2016: A hard lesson in technology’s influence on politics

                          Just a few years ago polls were more reliable pollster obama wins“ (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Randy Stewart

Anyone cognizant of current events in 2016 will know that it will remain a memorable year for decades to come. It saw the death of many beloved celebrities like musicians Prince and David Bowie, mother and daughter actors Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder and countless others—may they all rest in peace. But despite the great losses the entertainment industry sustained, perhaps the most shocking events of the year were in the political arena.


In the United Kingdom voters chose to leave the European Union and in the United States voters elected Donald Trump as president. Not only will these results be remembered for the passions they created across all demographics in both countries, but they will definitely not soon be forgotten for the simple fact that—regardless of where one’s loyalties lie—nearly everyone got the predictions wrong. Brexit was thought to be rejected by the British public and other than his supporters it seems few thought Trump would become the successor to President Barack Obama. 

What many will take away from the politics of 2016, the politics itself notwithstanding, is how wrong everyone predicted the results. This led, as none would be surprised, to pause and even some introspection as to how we process and consume data, especially such important information such as the mood of an entire country. 

As ever, technology had a major impact on voters and, as all too frequently, the impacts weren’t taken into serious consideration by the majority of the people until it became abundantly clear that we were doing something wrong. 


Simply by being a resident of a place, one has an interest in the outcome of elections and polls are there to inform and perhaps even guide politicians. And not only are polls a tool for politicians but also they inform the average citizen what the rest of her country is thinking, maybe leading to more personal political involvement to influence results. 


Industry too can be reliant on polls in a less direct way of being affected by a politician’s policies or in the direct way of people places betting on the outcomes.With bookmakers setting odds on elections such as the imminent UK general election though, it seems we’re still some ways off from fully understanding the electorate en masse.


It’s too derivative to claim there’s a singular culprit to blame for our apparently sudden inability to gage with any accuracy the prevalent feelings and beliefs found in various electorates. We do know with certainty however that technology has played a big role, perhaps the biggest, in morphing the political landscape. 


Social media is perhaps one of the most prominent and important issues considering its ubiquity. Self-described “fact tank” and powerhouse in the world of policy development, the Pew Research Center of Washington, DC, found that most people said their interactions on social media for much of 2016 was dominated to the point of frustration by political discourse. It’s been postulated that this voter fatigue and utter exhaustion at the media cycles being dominated by little more than political campaigning is one of the possible factors that has contributed to the rise of the popularity of anti-establishment politicians and ideas.


Beyond the meta of politics, it was also the specifics of what politics people saw on their preferred social medium that influenced the political climate of 2016 and the polls. Supporters of Brexit could click away anything Remain if it annoyed them and Clinton supporters could tell Facebook not to show them stories that featured Trump.


This created closed networks of communication that meant dialog between political views were non-existent because so many people were simply refusing to engage with people whose opinions dissented from their own.


It wasn’t just that social media influenced the way people felt and subsequently voted, but the technology we use daily has had a dramatic influence on the polling industry. The Atlantic suggests that cell phones helped muddle the polling figures in the US elections by skewing the results of phone surveys.


When still ubiquitous, landlines were owned and answered by everyone who had a phone. Nowadays with many people having only a cell phone, fewer and fewer demographics are being represented when surveys are conducted in the traditional manner. 


Regardless of how one feels by the results of such great political upheaval in 2016, we can all agree on the lessons we learned. As technology continues to change our lives, we need to develop the tools needed to allow us to measure and trace those changes and replace the increasingly obsolete methods of checking the public’s mood.

Going by polls alone these Trump supporters would have expected disappointment on election day.

Source: ‘Trump supporters in front of Trump Tower’ by Marco Verch via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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