Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Can Democracy Survive the Internet?

The internet was at one stage hailed as a major democratic tool – allowing us “voters” to have a direct input into the democratic purpose (beyond that of putting an “X” on a piece of paper every few years).

But now we are not so sure.

Being computerised (by definition) it is possible to automate interaction with the internet – which means that large-scale programmed mischief is possible.

Mischief can be people either manipulating the internet for profit, or manipulating us for political gain.

Manipulating the Internet for Profit

We read during the US Presidential election of  “fake news” created not primarily to influence the result but to make profit through “click-bait” and pay-by-impression advertising. Macedonia seems to be a centre of this enterprise. Young entrepreneurs create headlines that appeal sufficiently to a particular audience to make them click through to the main (also created) story which contains advertisements. The advertisers pay the fakers a micro-payment for every click; hundreds of thousand of clicks (even millions) can create a very good return for a few minutes of fiction writing.

For this to work you need advertisers sufficiently lacking in scruples to take advertising spaces in these fake stories – but often their advertising is placed by agencies, and these adverts probably make up a very small proportion of all advertising placed on the internet. The internet acts as a multiplier, you no longer need to be interested in the detail, but can scale your operation using algorithms to drive your system. It is quite possible that the owners of the companies and products being advertised on these fake stories are unaware of the adverts – unless individuals tell them.

Manipulating Us for Political Gain

Closely allied to the above is direct manipulation of us for political gain. If you can place a scurrilous story about your opponent and others copy it on (and on and on) – infecting the internet like a virus (going viral) – you can do untold damage. In the UK printed “electoral communications” must carry an imprint saying who published it and on whose behalf. In the US, TV and radio adverts often end “I’m X and I approve this message”. Anonymous internet messages have no such restraint.

Sometimes it is small-scale actors doing this out of a sense of pure mischief, sometimes it is people systematically doing it for profit (as described above) and sometimes it is suspected that state actors are involved.

State actors (Russia is the current favourite bogey nation, but I don’t see why others can’t be involved as well) may plant false or skewed stories. However it is suggested that state actors or their proxies may also be hacking systems such as electoral rolls or even electronic voting machines and tallying networks.

That this is possible is beyond dispute. Many electronic systems are notoriously insecure and many countries (such as the US) want the secure systems to have back-doors so that the good guys (i.e. them) can subvert the security to get directly into the systems. That they believe the “bad guys” won’t discover these back-doors and use them is both naive and frightening.

We are aware of fake stories, such as the Pope endorsing Donald Trump. (Donald Trump is one of those who has most benefited from Fake News.) The really worrying stories are those that are fake, but which we don’t realise are fake.

There is a danger that we might cease to trust the electoral system and that we distrust so many stories that effective debate of issues becomes impossible.

So the question has to be asked?

Can Democracy survive the Internet? If it can’t what replaces it?

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