Last week, Esquire published the most comprehensive inside account to date of last year’s US election night. Few of us expected the result on the 8th November 2016, and the tears and jubilation experienced by opposing sides of a brutal election were recalled vividly in the report.
Since that night, we seem to have been on a whirlwind ride of uncertainty. American democracy has stood the test of time admirably, but now many are wondering if it is creaking under the weight of new pressures.
One of the defining characteristics of our world today is the pace of technological change. Perhaps the most pertinent example of this is the increasing reliance on, and scope of, social media. Given the rate at which these platforms have advanced, they have also quickly engulfed our political debate. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become tactical combat zones, with millions of dollars and hours invested in cultivating social media strategies for politicians that will deliver critical campaign advantages.
In 2008, when Obama was running for office, Facebook had less than 100 million monthly active users. It now has more than two billion. Within the lifetime of a presidency, these technology behemoths have experienced growth on a grand scale, and it’s no wonder our institutions have struggled to adapt.
The concerted efforts of the Russian state to use Facebook to destabilise elections may have taken us by surprise, and we have since asked serious questions of social media and its vulnerability to foreign interference.
However, was the US election truly characterised by Russian meddling online, or by social media more generally? Donald Trump had more followers, more interactions, more likes, shares and retweets across all social media platforms than his rival. Clinton may have won the popular vote, but the clearest indicator as to who would win the election in the key battleground states was not to be found in opinion polls, but social media.
So what will the next four years bring? What is the next evolution? Imagine in early November 2020, the celebrations have just begun at a billionaire’s victory party. But this time Esquire is documenting Mark Zuckerberg taking the concession phone-call from a dejected Donald Trump.
Zuckerberg clearly hasn’t ruled it out just yet. At the turn of the year, just after Trump was elected, he announced a 30-state US tour, which he has just completed. His tour has involved its fair share of campaigning politician cringe-worthiness, and his 98 million followers on Facebook have been taken with him every step of the way.
This ‘campaign’ has naturally led to speculation that Zuckerberg will run in 2020 and this talk only heightened when it was announced that Obama’s former campaign manager, David Plouffe, and pollster, Joel Benenson, were to join the philanthropic organisation that Zuckerberg set up with his wife.
Of course, if he did run, Zuckerberg would do so on a policy platform vastly different from Donald Trump’s. But it cannot be denied that in terms of his already considerable wealth, influence and power, he is in a sense Trump 2.0. Zuckerberg has five times as many followers on Facebook and 25 times the wealth of the current president.
Added to this considerable personal power, Facebook is a company that has in the past admitted using a trial on its platform to influence the emotions of nearly 700,000 users. Academics released a study this week documenting how just one ‘like’ on Facebook can target adverts to a person’s feed. Finally, there are rumours that the Facebook app uses a mobile’s microphone to listen into conversations and target appropriate content (something Facebook has strenuously denied).
Regardless, Facebook has an unparalleled ability to reach and influence voters on a mass scale. A Zuckerberg presidential campaign would only exacerbate these tensions further. If we think that we have a constitutional crisis in the United States at the moment, it could be dwarfed were we to see a tilt at the White House by the tech industry’s biggest name.
Silicon Valley has long resisted attempts at regulation by central government, arguing that it undermines its ability to promote freedom of speech and expression. Russian interference in our elections may just be the start of the battle between our political institutions and the social media networks that define our modern societies. How we disentangle the ethical, cultural and societal debates that arise from their relationship could be the most important policy consideration of our time.