By Molly Gluck
2020 marks the fresh start of a new decade, and will also be a significant trip around the sun in American history.
We spoke with Boston University’s experts about what we can anticipate in the New Year — from our political climate, to our physical climate and environment, and our daily interactions with and sentiment towards businesses and brands.
Cybersecurity researcher Gianluca Strinhini provides insight into potential disinformation campaigns to come in the upcoming presidential elections — and political science expert Virginia Sapiro highlights the impact of changing voter demographics. Environment and sustainable development researcher Henrik Selin weighs in on the call for climate action — and shares his recommendations for next-steps. Finally, markets, public policy and law expert Kabrina Chang shares her projections of how brands and companies will address social advocacy and privacy concerns in the coming year.
VOTING IN THE ERA OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Do you think deepfakes and other disinformation campaigns will become more of a threat in 2020? Could either pose a serious threat to the integrity of the upcoming US election?
Gianluca Stringhini, College of Engineering Assistant Professor: Disinformation will definitely be a serious threat in the upcoming election. We saw disinformation efforts during the 2016 and 2018 elections, and the techniques used by disinformation actors have been refined since. A worrying trend that we are observing is that, in countries like the UK, strategies that were previously used by foreign disinformation actors are now being adopted by legitimate political campaigns. For example, the Tory party’s Twitter account changed their identity into a fictitious fact checking organization during a political broadcast. Changing online identities to pretend to be reputable entities such as local newspapers is a strategy that we have observed Russian state-sponsored actors adopt during the 2016 election. There is a risk that similar techniques will be adopted by official political campaigns in the 2020 US election. This would add to the risk of foreign actors interfering in the discussion with targeted disinformation campaigns.
Deepfakes — hard to detect, highly realistic videos and audio clips that make people appear to be saying and doing things they never said or did — are absolutely a threat. They can be convincing enough to make the public unsure of whether an event really happened, which is one of the main goals of disinformation. I do however think that there are simpler ways to mislead the public that are already remarkably effective, such as simply posting a picture of a politician along with a fabricated quote.
How will the generational replacement of voters impact the presidential elections?
Virginia Sapiro, College of Arts & Sciences Dean Emerita and Political Science Professor: The era in which a cohort of voters enters the electorate seems to make a long-term difference. For example, the people who entered under Lyndon B. Johnson vs. Ronald Reagan vs. Bill Clinton vs. Barack Obama vs. Donald Trump are likely very different due to the events and social environments that have shaped them. Additionally, the current youngest voters (ages 18–30) have had a very different life experience from those in earlier generations. Boston University students, for example, are shocked to learn how anti-gay the culture was until recently — and they have trouble believing there were so many people who were opposed to same-sex marriage. They don’t remember when cross-race marriage was illegal in some states. They don’t remember when there was no social media. Essentially, many national events, social movements, and technological innovations are shifting our political landscape, which will definitely have an impact on the elections.
THE COST OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Do you predict more social movements leading to climate change action in the coming year?
Henrik Selin, Pardee Associate Professor of International Relations: The growing social mobilization around climate change in countries all over the world is a significant political development. It has brought both young people and adults to the streets in record numbers. It will take time to develop and implement a more ambitious climate policy, but there is a strong social movement carrying over into the New Year, urging decision-makers to act.
What kind of infrastructure do we need to support a clean energy economy? Is such an economy achievable in the future?
Henrik Selin: A clean energy economy requires a fundamental restructuring of energy systems away from fossil fuels to low-carbon sources. This is both achievable and urgently needed — not to mention demanded for. The real question is not how much money this will cost, but how much climate change will cost both current and future generations if we do not undergo this transition as quickly as possible.
NEW STANDARDS OF BRAND ACCOUNTABILITY
Consumers and employees are looking to brands to be socially and environmentally conscious — and take strong stances. As more people look to businesses to make a political statement in 2020, how will corporations respond and navigate this expectation?
Kabrina Chang, Questrom Clinical Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics: Consumers and employees look to businesses, now more than ever, to be socially conscious. This expectation includes involvement in areas outside of their core business, such as immigration (like the Wayfair walkout), white supremacy (for example, the threat of consumers boycotting Under Armor after its CEO spoke out in favor of President Donald Trump in the wake of the Charlottesville murders), and gun control (i.e. companies like Best Western and Delta Airlines cutting ties with the NRA after the devastating high school shooting in Parkland, Florida).
Corporate social advocacy has been building for many reasons over the past several years and I don’t think it is going to slow down. Whether this momentum is in response to customer demand, employee activism, or the motivation of the CEO or other executives (like Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com, as just one example of an activist CEO) — social advocacy is increasingly becoming intertwined with corporate America. Many businesses will embrace this overlap, especially those that have upheld themselves as leaders in ethical practices — not necessarily focusing on their personal ethical practices, but more likely on a higher standard of operations.
As far as navigating this expectation, companies have to think of their stakeholders. As we have seen, almost 200 companies have said their main purpose is no longer just creation of shareholder value. Today, this purpose also includes “supporting outside communities” and underscoring the link between “purpose and profit.” This purpose more and more includes issues outside of companies’ core business, so corporations should expect that they will be asked about their position on a range of social, political and environmental issues.
Data-collection technologies like targeted-ads provide hyper-individualized consumer shopping experiences. However, many people are concerned about their privacy and the ethics of customer data collection. Will companies continue to generate knowledge based on data? Or, do you predict new security policies being unveiled around this issue?
Kabrina Chang: I do not think there will be new security policies regarding privacy or customer data in the US. Although the EU has promulgated the GDPR governing individual data protection and security, I would be surprised if the US passed something similar in the near future. This doesn’t mean we don’t need something like GDPR-types of protections in the US — it means despite the need, I can’t see it happening. First, where is the public outrage? There hasn’t been much public outcry for this. Yes, there have been abuses/breaches (like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, among other companies) and certain public voices demanding change, but there hasn’t been consistent public pressure on government officials to address this. A national privacy and security policy is unlikely too, mainly because of our legislative process. It is slow, cumbersome, and influenced by powerful lobbies like the tech sector. We do not have a national agency in charge of this industry, so in turn we have a patchwork of state and local laws that provide some protections, but there is no uniform set of laws nation-wide — and I don’t think there will be any time soon.
However, because US tech companies do business in the EU, it could be that in order to comply with the GDPR requirements, US-based tech companies will change their internal security policies for handling data. This practice could have a spillover effect on how they protect our data in the US.
Otherwise, there are no compelling incentives (economic or otherwise) for tech companies to change their ways.
For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Gianluca Stringhini at @gianluca_string and the College of Engineering at @BUCollegeofENG on Twitter. Follow the Political Science Department at @BU_PoliSci on Twitter. Follow Henrik Selin at @SelinHenrik and the Pardee School of Global Studies at @BUPardeeSchool on Twitter. Follow Kabrina Chang at @ProfessorChang and Questrom School of Business at @BUQuestrom on Twitter.