from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

Democracy and Digital Technology After the 2016 Election

CFR Cyber Net Politics

November 10, 2016

CFR Cyber Net Politics
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Efforts to understand the causes and consequences of Donald J. Trump’s victory are underway, and this election illuminates features about the relationship between democratic politics and digital technologies that require attention. In this campaign, the template of digital progressive politics pioneered by the 2008 and 2012 campaigns of Barack Obama failed Hillary Clinton. In its place, Trump produced a digital populism that repudiated the Obama template. The 2016 campaign also revealed problems with cybersecurity that undermine notions the United States made progress in this domestic and foreign policy realm over the past eight years.

Although perhaps now hard to recall, Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 harnessed the internet to engage in grassroots fundraising, social media to build a demographically diverse coalition, and big-data analytics to power the election ground game. The success of these strategies connected with the sense, during those years, that digital technologies strengthened democracies at home and advanced democracy and internet freedom abroad.

What emerged was a digital progressive trajectory--to succeed in democratic politics and democracy promotion, politicians and governments had to be technologically savvy, politically inclusive, and globally engaged. Once president, Obama supported this approach by attempting to promote internet freedom, establish norms of responsible state behavior in cyberspace, and build strong cyber defenses to protect digital-dependent activities, and deter adversaries from malicious cyber behavior.  

For the 2016 election, Clinton followed the Obama recipe by exploiting digital technologies to build a demographically diverse coalition of voters, apply big-data analytics in the Democratic Party’s ground game, and communicate Clinton’s global experience and vision. Clinton also developed more detailed positions on cybersecurity and digital issues than Trump. For Clinton, these efforts did not deliver victory.

Instead, Trump prevailed with digital populism. He used social media in politically divisive rather than demographically inclusive ways. He exacerbated divides in the United States by hyper-fueling the increasingly disturbing echo chamber phenomenon in social media. He sought support from people far from the Silicon Valley literati invested in the digital progressive agenda. Trump’s campaign relied less on big data than on his big personality to get out the vote. Trump’s social media efforts spread nationalistic fervor rather than commitment to global engagement. He showed little interest in cybersecurity, international cyber norms, or internet freedom--objectives important to President Obama and candidate Clinton.

In addition to the rise of digital populism, the 2016 campaign was scarred with embarrassing and damaging cybersecurity incidents. Clinton’s use of a private server for emails during her time as secretary of state became a never-ending fiasco, complete with FBI Director James Comey’s “October surprise” letter to Congress about Huma Abedin’s emails found on Anthony Weiner’s computer. This self-inflicted wound communicated a cavalier approach to cybersecurity by one of the most prominent members of an administration stressing the importance of protecting the U.S. government’s work from foreign cyber espionage.

The “hack and leak” activities the U.S. government blamed on Russia represented an unprecedented effort by a foreign power to meddle in U.S. electoral politics. These activities were hammer blows to the Obama administration’s pursuit of cyber defenses, cyber norms (especially internet freedom), and cyber deterrence. The hacks revealed, again, the porous condition of cyber defenses in the United States. The leaks involved Russia interfering through digital means with American democracy, an episode that underscored how internet freedom has been suffering globally in recent years. Russia’s behavior demonstrated the ineffectiveness of efforts to establish international norms in cyberspace. And Russia was not deterred from trying to influence a U.S. election by the offensive cyber power wielded by the U.S. government.

The U.S. body politic now finds itself in a place few would have imagined possible after Obama’s second presidential campaign in 2012. Digital populism is ascendant domestically, as it was in the United Kingdom in the Brexit vote. Digital populism might henceforth emerge more strongly in democracies around the world. The 2016 campaign also highlighted that the Obama administration’s efforts to advance cybersecurity, cyber norms, and internet freedom have not taken root internationally. Presently, it does not appear likely that the Trump administration will prioritize objectives once central to President Obama’s vision of the relationship between democracy and digital technologies within and beyond the United States.

As with many policy areas, what President Trump will actually do in the digital and cyber policy arenas remains unclear. In addition to inheriting unfinished business from the Obama years (including election cybersecurity), “America First” populism will force the Trump team to address the ongoing economic disruption that innovation in digital technologies creates, the business community’s interest in e-commerce and cross-border data flows in a context where trade agreements are under threat, and the danger that intolerance on social media will corrode the social contract in democratic countries.

More on:

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