North American technology trends: All eyes on #election2020

The US tech industry is likely to both influence and be influenced by the presidential election in 2020.

It's normal with these prediction articles to gather together a handful of growing tech sectors, extend the trend lines on their expansion-rate graphs with a ruler and proclaim that next year will be just like this year only more so. Unfortunately, reality doesn't always work that way. As any dedicated investor knows, the trend is only your friend until it ends. Nothing continues in a straight line forever.

Other technology pundits are confidently predicting that next year will be either the year or an even bigger year for blockchain, driverless vehicles, AI, NLP, hyperautomation, blockchain, edge computing, augmented/extended reality, 5G and blockchain. All are fair if somewhat safe and unexciting calls, but I'm going to make predictions in a different direction. 2020 will be the year that the technology industry and the US government really go head-to-head, gloves off, no holds barred.

Big tech has had an uneasy relationship with US governments for years. Regardless of the party or president in power, large technology firms have, from the presidential perspective, too much influence to ignore and yet too much money to directly attack. If any US politician really tried to take an axe (or ax) to the likes of Facebook, Alphabet/Google, Microsoft, Apple or Amazon, with the aim of splitting them up to improve competition and minimising influence, the response would be swift and vicious in terms of legal action, PR ("Think of the poor employees and customers!") and the use of said influence to encourage voters to enlighten the presidential incumbent as to the folly of his/her plans by, for example, electing someone else.

I'm not ascribing any malice to such firms, of course. Corporations are in the business of making money and to do that they must survive. The best way to survive is to convince the public that your corporate behemoth is beneficial to the economy and the population. That's pretty much what PR is all about.

However, things become a little sticky once the true reach of the large tech companies becomes clear. Clearly, Facebook has hundreds of millions of Americans on its network, Google knows what the majority of US citizens are searching for (and therefore thinking and doing, at least to an extent), Amazon knows what everybody's buying and Apple… Apple has a customer base so fiercely loyal that a misplaced word from the CEO could influence not just customers' buying decisions but also their political ones.

Again, there's no expectation that any of these companies might intentionally use their power to influence the 2020 US presidential election. The problem - at least for the fair exercise of democracy - is that they may do so unintentionally. Facebook, which is disliked by both Republicans and Democrats, spends large amounts of money tackling 'fake' political advertisements on its network, but that's a never-ending task that can't be fully effective. If the fake ads are balanced - equal numbers of pro-Democrat and pro-Republican - then arguably there's no issue, depending on where and how they're targeted. But there are more subtle means by which voting choices can be influenced, and Facebook advertisers and influencers know this, as does Facebook itself.

Search results influence opinions, whether on Google or YouTube. Outwardly impenetrable algorithms that determine the prominence or otherwise of certain politically-relevant topics or videos or Twitter feeds can change minds and therefore voting choices.

Does any of this matter? Is it just part of the cut-and-thrust of political debate, and whichever party makes best use of online platforms deserves to win? Is it no different to TV debates, billboard advertising and political rallies? Perhaps so, and no technology firm has any apparent intention of influencing the election, even if their executives may publicly express their own political preferences.

However, what happens when the dust settles? This time around it will be clear that social media and technology in general will have played a major role in choosing the leader of what, for the sake of tradition if nothing else, some still call "the free world." That's a serious matter. Winner, loser or both may feel compelled to take action against what could be seen as undue interference in the political process.

Some other countries have very strict laws on what can and can't be said or written about in the run-up to a general election such as this. The US has some relevant laws but they are pretty ineffectual when dealing with technology firms and platforms that didn't even exist when said laws were written. The trend of ignoring or accepting that fact is about to end.

In conclusion, I'll make one firm prediction: like him or not, Donald Trump will win a second term as US president. After that, things will get really interesting, in the IT sector and beyond.