The Virtual Stump Speech: How VR Might Change Politics

Photo: New York Times

by Lilit Markosian

NYT VR recently released a VR film that is a compilation of footage from political rallies that took place during the past few months. Now, with a cardboard viewer and your smartphone, you can see Trump make hyperbolic statements, Hillary talk about her grandchildren, or “feel the Bern”, as so many of us do — just as if you were standing there on stage with the candidates.

This immersive political experience is a unique development, because many Americans feel rather disenfranchised by the election fervor that overtakes our country every four years. It seems that only select portions of the country get any real attention from candidates, and the rest of us are supposed to just watch from afar and be satisfied. The ability to experience the debates and rallies in first person could change this common sentiment.

If you listen to big thinkers like Chomsky, then you might argue that the soundness of our democracy is indeed questionable. Nevertheless, in principle, if in nothing else, we pride ourselves on being a democratic state, and for that reason we should strive for a well-informed population. By giving people 360 and immersive access to election coverage, NYT VR is offering US citizens a chance to see the campaigns from up close. This is the modern stump speech — a VR stump speech.

Of course, there are things that could go very wrong when you mix virtual reality with politics. Being informed is always a good thing, but the manipulative powers of virtual reality are actually very real, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. There is a great deal of hype about VR at the moment, particularly in Silicon Valley. However, as with any technology, we have to think just as seriously about the potential consequences of VR as we do about the benefits.

When we see things on a 2D screen we can still judge what is real, watch as a third party. With VR we are not given this space; to watch from above and reflect. We are in the scene, experiencing it in first person, and reacting in very real physical ways.

The highly immersive and persuasive experience that VR provides means that it can be a tool for manipulation. Imagine blown up negative ads that aren’t just on your television, but horrific experiences that you actually have to live through… Virtual reality can mean a distorted reality, and that can’t be healthy for our political process.

So maybe VR will make the political sphere more accessible to larger portions of the country. Or, maybe it will be abused as a tool for brainwashing. This is all food for thought. Ultimately all any of us can do during an election year is not take pundits too seriously, and make the best-informed decision that we can, sticking true to our beliefs, and hoping things turn out alright.