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Technology, Meet Public Policy

In the digital age, information travels between devices of different sizes faster than we can possibly comprehend or know what to do with. Marketers use big data to advance the objectives of their current company, but that’s not where the buck stops.

How, exactly, do technology and public policy affect each other? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t black and white.

The 2016 election was unlike any other in history. The election saw the most digitally connected, opinionated, and contentious political and social landscapes most of us can remember. How each person remembers it, however, will surely differ.

Technology Brings People Together

Because of the Internet, the world is getting smaller. It is no longer an anomaly for someone on the west coast of the United States to have acquaintances in Japan or Australia. In this age of the smartphone, the world is, quite literally, at your fingertips.

Figure 1. Map of Nevada.

Because of technology, it’s easier than ever to connect with one another. A person who lives in Las Vegas, NV, can easily send a Facebook private message to someone in Reno, NV, (see Figure 1) about a political campaign that affects the whole state. In real time, those two individuals—and, simultaneously, many others—can exchange information, ideas, and values with each other. Though that may sometimes include arguing, the channels of communication are nonetheless wide open.

Opening the floodgates of communication has affected how we think about elections. Candidates and incumbent politicians alike have been forced to rethink their marketing and campaign strategies to both reach and attract voters.

Among the voter base candidates pursue lives the millennials, the largest generation alive. Thanks to social media, millennials have friends throughout the world, many of whom seemingly thirst for change. Millennials have had to grow up or establish themselves in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. They’ve seen politicians who claim to care about them crumble in the face of partisan politics or scandal. In many regards, there is a solidarity among millennials who feel the need to “change everything.” They want to fix what’s broken, and improve the world they live in with regard to social issues.

Tens of thousands of millennials in the United States were involved in the 2016 political cycle in varying ways and roles. The number of millennials who gave their time and energy during the election cycle was unprecedented, thanks in large part to social media. By uniting the largest generation in the current era through technology, it became clear to both lawmakers and potential lawmakers at all levels of government that millennials were—and are—a force to be reckoned with. They’re young, have opinions, are willing to organize and turn out for something they believe in, and are full of ideas and potential.

Technology has become an indispensable tool for recruitment for political campaigns and incumbents alike. Platforms like Facebook allow campaign managers and their associates to get in touch with people faster than ever, expediting and facilitating communication. Technology has changed much of how political networking and social circles are brought together. Online communities of the like-minded are rapidly built through visible friend connections, and having a central gather place to discuss policies, ideas, news reports, etc., is typically appreciated by everyone involved.

Technology (Literally) Drives Innovation and Policy

In the areas of the country where rideshare companies like Lyft (see Figure 2) and Uber have been around the longest, they are taken for granted. The story was written very differently in the state of Nevada.

View of dashboard with a smartphone showing a route
Figure 2. Dashboard of a Lyft car with the (now-discontinued) pink mustache logo.

In Las Vegas, the taxi industry has long held a monopoly on how locals and tourists navigate the city streets when they choose not to drive. With the introduction of Lyft (who lobbied longer than Uber so technically was “there” first), debates within the Nevada legislature were anything but limited and calm. Although the taxi industry was unwilling to release its hold on the local market, local residents wanted a new way to get around that was more convenient, cheaper, and a better overall experience.

Social media technology helped spread the word about the rideshare issue and proposed legislation throughout Las Vegas and the entire state. Though it was a long and difficult fight lasting more than a year, innovation prevailed, and in the second half of 2015, Lyft and Uber were given the green light to operate within Nevada. Today, there are currently more Lyft and Uber drivers carrying passengers than taxi cabs.

Technology Changes Outreach

Smartphone technology in the form of apps has propelled campaigns forward. One example,, lets political campaigns get in touch with voters in a very personal manner, through their phone.

Using Hustle, a single campaign volunteer can send 16 personalized text messages to potential supporters in the same time it would take to make one single phone call. This helps campaign managers increase their interactions with a far greater number of potential voters, engaging them multiple times on any number of hot-button issues or donation requests with far greater immediacy.

According to Hustle’s website, text messaging is such an effective means of communication that campaigns using it can see a response rate three times higher than with other methods.

Technology Keeps Tabs on Elected Officials

When individuals are outspoken on specific issues, technology gives them a platform to express their own views. That works in the political arena as well.

For instance, even people who don’t belong to a political party can speak up on issues they feel passionate about. Features such as Facebook Live allow anyone to speak publicly, on video, in real time. Their viewers can comment and react, spreading the message by sharing it to their friends. Then their friends can share with their friends. You get the picture…it can spread rapidly.

Once Twitter accounts for office holders became de rigueur, it quickly upped the atmosphere of accountability. In the world of digital communications, once it’s out there, it’s out there. State and local legislators alike quickly realized they’re not as inconspicuous as they might sometimes perceive. Word spreads quickly, retweets of gaffs or controversial statements skyrocket, and with the right people mobilizing others, a legislator’s voicemail and inboxes can easily fill to capacity.

In addition, the recent rise in grassroots activism in the US has been driven in large part by successful social media campaigns charging constituents to hold their representatives accountable for key policy votes. Online reminders to call and email legislators and make their voices heard have galvanized voters across the country.

The Future Forward

It is a safe bet—and some would argue a guarantee—that technology will continue to play an integral role in future political cycles. From how candidates are selected and screened, to how campaigns push their respective candidate to victory, nothing is off limits. Technology has already changed how we meet and interact with other people. It has removed the barriers of time and space, issues which, not very long ago, would have been inhibitory. Technology has helped bring people together, driven innovation forward, allowed people to keep tabs on their elected officials, and changed how outreach is performed. There’s no telling what its next target will be, but watching how technology shapes the future is sure to be exciting.

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