Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections (and THAT referendum)

Manipulation and EU Elections – twilight of Democracy?

I worry about whether the forthcoming EU Elections can be truly “free and fair”. Outside forces seem to have the ability and desire to over-ride the wishes of the people.

Writing on the Mozilla blog Manoush Zomorodi notes that

.. from one personality quiz taken by 270,000 people, 87 million Facebook accounts were accessed. Tens of millions of people (maybe you) did not knowingly give permission for their information to be shared or manipulated by political operatives with questionable ethics.

Did Cambridge Analytica Help to Create ‘Digital Wokeness’? Manoush Zomorodi April 22, 2019

Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, concludes (worryingly)

“We all need to better grasp what the trade offs really are, because once you learn how to modify human behavior at scale, we’re talking about a kind of power now invested in these private companies”

ibid

Manoush urges each of us personally to attend to three issues:

Be more choosy about your technology. There’s no need to go “off the grid,” but choosing products and companies that respect you and your data … [No, Facebook, not you]

Become a privacy settings ninja. Most sites and apps have privacy settings you can access, but they tuck them away several tabs deep. …

Educate yourself on how your data is accessed. Easier said than done, I know. That’s why I created a five-part bootcamp. The Privacy Paradox Challenge

ibid

In the previous post on the same blog, Raegan MacDonald worries about how the forthcoming EU Parliament Elections could be manipulated:

Disinformation isn’t a new phenomenon, but in today’s always-connected environment, the ability of false, misleading information to spread virally means the stakes are higher than ever before.

EU Parliament Elections: why it matters and what you can do to fight back against manipulation, Raegan MacDonald, April 8, 2019

Reagan highlights three means by which such disinformation is being spread – particularly on social media:

Tracking: People’s demographic and browsing behavior are used for (often questionable) pre-election targeting activities which can influence voters. Through tracking, propaganda can be precision targeted at users who are more likely to adopt and share a particular message. …

Opaque advertising: Election specific ads can be about candidates, or political parties, but more often than not, they are about hot button issues that may drive voters to favour one political party, or candidate, over the other (for instance immigration, climate change, the use of vaccines, EU border policies, etc). Often these advertisements don’t come with the transparency needed to understand who paid for the ad in question, and why it’s being served up to a particular group of people.

False amplification: While disinformation thrives on the virality – or potential for virality – of content, the amount of likes, shares, or retweets a piece of content has can be easily spoofed, giving people the impression that the story they’re sharing may be popular, but it’s really propped up by automated bots.

ibid

Yet despite the growing evidence of manipulation in recent elections and referenda, the UK government seems reluctant to take any action to regulate these sort of actions. One has to wonder if the current situation just sort of suits them well?

… as we’ve seen, social media and other online communication platforms can be manipulated to spread falsehoods or polarising messages, or exaggerate the truth, which can pollute public discourse, spread discord and distrust, and erode the integrity of the democratic process.

ibid

What hope is there for clean European Elections? Indeed what hope for any form of clean Peoples’ Vote – should Parliament not have the guts to do its job and, (recognising that the Brexit promises cannot be delivered in a coherent manner,) revoke Article 50.

The European Elections in the UK will probably be viewed as a distasteful sideshow – a fight between a man who for some reason wants to be re-elected to what must be for him his own Special Place in Hell, and a mish-mash of remain groups and a party that is Leave but would quite like to be seen by some as Remain.

The worry is if Parliament does not do its job and revoke Article 50 we will have another referendum. Many campaigners for a Peoples’ Vote seem to view this as the required end-point. Little do they realise that a second referendum will unleash a torrent of bitter, divisive, possibly violent campaigning backed by a disinformation campaign which will make all other manipulated elections pale into insignificance.

If we do not accept that our current systems are horribly open to manipulation – and get something done about it, we had better start thinking about what comes after the current form of Democracy that our recent ancestors fought for.

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