In their opinion piece, “How Your Phone Betrays Democracy”, on The New York Times, Charlie Warzel and Stuart Thompson examine how our extensive use of technology can threaten our country’s democratic values.
With the continuous developments in technology, the days of paperboys and newspapers are long gone. Instead, we can get our news instantly with the push of the television remote or the refreshing of a webpage. The internet is a platform of quick communication, and over the course of the last decade we have seen the increasing presence of politics online. It’s the most efficient way for politicians to reach the most people at one time. When we think of digital politics, we may think of Twitter rants, televised debates, and campaign commercials. We think of how easy it is for us to access information on candidates and their goals. What we neglect to consider is how easy it is for these politicians to access us.
Warzel and Thompson primarily discuss how the constant tracking of individuals through cell phones can threaten privacy amongst activist groups. Privacy is one of the democratic values that we hold according to The Constitution and the norms of civil society. They explain that cell phones are constantly pinging our location, meaning anyone in attendance at a protest or demonstration can be tracked. Every individual can be identified, and their data logged. This includes where they live, where they work, and who they spend time with. This is information that composes a person’s identity, and it may be information that they do not personally choose to present online. Further, it isn’t even just our location that is being tracked. When we go online, we leave “cookies” on every website we visit or app we use. There are little ethics or rules when it comes to tech companies selling user information for profit.
This constant surveillance is a threat against democracy because it discourages democratic participation. Robert Dahl, in his book Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, identifies a healthy democracy as having high levels of contestation and inclusivity. This suggests a society where people can be active in politics by subscribing to interest groups, voicing their preferences, and following political parties. People should be able to do so without fear of retaliation. Instead, this perceived threat of the groups or hackers getting ahold of your information is enough to deter people from participating in political demonstrations. This decreases inclusivity. In turn, when people are less likely to share their opinions, we lose contestation. There is no sharing of ideas and debates between people who have different preferences.
I believe the degradation of democracy is caused by more than just the tracking of our cell phones and the idea that anyone can gain access to that information. It isn’t just a perceived, future threat that is preventing people from being active in politics. It is actually happening. Unbeknownst to most individuals, their data has already been bought and collected by political parties for use in micro-targeting and voter persuasion. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s campaign committee used this method of “geo-fencing” to find citizens who regularly attended church. His direct, targeted appeal to the citizens he identified as conservative leaning allowed him to gain an advantage over Hillary Clinton. Following his success, both the Republican and Democratic parties have already invested in location data for the 2020 election.
This new aspect to campaigning is very effective. In her book concerning a case study in Wisconsin, Katherine Cramer reveals the strong ties between social identity and voting trends. When people heavily associate themselves with a specific group based on race, religion, or gender, they tend to vote collectively based on their similar identification, as opposed to voting for the most logical option. Voters prefer candidates that they feel really relate to them. By utilizing our digital footprint and app usage as a means to categorize us, political campaigns can ID tag us and push specific advertisements our way. This is where the danger lies.
The upcoming voting generation, Gen Z, is the first generation to have access to the internet and advanced technology for almost their entire lives. This creates a trade-off between the benefits and drawbacks of such long and broad use of technology. For example, the internet does provide today’s voters with a “shortcut” to politics. In Lupia’s article analyzing voting behavior in California insurance reform elections, he compares the voting patterns of “shortcutters” and “encyclopedias”. He found that within the followers of a political party, those who gain information and vote based on ads or quick facts typically vote the same as those who do extensive research. In this case, the internet saves us the expense of time while still producing the same result. However, the trade-off is that frequent use of the internet allows more data to be collected on us. A younger voter’s entire identity is essentially displayed online through social media. Lupia noted that the internet is very distracting, and some shortcuts can be biased more towards one political party. Political committees can build a more precise profile of individual using the increased amount of available information. As a result, we can be exposed to hundreds of more persuasive and targeted ads every day. When voters unknowingly use these targeted messages as shortcuts for voting, then politicians have successfully used our own private information against us in order to sway our vote. This biased and emotional voting is not rational and threatens democracy because it is not an accurate representation of the people.
The violation and manipulation of our private information is the biggest threat to democracy. This digital campaign method directly threatens our right to privacy that is guaranteed by the fourth amendment. Some have made the appeal that accessing our cell phone records and data collection is an example of unlawful search and seizure. In a 2018 Supreme Court case, the judge ruled in favor of privacy decisions and prohibited police from acquiring people’s location data without a warrant. However, this ruling was done so in a criminal justice context. Accessing our data only qualifies as a “search” if they are actively looking into your records for a criminal investigation. This means that our privacy is really not that protected, since politicians are not investigating you for a crime and can still obtain location data through third-party commercial service providers.
In How Democracies Die, Levistky and Ziblatt describe the constitution as the written rules of the game and our courts as the referees. Even though our referees ruled that politicians are not directly cheating the rules of the game, their scouting methods are frowned upon because it provides them with an unfair advantage. They use unethical methods to target and sway voters. Bermeo, in her article “On Democratic Backsliding”, cites the disruption of civil society and manipulation of elections as a cause of democratic erosion. I would argue that this qualifies as a form of manipulation because politicians are indirectly using voter’s private information against them in order to get votes. Though it is not as distinct and noticeable as the gerrymandering that Bermeo describes, “geo-fencing” still has a large effect on voting behaviors and election outcomes. If this attack on our privacy and liberty continues to go unchecked, the United States of America could lose all respect for our civil rights and democratic values, meaning ongoing degradation of our democratic system. More privacy online is equivalent to more democracy offline.