It has long been recognized that the dominant modes of communication will tend to shape the political situation of a democratic republic like ours. That acknowledgment was behind the framing of the First Amendment, the struggles of the press barons, and starting in 1960, the rapid recalibration of presidential campaigns around televised debates. Today, the political discussion is taking on new form in the wake of the public’s shift toward mobile technologies like the smartphone.
According to data released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project,
significant numbers of… voters are using their mobile devices to get information about the 2012 election, to interact with the campaigns, and to converse with other voters about political issues.
Those numbers are not yet overwhelming—most of the stats are fractions of the total number (88%) of registered voters who own cell phones—but they would seem to indicate a growing trend in how people navigate the issues central to an election.
One probable consequence is a narrowing of the bandwidth available to political messaging. Tweets and text messages tend to favor brevity, putting a higher premium on effective soundbites and political shorthand. A portion of smartphone owners indicated that they used their phones to contribute to discussions on social networking sites where the character limit is likely less restrictive, but there, too, technical limitations are likely driving down the length and nuance of debate. To see why, just try transcribing this article into a phone word-by-word using Swype.
Bandwidth is also tied to the cost of cell phone data plans, hence less data-intensive communiques can generally count on a wider reach. That means that, at least for those getting much of their political messaging via their phones, a one-minute, context-free video is a stronger sell than a detailed ten-minute presentation of the same issue. Because the length of time needed to load a video is more noticeable on a wireless device than on a wired computer, more potential viewers will likely abandon the longer video or avoid it altogether.
Not all of the consequences are negative, though. The electorate has presumably also gained in terms of reach and confidence.
Slightly less than a quarter of registered voters use their phones to keep up with election news or politics. By providing a platform for viewing news just about anywhere—on the subway, for example, or waiting in line for a movie ticket—smartphones advance the equalizing effect of digital media. Access to a diversity of political news is no longer limited by access to physical copies of the periodicals that report it. That’s a significant advantage given a Fourth Estate increasingly dominated by single-newspaper markets.
At the same time, smartphones can serve as a valuable platform for a cottage industry of growing importance: fact-checking. By providing near-instantaneous access to secondary sources on the claims made by presidential candidates, our growing reliance on cell phones as a civic tool has the potential to make for a better informed electorate. The trick is getting voters to use the tools available to them.
At present, less than 15% of registered voters polled by Pew report having used their phone to fact-check a candidate’s claims. That number will undoubtedly grow as smartphone ownership grows and fact-checking organizations develop savvier techniques for making their material available. Meanwhile, 19% say they’ve used their phones to read discussion on social networking sites, and about 8% have left comments on those sites via their phone. That may indicate that some voters are using their phones as another channel for reconnecting to opinions that already reflect their preferences. While quick visits to fact-checking sites may help voters avoid the pitfalls of biased sources and dubious claims, the higher visibility of social media echo chambers may offset that benefit.
With new ways of accessing and distributing the messages and debates that surround elections come new approaches to the ballot box. Understanding those approaches can help calibrate future design decisions, with the goal of giving voters the information they need in order to make a deliberate and informed decision. The mobile zeitgeist is helping to reshape the discussion that informs our political involvement, making it broader but flatter. Maintaining the health of the republic will mean adapting to those developments and addressing them with ingenuity.