The ultimate goal for technology should be to help inform and educate an interested public and further engagement in the political process. It can also provide fascinating insights into what resonates on the campaign trail and how the media use it to better reach their audiences. I’ve had the opportunity to see it from the sides of both journalism and tech and over an important period in the development of our nation’s digital history. There are some other technologies on the horizon – like virtual reality – that can also give glimpses into what might be next.
For now, suffice it to say, voters are more connected – and sometimes overwhelmed – through technology than ever before. So what are the strategies that work and what have we learned? If history is any indication, both sides of the aisle still have a lot to learn and hopefully the electorate is the ultimate beneficiary.