Political disinformation has become dangerous and unacceptable

Further evidence has been emerging in the last few days of an undermining of democratic processes in the UK and elsewhere as the UK Select Committee , the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, reported on political disinformation and “fake news”. This report underlines previous posts in this blog on what can be described as potentially illegal or at best ethically questionable activities to influence voting.

The charge sheet keeps growing

The charge sheet that is being drawn up includes:

  • A small group of individuals and businesses are influencing elections across multiple jurisdictions, not just the UK. One wealthy person, Arron Banks, who funded one of the pro-Brexit campaigns in 2016, has not been able to fully and satisfactorily account for his activities both in the UK and overseas including Russia. There is a lack of clarity as to the sources of funds for the above campaigns
  • Foreign interference, from Russian intelligence, is taking place, but there is a lack of openness about what has been discovered by authorities in this respect
  • A key source of influence is social media, namely Facebook, who have not been able to satisfactorily account for their oversight of these activities. Facebook was used for microtargeting of very large numbers of potentially pro-Brexit voters, particularly older voters, through Cambridge Analytica. Here is one alleged example of this advertising.
  • Social media tolerate unacceptable online abuse and harassment
  • Regulatory authorities and the idea of the rule of law are being defied
  • It is possible that these activities tipped the balance, in a very tight vote, in favour of the Leave side in the UK 2016 referendum
  • There is a lack of transparency: it is not clear, for example, who placed the microtargeted adverts. The actors are not clearly identified.
  • Money has been channelled in secretive and underhand ways, to deliberately deceive regulators, who have reported such activities to the police
  • Election advertising contained falsehoods that mislead people. It is now well-known that a series of lies were told during the UK referendum campaign and have been subsequently disproven. This include an allegation that £350m a week could be saved from leaving the EU to be spent on the NHS, a Free Trade deal with the EU would be easy to achieve, Turkey was going to join the EU and unleash huge numbers of immigrants to the UK, and Brexit did not mean the UK will leave the Single Market.
  • The social media companies are too powerful and lack regulatory oversight. A better balance needs to be struck between freedom of expression and accountability for the content they host
  • Leading actors in the scandal have shown an amoral contempt for democratic processes, including refusing to attend Parliamentary committee hearings and answer legitimate questions on their activities
  • People lack sufficient understanding of what is going on, need to be better able to distinguish truth from falsehood and need to grasp how cybersphere works and how they can be manipulated. This is a matter for education, and it is suggested that a tax on social media could fund it.

Democracy itself is at risk

The Guardian“, who have been heavily involved in unearthing these activities, concludes, “The lack of consent goes to the heart of an unequal relationship in which public control is lacking over a too-often lawless and amoral space in people’s lives. And the campaigns of disinformation and messages of hate – unchecked and uncontrolled – threaten the rational basis of discourse and policy-making without which mutual trust cannot function.”

The report makes clear that the law needs to change and “catch up” with the digital revolution in terms of what is legitimate political influence. As it stands, unless action is taken, future campaigning will further undermine democracy and, perhaps more seriously, undermine the legitimacy of elections and political influence more generally, both in the UK and other democracies.

This blog has been monitoring this problem for a considerable time. People have to have trust in the democratic process, the “rules of the game”. If this is lacking, people will not accept the results of elections and challenge the whole basis under which democracy works. This can lead to revolution, secession, and authoritarianism. It is that serious.

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