Over the past decade, politics in many ‘old-growth’ democracies has become more polarized and more contentious. There are numerous structural reasons that account for this embitterment of democratic life. However, the spread of new technologies has certainly proved an enabling factor, inasmuch as it has disrupted traditional equilibria, empowered anti-system actors, and created new cleavages in the body politic. For instance, populist parties and movements have been able to connect with vast reservoirs of new recruits and sympathizers through social media, building impressive online followings. Community organizing has become much simpler and more direct, but so has mobilization for street protests, through flash mobs: furthermore, such activity can be coordinated from afar and even simulated, especially online, in cases of automated astroturfing. Voting itself is subject to new threats in the information age, as the electoral machinery has become critical infrastructure potentially at risk of cyberattack.
The research project takes as its point of departure the crisis of trust in the political process and in political actors (both government institutions and representatives of specific interests, such as political parties, lobbyists, trade unions, and so forth). Given these new conditions, it seeks to trace which processes are at work to exploit this popular low-trust sentiment and which ones on the contrary favor the emergence of new frameworks for mutual responsibility and collective action. Specifically, given the dislocation of traditional political organizations, the possibility now exists for coordination of all sorts of non-elite narratives, concerns, and grievances: but to what extent is this organizational democratization co-opted, or indeed nurtured from the start by outside interests? And does this dynamic imply that contemporary politics will always be in a state of organizational flux, further aggravating the popular trust deficit? Similarly, the state of political discourse has degenerated to such a point that partisan worldviews operate on largely separate factual assumptions: what strategies do politicians adopt to navigate this new media ecosystem, and what are the implications for the future of good-faith argumentation in the public sphere? Finally, given the erosion of other democratic norms, the contestability of elections has been called to shoulder an ever-larger share of the burden of legitimation of democratic regimes. Consequently, electoral procedures are primed to constitute a flashpoint in partisan wrangling: are the traditional safeguards build in to the process sufficient to guarantee its authoritativeness or must new institutional mechanisms be sought?
In this area, the research project will examine data of two main types. On the one hand, it will follow the money trail, investigating expenses political actors incur with consultancies, especially in the field of organizational creation and strengthening at the intersection of online and offline activities. On the other hand, it will seek information on vulnerabilities and hacks of political actors’ communications, or of the electoral process more broadly. Such data will be complemented by opinion drawn prevalently from the ranks of elections experts and political consultants.
- Benkler, Y., Faris, R., Roberts, H., 2018. Network propaganda: manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in American politics. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Woolley, S., Howard, P.N. (Eds.), 2019. Computational propaganda: political parties, politicians, and political manipulation on social media. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Jamieson, K.H., 2018. Cyberwar: how Russian hackers and trolls helped elect a president— what we don’t, can’t, and do know. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Tufekci, Z., 2017. Twitter and tear gas: the power and fragility of networked protest. Yale University Press, London.