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Use and misuse of technology in contemporary election campaigns

Written by Philip Boucher,

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Until recently, discussions of technology and elections focused primarily on e-voting. Controversies highlighted the potential for modernising the voting system, as well as the security flaws that open opportunities for interference and manipulation. Now, the role of technology in elections is much broader – and so are the controversies.

On one hand, social media platforms have made communication between politicians and the electorate more direct than ever. On the other, electoral campaigns can target smaller groups of people with highly customised messages, which can lead to the fragmentation of debates and the emergence of polarised political bubbles. The opportunities for outside interference and manipulation have multiplied, as any actor can deploy targeted messages, even if they are not part of the official campaign. Furthermore, automated ‘bots’ flood social media platforms with messages that simultaneously promote various extreme perspectives with the ultimate aim of polarising society.

Information about these messages is imbalanced in favour of the platforms and their paying clients. They have access to masses of information and analytical data about the citizens, while citizens have no access to the processes that decide which information they receive, nor to the full range of promises made and sentiments aired to other groups. This makes it difficult to make well-informed voting decisions before elections, and to hold politicians to account after elections. The burden falls upon the citizen to choose between risking exposure to cutting-edge propaganda techniques if they use social media, and missing out on key loci for democratic participation if they avoid such platforms.

STOA and its European Science-Media Hub (ESMH) are organising a workshop entitled ‘How to win elections: Reflections on the use and misuse of technology in electoral campaigns’. This will be an opportunity to learn more about the use of technology and analytical techniques in the context of contemporary electoral campaigns, and to participate in a debate with key experts in the subject. The workshop will open with a welcome address from STOA Chair Eva KAILI (S&D, Greece), and an introduction from the workshop’s chair and Lead STOA Panel Member for this event María Teresa GIMÉNEZ BARBAT (ALDE, Spain). This will be followed by a panel discussion, including presentations from Jeroen van den HOVEN (Delft University of Technology), Sophie LECHELER (University of Vienna), Inès LEVY (Liegey Muller Pons) and David STILLWELL (University of Cambridge). The event will conclude with a Q&A session and a debate with all participants.

Interested in joining the workshop? Register to attend or watch the live webstream on the STOA event page.

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