ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY IN POLITICS

Introduction

It is clear that our advancement in technology brings something new and unprecedented. Every new invention means a new choice that is offered to us and every new choice brings politics with it. So, politics is in every decision we make and every bit of our lives, starting from your birth certificate to your voting ballot, from the tax you pay to your marriage license, there is politics, even though we may not consider ourselves to be involved in politics. Therefore, considering both technology and politics are getting more and more important by the day, these two must coincide at some point. This is a very current topic and it has not been worked very much on before so, there are many things to explore in my research. In this sense, my topic is a trending topic among the scholars nowadays, it is a newly discovered gold mine for us to dig. Our question is: To what extent technology and specifically AI impacts the traditional perception of politics and is technology making our democracies stronger or weaker? We will examine the impacts of technological advancement in politics under 3 main points:

  • Freedom and Privacy
  • Economic Decentralization
  • Elections and Voting

We will see that technology is a serious threat to people’s rights and freedoms, but it is also a threat to the existence of the states as well. Technology is a very powerful weapon that can be used to suppress and change people’s ideas, and to surveil people, but this weapon is not only used by the governments, ordinary people can master technology and use it against the rule of the state. We see that people began to free themselves from central governments’ control by switching their wealth to cryptocurrencies. This transition indicates political freedom as well because the economy and politics are inseparable. Finally, AI and technology directly impact our elections and people’s voting behavior. Our clicks, views, and likes are analyzed to determine our stance on political issues. By determining this, campaigns focus their propaganda on a narrower range of voters than they used to before the age of the internet. In this research, we will not be viewing facts from a techno-optimist or from a techno-pessimist perspective, but rather have a realistic approach that relies on liberal values.

1. Surveillance: Facial Recognition, Democracy, and Tech Empires

Facial Recognition and Citizen Surveillance

Holding the power of data and surveillance makes states way more powerful than they ever were. Violation of citizens’ privacy and freedom might happen even without them knowing it is happening. This kind of accumulated power creates a Leviathan like the image of states. States are now able to control and monitor their citizen thanks to smart cities and AI cameras. But how does it work? “Surveillance systems that include video analytics analyze video footage in real-time and detect abnormal activities that could pose a threat to an organization’s security.

Essentially, video analytics technology helps security software “learn” what is normal so it can identify unusually and potentially harmful, behavior that a human alone may miss.” (Saptharishi, 2) So the surveillance system is taught what is normal, unharmful behavior, and what is a threat. And then AI simply learns to watch over citizens and inform the authorities whenever it spots a “criminal”. Although this technology is very beneficial for catching the actual criminals, it can be easily used for different purposes such as to track the location of people, or even their daily activities, where they visit, whom they meet, and how often. This private data can be used for various purposes by governments. You might think that you and your privacy is safe because you think your government is not using AI surveillance, but this might not be the real case. Feldstein, in his The Global Expansion of AI Surveillance, illustrates this situation when he says “AI surveillance technology is spreading at a faster rate to a wider range of countries than experts have commonly understood. At least seventy-five out of 176 countries globally are actively using AI technologies for surveillance purposes. This includes smart city/safe city platforms (fifty-six countries), facial recognition systems (sixty-four countries), and smart policing (fifty-two countries).” (Feldstein, 2)

As is seen in figure 1, more than 50% of the nations in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa are adopting AI surveillance according to Feldstein’s report.

Democracy

Evidence shows that not only illiberal regimes but also liberal Western democracies are using surveillance technology to monitor their citizens. In countries such as the United States and France, where there were revolutions occurred for freedom’s sake, there are now cameras around all corners monitoring the citizens. “Liberal democracies are major users of AI surveillance. The index shows that 51 percent of advanced democracies deploy AI surveillance systems. In contrast, 37 percent of closed autocratic states, 41 percent of electoral autocratic/competitive autocratic states, and 41 percent of electoral democracies/illiberal democracies deploy AI surveillance technology.” (Feldstein, 7) As it can be concluded by the evidence, advanced democracies tend to use AI surveillance systems more than illiberal or autocratic regimes. This situation might bring further problems in liberal democracies, since freedom and privacy have always been important values, and political institutions were challenged, or even overthrown for violations of such values.

Tech Empires                                        

Technology-producing companies now have more influence than they ever had. They can reveal top-secret state matters, private files of the citizens, or data that can change the course of elections and political decisions. These tech giants are more powerful than most states and intelligence agencies in terms of holding the power of data. But what is more concerning is when these surveillance companies are controlled/owned or heavily influenced by states. For instance, although Huawei is owned by the labor union of the company, it is claimed by the Huawei official Mr. Jiang that the union has no control whatsoever over how the company’s business operations are conducted. (Zhong, 2) As long as these kinds of inconsistent announcements are made, it seems like the concerns about Huawei will be in our minds.

2. Decentralization: Economy and Blockchain

Cryptocurrencies 

We have seen that as a result of suppression from the state, people tend to escape from centralization and form their own smaller communities in which they maintain a lifestyle. This natural reaction occurs faster as states pus more effort into monitoring their citizens. Blockchain is nothing but a reflection of this reaction in the economy. As Comben states “Politics and cryptocurrency need to find some common ground. Regulators are increasingly expected to incorporate digital assets into the global economy, and as the general public becomes more aware of cryptocurrency, central authorities should accept it as part of the game.” (Comben, 1) As we see in Donald Trump’s tweet, cryptocurrencies are highly undesirable for authoritarian administrators. It disables any kind of surveillance on economic activities ranging from 1$ transactions to the purchases worth millions of dollars. This did not use to be the case with the traditional economy. As Comben illustrates “Traditional financial systems empower governments and enable them to control the amount of money flowing in an economy.” (Comben, 3) So it is clear that cryptocurrency will keep being a safe haven and a safe exchange instrument in the years to come, for those who choose to be unregulated.

Decentralization

Cryptocurrencies take a very crucial role in this new decentralization, but their real values are underestimated by many politicians, and even by many political scientists. As Niyazov argues “Policymakers and politicians tend to disregard the importance of technology in defining the future of the socio-political system.” (Niyazov, 2) For instance, it is now possible to make big purchases from overseas by using cryptocurrencies and deep web, without any government regulation. Cryptocurrencies rely on nothing but the simple consensus of people. Thanks to this characteristic, cryptocurrencies are not easily affected by political decisions made by the government. It erases the borders in economics. In the near future, states, as we know today, might be redefined as people might be able to satisfy their economic activities without any state intervention, including currency. The role of the state in people’s lives is likely to be challenged when it is left with very few duties such as security and health. But these systems too might be revolutionized by the advancement of technology as well.

3. Elections: Propaganda and Voting Behavior

How?

Technology and AI can be used as a propaganda tool. Now that these tools have the power to reach to masses of voters with a single click, social media, and voters’ data are the most important things politicians in order to pursue an effective campaign. Tech giants are important actors in this new form of politics. It is somewhat possible to determine people’s political tendencies by examining their clicks, their likes, or even the length of time they watch a politician speak or the sound volume they watch the politician in. There are various measurements and psychological factors that can be used to determine a person’s political tendency. But what is more interesting is that these data can now be examined by artificial intelligence. The online behavior of the people is processed within minutes. This opportunity can easily be abused by tech giants, politicians, and campaign managers, as we will analyze in the next chapter. 

These data are used by companies, such as Cambridge Analytica as we will examine later, to use in micro-targeted advertising. Relying on the collected data, user preferences are narrowed. So the micro-targeted advertisements contain personalized messages according to a person’s voter profile. This process of collecting data, analyzing preferences and using it to micro-target advertisements can result in a change of political tendencies or even the color of your ballot.

Why?

As the gap between the governments and the new generations of people get wider, people tend to trust technology more than they trust governments. As a result of this tendency, politicians are now using technology for their campaigns more than ever. Tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter collect citizens’ data as much as they are allowed to, or we think. As much as we trust Facebook that they will ensure the safety of our data, “The Times also found that tranches of raw data still existed beyond Facebook’s control.” (Confessore) In 2014, a political consultancy company called Cambridge Analytica collected millions of American people’s data from Facebook, without consent, to sell to political campaigns. The fact that this British political consultancy company had some ties with the Russian oil company Lukoil made an overwhelming impact on American politics. It is proved that Russians interfered in the 2016 US Elections. (Confessore) This situation might be interpreted as a clash of civilizations, as it is also argued Brexit referendum was targeted by the Russians and the Chinese.

Another Result

Privacy is not the only concern when we think about surveillance and excessive use of data for political purposes. These kinds of specialized advertisements and personalized content might push people into narrow communities that are closed to the outside world. These are called information bubbles. In these bubbles, people are isolated from anything other than what is presented to them on social media contents like videos, podcasts, articles, etc. “Information bubbles fuel political polarization by facilitating the formation of identity groups, resulting in an inability to undertake collective action and ultimately fragmentation and even the total breakdown of society.” (Niyazov, 4) It can even be argued that most political conflicts in our modern world are caused by the information bubbles, narrow artificial environments that keep people from expanding their knowledge, but instead reflect back what is thought in the bubble itself.

4. Conclusion: How technology has been shaping today’s world?

In conclusion, it is safe to say that technology, and specifically AI, began to change our perception of politics from its foundation. Political terms like freedom, privacy, election, and propaganda are redefined. Governments today are able to supervise their citizens by holding the power of data. “Cookies, tracking tools, and social logins allow the synchronization of data on users’ online behavior across platforms, websites, and devices. These give constant information about our whereabouts, behavior, attitude, mood, preferences and social life.” (Körner, 8) Thanks to these data, politicians now can easily conduct campaigns that are more appealing and convincing for the people, thanks to the advancement in AI and technology. But these perks are not owned by the governments. Anyone who can put together a computer and connect to the internet is within the reach of the power of data. So, not only governments but also people can use technology as a political instrument. They can liberate themselves from government regulation in their economic decisions, and remove the borders drawn by the states. 

In this paper, we did not view situations from a complete optimist or a pessimist perspective, but we tried to have a more realistic approach to how politics and its related fields like economics and social psychology are influenced by the rapid change in technology, especially with the advancement in AI and big data.

5. Future: How technology might shape tomorrow’s world?

In our rapidly growing world, it is very difficult to estimate tomorrow. But in light of the new evidence I shed light onto in this essay, it would not be a mistake to say that politics will be very different from what it was, not long, but 20 years ago from today. Those who can hold and process data might be the new elite of the next century, whereas the holders of money might be in pursuit of data to keep their social status. Politicians might seek new ways to convince people that they are necessary and worth going to the ballot boxes. Most bureaucrats are likely to be replaced by AI, excluding those who make policies that determine the lives of people: such as technocrats, diplomats, and economists. And the people might have more trust issues not only with the states but also within the society. These trust issues might lead some of the people to create increasingly liberal communities, with minimal state or no state at all. Conflicts are not likely to be physical, but economic. And finally, the limits of the sky will certainly be challenged, and who knows, an entirely new understanding of politics might emerge in space. 


  • Comben, Christina. “What Happens When Politics and Cryptocurrency Meet?” Yahoo! Finance, Yahoo!, 15 July 2019, finance.yahoo.com/news/happens-politics-cryptocurrency-meet-180011520.html.
  • Confessore, Nicholas. “Cambridge Analytica and Facebook: The Scandal and the Fallout So Far.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Apr. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-scandal-fallout.html.
  • Dr. Mahesh Saptharishi, Avigilon. “The New Eyes of Surveillance: Artificial Intelligence and Humanizing Technology.” Wired, Conde Nast, 7 Aug. 2015, www.wired.com/insights/2014/08/the-new-eyes-of-surveillance-artificial-intelligence-and-humanizing-technology/.
  • Feldstein, Steven. “The Global Expansion of AI Surveillance.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, carnegieendowment.org/2019/09/17/global-expansion-of-ai-surveillance-pub-79847.
  • Körner, Kevin. “Digital Politics, AI, Big Data, and the Future of Democracy.” EU Monitor Digital Economy and Structural Change, 22 Aug. 2019, pp. 1–16., https://www.dbresearch.com/PROD/RPS_EN-PROD/PROD0000000000497768/Digital_politics:_AI,_big_data_and_the_future_of_d.pdf.
  • Niyazov, Sukhayl. “The Real AI Threat to Democracy.” Medium, Towards Data Science, 17 Nov. 2019, towardsdatascience.com/democracys-unsettling-future-in-the-age-of-ai-c47b1096746e.
  • Selimi, Sabin. “Can Artificial Intelligence Change the Future of Politics?” TRT World/News/Opinion, TRT World, 29 July 2019,
  • Zhong, Raymond. “Who Owns Huawei? The Company Tried to Explain. It Got Complicated.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Apr. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/technology/who-owns-huawei.html.

Onurcan Büyükkalkan
Bilkent University, Department of Political Science and Public Administration
Posts created 1

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