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How tech transforms politics

Sarah Putt, Contributor. 24 January 2019, 9:06 am

Newly elected US Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - or AOC as she's known - is giving the world a master-class in how to use social media to connect to voters, drive a political agenda and straight out steal the show.

Primarily through her Twitter and Instagram accounts she has been all over the US media talking about something almost unheard of - a 70% marginal tax rate. She is fluent in internet memes and knows her way around gaming sites - a point made clear when she jumped into a Twitch session for the online game Donkey Kong 64 which was being held as a fundraiser for a charity supporting trans-gender youth. What makes this significant, argues Kyle Orland in Ars Technica, is that she understands that Twitch is more than a platform to watch people play games, it's a virtual town square.

As tech commentator Ben Thompson from Stratechery put it: "She is the first - but certainly not the last - of an entirely new archetype: a politician that is not only fuelled by the Internet, but born of it (and, to be clear, she is absolutely genius at it)."

What about Trump - isn't he just as internet savvy? But Trump was already famous when he fired up his Twitter account and Cortez came from nowhere. Although what they do have in common is that their respective parties didn't back them, and they had to scrap their way into office.

As you might imagine the far right are hating on her. Some in her own party are wanting her to maybe stop with all this 70% marginal tax rate stuff. While others are disappointed that at 29 years old, she will be too young to run for president in the next election (you have to be 35 years old).

Maybe once the reality of the daily political grind gets to her, things will change. Her social media followers (2.5m on Twitter, 2m on Instagram) number more than twice the number of her constituents, so that's a lot of work to keep up the national conversation and not make a wrong move. This week the New York Times is taking her to task  for not opening an actual office in her district.

But the point about the AOC phenomena is that the internet may have finally, irrevocably, broken the political model in the same way that it has broken countless business models. Antonio García Martínez summed it up in Wired as being like the moment when Kennedy outshone Nixon in the television debate in 1960 and politicians everywhere realised that what you look like on TV really matters. "If politics is downstream from culture, then both politics and culture are downstream from technology," Martínez writes.

It's hard to find a comparison in New Zealand, because our political system is different, less individualistic. But perhaps the best example is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Her Facebook video posts where she chats straight to the camera on her phone are compelling. No intermediary, no script, just the PM talking about what's happening in her day. In the latest video from Davos she makes a joke about bumping into Prince Andrew while holding a soft toy, she worries about falling over on the ice, and she muses about online voting in Estonia.

And this last point is interesting because advocates of online voting say it will result in more young people voting. But maybe the key to increasing participation in the democtratic system is engaging directly with people in the virtual places where they like to hang out.


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