Politics and Policy: Democracy in the Digital Age

Katie Harbath
21 min readMar 25, 2021

On March 24, 2021, I had the privilege to give a virtual speech as part of the UW-Madison La Follette School of Public Affairs Offner Lecture Series. I had a ton of fun and wanted to share the video as well as the prepared text in case anyone wants to read it instead of listening.

Thank you for that introduction Amber. Thank you also to Susan and the La Follette School for having me here tonight. I’m really disappointed I couldn’t be there in person, though hopefully, we will be able to be together soon. I also want to thank Katy Culver. Katy was a professor of mine when I was a journalism and political science student at UW back from 1999 to 2003. Twenty years ago she saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself that has led me to where I am today — including doing this lecture.

I’m also really excited to be here as this is my first public speech since leaving Facebook after ten years. The opportunity, problems, and everything in between at the intersection of democracy and technology have never been more at the forefront of the global challenges facing society. I’ve learned a lot in the 22 years since I first stepped foot on the UW campus in 1999. I’ve seen the positive effects of technology on our society and the negative ones. I’ve created new ways of helping people use the internet to be civically involved, made mistakes, contributed to the solutions, and played a role in creating some of the problems. I truly believe that we can find a way forward where we can mitigate the negative effects of technology and amplify the good. That’s where I want to focus my work post-Facebook and what I want to talk about tonight.

First, a little history and context of how we got to where we are today. When I talk to students these days many are shocked when I remind them that Facebook didn’t exist when I graduated college in 2003. My first job in DC consisted of me answering the phones, but also learning how to send out a mass email and code a website. MySpace was all the rage. People were creating blogs on blogspot (including myself) and the ipod had just come on the scene. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok, Clubhouse — none of those existed either.

The internet first came to politics in the US with the first White House website in 1994. Google was founded four years later in 1998. In 2000, Senator John McCain was doing the novel thing of mentioning his website URL in all of his speeches and raising small dollars online during the Republican primary. This is also the first presidential campaign that saw campaigns starting to build email lists. The 2002 US midterms saw the Republican National Committee start to beta test some new ways of microtargeting television, radio and direct mail ads based on consumer data being matched with voter files. Microtargeting is a tactic used by both parties to send a tailored message to a subgroup of the electorate on the basis of unique information about that subgroup. So for instance, based on the type of car you drove or tv shows you like to watch campaigns can combine that information with voter files to determine that people who watch the show CSI are more likely to be Republican and then choose to either advertise or not during those shows depending on which voters they were wanting to reach. Those efforts were refined for 2004 which led to that election being known as the presidential election that “is notable for the creation of modern-day microtargeting, capitalizing on innovations in messaging technology.”

The 2004 presidential election — which is the first I worked on — is also well known for the one where bloggers — who were not professional journalists — had a big impact on the national conversation — culminating in the scandal involving Dan Rather and President Bush’s military record. At the RNC we were experimenting with funny online videos and websites — including having interns dressed as dolphins follow the Kerry campaign around to highlight his tendency to flip flop on issues. We didn’t have YouTube at the time so it would take the team overnight to ftp the video files to me each day where I would then edit them and create six different versions — high bandwidth and low bandwidth versions for windows, quick time and real player. We had to pay $30,000 a month just to have our own streaming server.

This was also the election where Howard Dean’s campaign revolutionized the use of tools like MeetUp and took online fundraising to a whole new level. Joe Trippi’s the Revolution will not be Televised is one of the first books talking about the impact of the internet on politics and campaigning.

The election in 2004 is an important one to study as part of the very beginning of our journey to where we are today. Many of the issues and questions we face around microtargeting and political advertising, the state of journalism, fact-checking, amplifying content, polarization, and turning up the heat on the use of outrage and anger to elicit action all were at play. Back then the big concerns online were emails that people would forward with incorrect information about the candidates — and no easy way to refute it — or what bloggers were saying to their readers.

After 2004 things just became an absolute whirlwind of change and innovation to how technology would change political campaigning and governing around the world. Facebook was started in early 2004 by Mark, but started to open up beyond college campuses in 2005 with anyone being able to sign up by 2006. Also, in 2005, YouTube came on the scene and by 2006 candidates such as George Allen of Virginia were seeing their political careers end because they were not only caught on video saying things they shouldn’t, but that video was easy to upload and distribute to the public. Then came Twitter in 2006 where anyone could share real-time thoughts in a short, easily digestible format. By the 2008 presidential campaign iphones were also on the scene and the underdog, scrappy campaign of President Obama was about to take the use of technology and data to a whole new level once again. They had access to platforms such as Facebook and YouTube that the campaigns in 2004 or even 2006 didn’t have. They had the courage to use them and try new things. It is credited as a big part of why he won.

Four years short years in politics, but long years in technology, brought even more tools and platforms for campaigns to use in 2012. Online advertising was finally starting to take off and campaigns were ecstatic at being able to run ads to more precise locations than television advertising allowed. It meant they could run ads to people in New Hampshire without also wasting money on people in Boston. This was also the time that the big shift to mobile use was happening given the iphone starting to increase in popularity. Now people didn’t just have to be in front of a computer to consume content but they were doing so while commuting, waiting at the doctor’s office or in line to buy groceries. They utilized the social graphs of platforms to ask people not to phone bank strangers, but rather their friends or people they might have things in common with such as being fans of the same sports team. This social networking effect was also being used to help increase support for gay marriage across the country. It was also starting to be used to gather more information on people to append information to voter files — including by a company called Cambridge Analytica created in 2013.

Innumerable articles and books have been written about the phenomena that was the 2012 campaign and how the use of digital tools was revolutionizing politics. Overseas the Arab Spring had happened in 2011 and many — including myself — was feeling pretty darn good about the promises of technology. In fact, at Facebook we were determined to make 2016 be known as the Facebook election. It ended up being that way — but not in the way we wanted.

That’s because concerns were starting to emerge. As candidates and parties in other countries started to see what was happening in the states, political consultants from the US would go to Canada, the UK, Australia and many other places around the world to teach them on how to build and use voter files. Europe — which is well known to be much more concerned about data privacy — started to have it’s data protection authorities (DPAs) expressing concern over use of data this way in campaigning. That didn’t stop candidates across the world adopting these tactics to win their elections including Narendra Modi in India, Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Justin Trudeau in Canada and David Cameron in the United Kingdom.

In the United States we were starting to see more accusations by people on the right that these technology companies were skewed more towards helping Democrats than Republicans. Facebook was facing questions about it’s “I’m a Voter” button that we showed at the top of the newsfeed to people asking them to share that they voted. In 2012 we had run a study in Nature magazine showing that more people went to vote if their friends saw that they voted. But people on both sides of the aisle questioned how they could trust us that we were truly running it to everyone and not only a subset of people.

By the middle of 2015 the 2016 presidential race was well underway. Meerkat — a livestreaming platform introduced at the popular Austin conference South by Southwest — was all the rage and it was declared by some that 2016 would be the Meerkat election. That didn’t exactly come true as Twitter and Facebook created their own livestreaming platforms that quickly consumed Meerkat, but it was true that it would be the first election that really utilized live video. There was the first ever debate hosted between Facebook and FOX in August of 2015 where Donald Trump would become the first candidate to try our new Facebook Live platform — filming himself arriving in Cleveland on his helicopter.

In December of 2015 you had one of the first major decisions platforms had to make about the content of a candidate’s post when Trump said that muslims should be banned from the United States. Calling for a complete ban of a group of people based on their religion was against our community standards, but we also didn’t feel comfortable not letting people see the things presidential candidates were saying. A tension that continues today.

Overseas you had the campaign in the Philippines in full swing where news sites like Rappler — run by Maria Ressa — were able to grow thanks to their use of social media. But you also had candidates like Rodrigo Duterte using social media to harass, intimidate and spread false rumors about people like Maria. It all started to really come into focus for myself on May 9, 2016.

On May 9 I was in Manilla for election night in the Philippines. I was about to do a tv hit talking about the amount of conversation we’d seen on Facebook about the candidates when I was taking a quick look at my Facebook feed and saw a story from Gizmodo where contractors were accusing the company of suppressing conservative content. I turned to my comms colleague I was with, handed her my phone and said I really hope news doesn’t travel too fast across the Pacific. I did my final hit — the news hadn’t hit Manila yet — and then I high-tailed it back to my hotel. The next week and a half or so were spent with myself and others working with Facebook leadership to understand what had happened, answering questions from MANY angry folks on the right — including Senators — and pulling together a small group of Republicans to talk to Mark and Sheryl at headquarters.

A month later Brexit happened and many were blaming it on the Leave campaign’s use of microtargeting and the messages they shared — and amplified — on social media. In September the Economist published a cover story about post-truth politics. I remember thinking how much of a problem that was going to be for the German and French elections coming up in 2017. I also remember talking to some in Facebook about it and no one was sure how we could ever police what is true or not. In November, Donald Trump stunned the world by winning the Presidency. In many ways his campaign continued to innovate on how data and technology could be used in an election just like President Obama’s had four years earlier. But this time the internet was also being vilified for enabling the spread of fake news, foreign interference and increasing polarization.

Now companies such as Facebook were forced to figure out how to solve problems like the spread of false information on its platform (from those who do it to make money to those who do it to cause havoc or win elections), defining and combating foreign interference as well as how to bring more transparency to political ads. Problems the companies are still grappling with today. Governments and regulators weren’t stepping in to tell us how to do it and everyone across the political spectrum and world had different viewpoints of what the solutions should be.

You also saw the internet and social media continue to be used by people to organize efforts across the country. Millions attended the Women’s March the day after the inauguration thanks to it being organized on Facebook. People connected with one another to protest various travel bans and to help immigrants get legal support. Friends and former co-workers of mine raised millions of dollars online to help families at the border.

By the time the 2020 election came around the landscape once again looked very different. The year 2019 saw a huge number of elections in India, Indonesia, Israel, Australia, the European Parliament, Thailand and many other places. In 2018 you had the US midterms and an election in Brazil. Each struggled with issues of hate speech, false news and transparency online. It was the first election where Facebook and other tech companies introduced their political and issue ad transparency requirements and ad archives. Domestic interference online was more problematic than foreign interference because it was much harder for platforms and governments to put rules around. In 2019, some companies like Twitter decided to ban political ads all together. Google reduced the targeting options for ads. Facebook said that political figures’ wouldn’t be penalized if they were fact checked on free expression grounds but also had a robust political and issue ads transparency database where people could see who had paid for the ads, the range of money they spent and the age, gender and location of who saw the ads.

Innovations in how the campaigns and other political groups would use technology continued to change as well. Text messaging — which had been used by campaigns for awhile — became much more mainstream. Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok were also used more by candidates to reach younger voters. Candidates were also working with online influencers asking them to share campaign content — blurring the definition of what is considered an advertisement even more. Online advertising, email and data continued to dominate too.

As concerns continued to mount about if President Trump would accept the outcome of the election, coalitions of experts and civil society groups came together to do threat ideation exercises of what could happen and what the President might try to say or do. Then COVID hit and campaigning was moved almost entirely online. The racial justice protests of June brought more tough content policy calls by platforms and a move to start to label content. People and organizations came together to help utilize the internet to help people get the right information about how to vote. It was also used to help normalize the fact that we likely wouldn’t know a winner of the election on Election Night and that the overall process could take us to January, which we all know it did. And on that night of January 6th and the days following the platforms and other internet service providers did what many thought would never happen — they deplatformed President Trump and others involved in the riots.

What a dizzying time for the world — it’s no wonder that people are confused about what to believe or how to pull us out of this spiral. The good news is that there are people, organizations and companies who continue to try and find a way forward.

Lawrence Lessig has a great framework from his book Code that Ethan Zuckerman recently reminded me of in his new book Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform them. Lessig said that change usually comes about through a combination of law, code, social norms and markets. For us to figure out the path forward it will take work in all four of these areas by people and organizations across governments, the private sector, civil society and the media.

First, is Lessig’s law pillar — we need to figure out what the right regulation is in this space. Government is not designed to move as fast as technology is created. By the time laws are introduced, debated and passed the technology they were originally regulating is likely very out of date. For instance, I remember us arguing in front of the FEC in 2012 about why Facebook ads shouldn’t have disclaimers because at the time they were really small and just on the side of the newsfeed. They agreed that it was ok a disclaimer was a click away — a ruling that made no sense only a few years later when ads moved to newsfeed and had a bigger format. So we have to think about what are the right regulations to pass that also have the flexibility to adjust and change. Section 230 is another great example of a law in desperate need of a refresh. In Europe lawmakers are much further along in considering legislation in this space with efforts such as the European Democracy Action Plan, the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act. Some countries, like Canada, have already passed updated laws regulating political advertising online.

We also have a lot of work to do to bridge the gap in knowledge between lawmakers and how the technology of today works. Having had to try to figure out some of this stuff on our own at Facebook it’s very challenging to figure out what should be done not only in the US but in countries around the world as well as how countries should interact with one another. For instance, is it ok for a Canadian organization to run ads to people in the United States asking them to support trade legislation that might affect their country as well? I loved trying to figure it out and I think the lessons Facebook and other companies have learned from trying to implement some of these solutions before laws have been passed allows governments to actually take those lessons and pass better laws. Some examples of those lessons include how to define what a political or issue ad is, how to verify advertisers identity and location and what data to make transparent that doesn’t violate people’s privacy. All things I think should be decided by regulators and not companies.

That takes us to the second pillar of code, which I’m going to expand to just mean more of where the private sector can take the lead on presenting solutions. There are efforts such as the ones I discussed around political ads transparency, there’s also the efforts around labeling, combating misinformation, foreign interference, etc. But there are also efforts such as the Oversight Board that Facebook stood up in 2019 and became active in late 2020. This is an independent group of what will become 40 experts from across the globe who can hear appeals from people and organizations who have had content removed from Facebook and ask for it to be reinstated. The board can also make suggestions to Facebook about where it should change its policies. It has already announced rulings on a few cases with the very high profile question about whether or not President Trump should be reinstated being debated now.

The corporate world — and tech in general — can move a lot faster than governments or civil society can in building, implementing, scaling and iterating on many of these solutions. We need to be encouraging more companies, not less, to work on building potential solutions as well as working with researchers to study the effects of them. This will require finding ways to share data that is privacy safe. Some efforts — such as differential privacy — are being developed, but there is still work to be done. Moreover, companies need to be doing more to help where they can in getting people the right information they need in order to be a part of the political process from registering to vote to knowing where their polling place is, what documentation they need to bring and what their rights are. I’m proud of the work Facebook and other tech companies have done in this space and just like we brought together government, the private sector and civil society together after 2016 to combat foreign interference, I think we need to do the same in finding ways to make the process of voting easier for people to understand.

Third, we need to acknowledge that these are really hard problems that involve sometimes impossible tradeoffs. Developing new social norms to help governments, civil society, companies and the media to make those tradeoffs will be key. A friend of mine from UW, Ben Thompson, has a great column called Stratechery that is read throughout Silicon Valley and the world. He’s done numerous columns about how different companies, people and organizations will prioritize the things they are trading off when making decisions. And it’s not that people don’t want to do all of the things they want to prioritize, but sometimes they have to make the hard decision to pick one over the other. For instance, adding more friction in the election process whether that be requiring more transparency and reporting for the things a campaign or organization is doing to how people can vote brings tradeoffs of more transparency and secure voting versus less people participating because they don’t want to jump through all of the hoops that the friction to the process brings.

To help think through these tradeoffs society will need updated societal norms and the chaos we are feeling and seeing right now is the world going through that metamorphosis. Now is the time to debate and mold where those norms are going before they harden and shape the next few decades of life.

For instance, the international community needs to take a stronger role in setting new societal norms across democracies about what behavior by governments is acceptable or not because we are now seeing regulation being weaponized by authoritarian governments to hold onto their power.

Second, we need new norms about whose speech gets to be amplified — whether it’s by the media or Internet platforms. Especially when that speech comes from candidates for office or current elected officials. Even more so when those officials are spreading false information. Each of the cable networks took different approaches in covering President Trump towards the end of his presidency and recently the Plain Dealer made a very public announcement that it would not be covering one of the Ohio candidates for Senate due to the false things he was saying and a desire not to amplify that. I personally have been grappling between my long held belief that people should be able to hear and know what those who want or currently represent them in government have to say so they can make informed choices at the ballot box. I supported Facebook keeping up many of Trump and others’ posts because of that belief. However, I also see the harm this is causing and I’ll be honest, I haven’t quite figured out yet where I personally land on keeping President Trump permanently off of Facebook. I worry about companies being able to pick and choose which politicians people hear from.

Lastly, as good global citizens we need to mirror the behavior that we want to see in others and teach children. We need to take more care to not demonize people who think, look or sound different than us. We need to understand our unconscious biases, work to recognize them and do the even harder work of incorporating diversity and inclusion efforts into every aspect of our lives. We need to learn how to listen and be able to rethink our assumptions. If you haven’t read Adam Grant’s new book called “Think Again” I highly recommend it. He talks about how intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn. I think that’s a lot of what we as individuals and leaders need to do in order to find the best path forward.

Finally, Markets are about choice and how people’s behavior can bring about change — just like Elon Musk creating Tesla helped to popularize electric cars in a way that regulations could not. Part of the conversation we need to have about moving forward is about where people have the ability to choose what they consume versus what is recommended to them. When someone signs up to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc they first make choices about who they will follow. However, then the companies come into play by using an algorithm to sort that content from the people you follow to show you the content they think you most want to see and they make recommendations to you about other things you may want to follow. This can have real benefits to people, but we also know how it can also lead people into more dangerous areas. Consumers will need to decide which tradeoffs they are willing to prioritize when it comes to convenience and giving more of their data to companies. We need to help give people the tools from early on in their life about understanding how their data is used and how they want to govern it. We need to iterate on guardrails that should be put on algorithms that decide what to show and amplify to people. This is going to require doing a lot more work thinking about definitions around authoritative information, defining news as well as what civic spaces need to be built for the public good. For instance, C-SPAN was created in the late-70s as a “cable-industry financed nonprofit network for televising sessions of the U.S. Congress, other public affairs events, and policy discussions.” One of the things I’d love to work on is thinking about what a version of this could be that is financed by tech companies and exists online to help people have a better insight not only into the federal government but their local governments as well.

There is no finish line in this work. We’ll solve some problems and new ones will always emerge as new technologies are invented. We need to start anticipating sooner how to identify and mitigate any side effects. We need more research, debate and iterating on ideas. There’s no silver bullet here, but I’m optimistic we will figure it out.

That said, we need to turbocharge our efforts to be ready for future elections. In fact, I think this year is our best opportunity to enact regulation and other new norms and rules in time for the next three years of elections. In 2022 we’ll have elections in the United States, Brazil, Philippines and Kenya among many others. In 2024, the future of the Internet is on the line as the world will see for the first time ever not only a US presidential election, but elections in India, Indonesia, Mexico, potentially the UK and the European Parliament — all around the same time. It’s a huge geopolitical moment for the world where the governments of all those major countries could all change in a very short period of time. Companies, researchers, regulators, the media, the international community and civil society all need to start working together now to start building, learning and iterating on the tools we’ll need to keep those elections free and fair. If we fail, it could set us back decades.

Technology has brought so many good things to our lives. Just this last year so many of us would have been a lot more lonely, depressed and bored if we didn’t have technology to keep us connected to friends and family, allow us to keep doing our jobs, watch way too much Netflix and order groceries and many other supplies without ever leaving our homes.

I think technology still has the possibility to bring positive change and engagement to our civic lives. Do we have more work to do on mitigating the harms? Absolutely. But we can also do more to help connect people to their local governments, to restore trust in institutions and bring transparency to the process. We can use the internet and power of friends and influencers to get more people to not only register to vote but actually go and vote in more elections than just for President. Speaking of voting we can find ways to safely expand options for people to vote while protecting against fraud. We’re seeing more young people, people of color, women and many others wanting to run for office. We’re seeing people use the web to shine a light on problems we as a society have ignored for way too long and to organize to demand change. We need to help figure out the future of journalism — especially local journalism — to adapt to the way people consume news now. We need to start teaching kids in elementary school how to not only be productive members of their communities but how to be good digital citizens. We need to do this not only in the US but around the world.

If it all sounds really daunting — it is. Everywhere you look there’s a ton of problems that need to be solved and a ton of ideas on how to solve them. As Glennon Doyle said in her recent book, Untamed, sometimes you just need to take the next right step, then the next and then the next. That’s my philosophy as I continue to look at how I can contribute to finding solutions. I encourage you to do the same. We need to make sure we are discussing the actual problems and acknowledging the hard tradeoffs working on these issues. I also ask you to be willing to work with people you don’t agree with. I often find that we have more in common with where we want the world to go than not, we just disagree on how to get there. It’s time for all of us to work on finding more common ground than finding ways to shut people or ideas out.

Thank you for giving me the time tonight to share with you some of the history about democracy and the internet as well as where we go from here. We barely scratched the surface on all of these but I hope you found it interesting and helpful. Excited to take your questions.



Katie Harbath

Global leader at the intersection of elections, democracy, civic and tech. Ex-Facebook. Proud Wisconsinite.