For political advertising, like so much else, the digital revolution inspires both utopian and apocalyptic predictions. And as in many other arenas where Internet-based “disruption” looms, the optimists and pessimists both have a point. For those of us who study campaign and election regulation, however, new technology poses a serious challenge to the existing ways of thinking about and addressing the campaign finance problem. Government regulation becomes increasingly difficult once communication moves online, thus, large Internet platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter will become the primary regulators of political campaigns. They need to recognize their new role and use their power responsibly. One error that observers often make in thinking about the evolution of campaign communication is to view the technological shift as one from television to the Internet. To be sure, what we are seeing is a shift in the “devices” used to connect with audiences — adding computers, tablets, gaming consoles and (in particular) smartphones to televisions as the pathways for communication. But television itself is changing and becoming less distinct from those other devices, as younger viewers in particular move from linear watching to on-demand programming of various types. (That said, Americans continue to watch, on average, more than four hours of live TV per day!)
The change in communication is not limited to the relocation of 30-second TV ads to other devices. A full canvas of online messaging would include not just website ads, YouTube videos, Facebook postings and “promoted” tweets but also search engine results, text messages, news feeds, banner ads, postings by Facebook friends, messages targeting phones at a given time and place, and even native advertising in video games, to name just a few ways campaigns have already started to communicate with voters.
Although we are still several elections away from the full transition to “on-demand politics,” the contours of that brave new world are already coming more clearly into view. Internet utopians see an unmediated political discourse as the ultimate source of empowerment for the little guy. No longer will political advertising be reserved for the wealthy interests or established organizations such as political parties. Nor will the “media” — however, we might now struggle to define it — stand as a gateway to mass communication.
As in other areas of Internet life, though, anonymity, the existence of Internet echo chambers and the premium placed on potential virality lead online content to be more incendiary, unaccountable and attention-grabbing. Donald Trump’s Twitter powers — especially his ability to use new technology to capture the attention of “legacy” media — will be hard for the average candidate or interest group to replicate, but they give us a window into the future erosion of any remaining norms constraining political discourse.