Discussions about the role of online political influence often centre around the internet giants. Disinformation can propagate on Facebook, and ranking certain political views over other ones in Google search results can sway elections. Despite the attention these two platforms command in our public – and legislative – discourse, the universe of online political influence includes a variety of other mechanisms that often go overlooked. One such technology stands out in particular. It has been used by political candidates in Australia, Sierra Leone, India, France, and more. It is becoming less expensive to deploy, and it can provide a means through which a political campaign may collect your personal information without your consent. This is the modern campaigning app.
In a promotional video reminiscent of an Apple product release, Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale – whose Twitter name reads ‘Brad Parscale - Download our Trump 2020 App today!’ – recently shared a video showcasing the new Trump 2020 app. The video opens with cinematic instrumentals and a voiceover proclaiming, “In 2016, we built an unbeatable operation that changed history,” alluding to the Trump 2016 campaign app, which harvested users’ data for campaign purposes.
Screenshots of the official Trump 2020 app. Political candidates around the world are releasing campaign apps ostensibly to connect with their base. Under the surface, these apps collect personal data of users and of their networks to advance campaign goals. Source: ACRONYM
As the progressive nonprofit ACRONYM notes, the Trump 2020 app “immediately asks for a supporter’s cell phone number” after download and requires users to opt-in to text messages. Users “Fight with President Trump” by inviting friends to the app, making calls for the campaign, and canvassing, among other campaign initiatives. The Trump 2020 app also employs elements of gamification – things like point systems, rankings and rewards, which users accrue, all of which were previously reserved for literal games – to galvanize supporters of political candidates, a marked trend among political campaign apps. To be sure, enlisting mobile apps is not limited to conservative campaigns replete with funding. Down-ballot, progressive campaigns are also harnessing apps to broadcast campaign messages and leverage social networks. And increasingly, apps are also being used for canvassing, caucusing, and mobile voting experiments.
What does the proliferation of campaign apps mean for you? How do they collect our personal data, and what challenges do such technologies pose for our democracies? Tactical Tech’s piece “Campaign Apps: Tap to Participate” explains how these technologies work and why we should care.