There was a time in American politics when nominees would be chided for overtly asking for a vote. The appropriate manner to drum up support was to empower local supporters to serve as the candidates’ mouthpieces, or to sanction stump speeches by one of their proxies. Whether those or other strategies were in play, it was effectively taboo to self-tout and actually ask voters for support if your name was on the ballot.
Of course, much has changed in election culture throughout the history of these United States. The first presidential election wasn’t even cluttered with a choice of parties. Within ten years of Washington’s non-partisan presidency, that singular and centralized approach to democratically elected politicians would be history. His second term’s election brought in the tone of party politics, or at least a philosophically split political aura when Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians saw the office and American politics quite differently. The real divisions bubbled up in earnest as Whigs, Democrats, Federalists and other factions became defined and competitive in early 19th century election cycles.
Party politics has clearly morphed through the centuries. Many other factors developed into the process we endure every couple years. As nominees “approve of this message” (by the way, you don’t need to tell us), it’s those messages and their media that so heavily influence elections. Soon after parties split both voters and candidates into silos of positions and fundamentals—sometimes shared to be fair—media followed suit. Partisan newspapers began taking sides and advocating, or bashing, nominees. By the time Lincoln’s election occurred, the power of the press was evident. Political cartoons brought levity into the mix, and also provided accessible knowledge and opinions to voters’ homes and workplaces where election discourse was active and still quaintly polite, mostly.
Other media, such as radio and film, gained effectiveness in the political arena almost as quickly as they gained popularity in American culture. One of the bellwethers of our modern experience as voters who became compelled to consume all this messaging was the Kennedy-Nixon debate broadcasted on television in September of 1960. From that point, and surely having begun earlier in the TV era with less pizazz and effect, no campaigner who would win their office could escape the power of the tube. By the way, isn’t it time to expel debates from the process? What modern day president, or office holder of any stripe, woke up today all stressed out about her very busy agenda that includes a staged argument? It’s an odd trait to test before an election, I might digress to mention.
In October, plus or minus a couple weeks for some, during every election year TV programming cuts off all the local furniture magnates’ quirky ads. “Hammering” lawyers are relegated to overnight spots. Wild Bill’s Deals on Wheels commercials take a backseat. It seems like every advertiser that you’re used to, assuming you are still succumbing to TV ads having not yet cut the cord, gets supplanted by the mud-slinging PACs and their cherry-picked, likely misleading, definitely malicious commercials. Again, each one being dutifully approved by its candidate.
This historical continuum of external influences, from surrogate speakers easing the impoliteness of actually asking for votes to the power of television and other media, must culminate in our current environment with that all powerful medium of the Information Superhighway. The internet has, by far, taken over all the other channels of information about our candidate pool and their stated positions.
The internet’s taken over in all sorts of modern living both for good and bad. I surely wasn’t around for the advent of radio or TV, but I must presume that there were fair numbers of the American public that were wary of those media. Evidently, they persevered by virtue of the overwhelming positiveness that even more people perceived. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of American political advertising and media pollution, including the internet.
From here, I might go into the internet’s social networking facet vis-à-vis election season. Since, at least, the 2016 general election that component of the endless system of political banter online has been a known force. As artificial intelligence, Twitter bots, and machine learning have advanced so far since then, we all know too well to be on guard whenever our Insta, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest push political messaging into our lives. I hope we know to be wary. You are, right? Let me go darker, still, though. Social networks aren’t half the possible problem, though they’re entwined in it.
Let’s acknowledge that the worst of the worst political action during the season begins online, and comes in the form, known or even worse unknown, of hacking efforts. I am not asking you to buy into the too simple trope of conspiratorial, straight up vote stealing by some clandestine hacking organization. Elections have not yet been directly hacked.
Hackers, nonetheless, are very active. In so-called battleground states, such as Arizona and Pennsylvania, county election officials are being bombarded with phishing scams. Thousands of malicious emails have been their burden to bear since the primaries.
In a recently published government advisory that was sent to state and local election offices, a stark warning about China’s intent to illegally influence the November races whenever a candidate is a known adversary to China’s business or politics. Russia, busy as the Kremlin seems to be, also unsurprisingly has amped up its misinformation campaigns. The federal government, at the same time, is trying to reassert voters’ confidence. Its published statements that the voting process has not been impacted, and that despite the well-funded state-sponsored hacking efforts, no votes cast by registered voters have ever been compromised.
During the next couple weeks, the internet’s sway will grow. Be wary, but confident.
Ed Zuger is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at email@example.com.