Each campaign season I ask myself what I have learned, and this cycle has brought more surprises than usual. Still, one theme encompasses many individual lessons, namely that the internet as a technology has outraced our norms for using it, understanding it and controlling it, most of all in politics.
Consider the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandals. No matter what your view of the scope of her wrongdoing, the legal status of her actions isn’t easy for voters to understand. How, for instance, does it compare with Colin Powell’s use of a private communications system during the administration of President George W. Bush?
With Clinton, a private e-mail server was involved; maybe that makes it worse than Powell’s private telephone line from the point of view of security and the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, but how exactly does that intersect with the law? It may matter to voters that she is running for president and Powell was not, but does that matter legally? (No.) Were Clinton’s actions more or less improper than the destruction of 22 million e-mails under Bush? How many Americans even could explain what an e-mail server is?
By contrast, the Watergate scandals, although murky in many details, offered a simpler big picture. On June 17, 1972, burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, a physical act of criminality, and political opponents were wiretapped and bugged. Later it was revealed that President Richard Nixon had taped his conversations in the Oval Office, and almost everyone understood how that worked and what it meant to ask whether copies of the tapes were available.
The goings-on at the Clinton Foundation also show a murkiness in our understanding of digital communications. There are plenty of admissions or insinuations of conflicts of interest described in e-mails, typically written by subordinates. But how should that count as legal or moral evidence against a candidate, especially compared to Donald Trump’s wrongdoings, including with his own foundation? It’s not as clear as when Nixon stated on tape his role in the Watergate coverup.
The e-mails stolen from the account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and released by WikiLeaks, show that many super-smart, supposedly politically savvy people still have no idea what they should and shouldn’t put into an electronic communication. Few of us are ready for a world where nothing, perhaps not even supposedly private conversations, is confidential (recording technology is advancing rapidly too). And we’re still not clear on how to weigh transparency vs. privacy when information can go viral.
Or consider the lawsuits against Trump University. How many students really understand what they can and cannot expect from an online university? Trump exploited them, but judging legal fault here may not be so clear cut.
Looking forward, many issues remain difficult to understand. The Federal Bureau of Investigation announced on Sunday that a second review of Clinton-related e-mail didn’t change its conclusion that no crime had been committed. But we still don’t know what the e-mails were, only that they were found on a computer belonging to Anthony Weiner, the estranged and disgraced husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. How did they get there? When is an e-mail truly deleted? How far does a warrant to search e-mail or a computer extend? Will those e-mails contain copies of ones Clinton had deleted but addressed to Abedin?
The murkiness of these issues to most voters makes it easier for the spinmeisters to turn this year’s debate into a fact-free zone. Even the participants in the election often didn’t understand what they were doing.
The electoral rise of Trump shows a dangerous imbalance between popularity and capability, and that too has something to do with the internet. In previous electoral cycles, when a campaign relied heavily on organization and ground game, it was unlikely that a candidate could rise to the top without qualified staff and advisers. Now, social media make it possible for a candidate’s reach to far exceed his or her internal capabilities to formulate policy. Even at this very late stage, we still don’t have much sense who Trump’s advisers would be or what his cabinet would look like.
The internet also aided the racist alt-right movement. We’ve yet to internalize how the anonymity of online life, and its ability to organize minority opinion, can change American discourse. Twitter showed it was woefully unready with norms to regulate this discourse, much of which seemed like pure harassment.
I am also seeing friends lose control of their moods, obsessively scanning social media for the latest news or maybe hitting “refresh” 20 times a day or more on the prediction markets. We’re not even good at regulating our own use of online media.
And coming into the stretch, who had expected such a strong fear of an electoral hack by Russia, or that more than 100 pro-Trump websites are being run out of one Macedonian town?
The power of the printing press during the Reformation took people by surprise too. American society needs healing, and part of that process will have to be developing new norms for the use, interpretation, and protection of internet information. Because right now the lack of such standards is getting the better of us.