Is digital technology rotting British and American democracy from the inside out

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group Democracy, Misinformation, fake news, and hate speech

The rapid evolution and spread of digital technology are already having a major impact on the enjoyment of civil and political rights around the world, and on the ways in which democracies function. Some of those impacts are undoubtedly positive. Digital technology, for example, allows citizens to scrutinise the actions and decisions of government officials (e.g. in the context of corruption) to degrees that would have been unimaginable only a decade ago. It also makes it easier for citizens to connect with candidates and their elected representatives, while social media and online campaigns have helped strengthen the civil and political participation of millions living in democratic societies, especially young people and marginalised groups.

However, as is always the case with technological advance, with opportunities come threats and challenges. For example, private information and even election results can be hacked to unduly influence electoral outcomes; voting machines may facilitate voting, but security measures have to be put in place to safeguard their integrity; while social media makes it easier to connect with elected politicians – yet that medium also allows those same politicians to more easily spread disinformation and hate. Some of these threats/challenges have received considerable media and expert attention over recent years. Others, especially the negative impacts of (the misuse of) digital technology on peoples’ right to choose their elected representatives in free and fair polls, and their right to receive accurate and honest information to help them make that choice, have – surprisingly – received far less attention. Until this situation is rectified, rather than easing the disconnect between citizens and politicians and ultimately building confidence in a functioning democracy, there is a real risk that digital technology will increasingly be used to foment doubt and mistrust in democratic institutions and processes.

To understand the extent to which this is already happening, in 2019 the Pew Research Centre and Elon University’s ‘Imagining the Internet Centre’ canvassed technology experts to gain their insights about the potential future effects of people’s use of technology on democracy. In an important wake-up call for world governments and the UN, some 49% of respondents expressed the view that digital technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the next decade (against 33% who said the use of technology will mostly strengthen democracy and 18% who said there will be no significant change).

‘Digital democracy’

The way we learn to use the Internet in the next few years (or fail to learn) will undoubtedly influence the way our children and grandchildren govern themselves. Yet only a tiny fraction of news stories about the impact of the digital technology on human rights focus and on how such technology may change democracy. Even those that do tend to focus on how traditional political parties and politicians are using the Internet to broaden support and win elections, rather than the potential of technology to widen political participation or amplify the voice of grassroots movements. And yet, the balance between these two poles – i.e. the degree to which digital technology is used to empower the citizenry or to entrench existing power structures – or, seen another way, the degree to which technology is used to widen or narrow the enjoyment of civil and political rights in a country – will determine whether our children and grandchildren live in a more, or less, democratic world.

Unfortunately, at present and on balance, digital technology is mainly being used to narrow and restrict the enjoyment of civil and political rights, and to perpetuate existing inequalities. While in principle digital technology is a great ‘equaliser’ – turning every desktop into a printing press or broadcasting station, in reality many recent polls around the world, including in long-established democracies like the UK and the US, suggest that far from serving to empower citizens, strengthen the enjoyment of civil and political rights, and deepen democracy, for the moment it is the wealthiest and most politically well-connected parts of society who have most effectively seized upon the opportunities provided by digital technology to consolidate – not share – power and opportunity.

Online elections

Although democracy is far more than elections (a well-functioning democracy requires the full enjoyment of all civil and political rights, as well as the equal enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights), free and fair public polls are nonetheless of central importance. Yet the international community has paid remarkably little attention to the question of how to embrace the digital age and its benefits while maintaining – and strengthening – the integrity and legitimacy of elections.

This is surely a missed opportunity. At a time of increasing distrust between citizens and their governments, technology can play a critical role in creating a more transparent, inclusive electoral process. More and more countries around the world, including many emerging democracies, are increasingly embracing technology to strengthen their electoral processes. International IDEA’s global data on the use of ICTs in elections provides an early snapshot of the current situation: very few countries (about 11%) conduct elections largely without technology, while using at least some technology is now a reality for most election commissions. Taking a closer look at this data, however, reveals big differences depending on the type of technology in question. While around 57% of surveyed countries use electronic tabulation systems for official results, only 15% use vote counting technologies in polling stations. And while 71% of election management bodies utilise ICTs for voter registration, only 21% also use technology for voter identification in polling stations.

What is clear, in any case, is that the use of technology in elections will only increase in the coming years and decades. Now is the time, therefore, for the international community to engage to ensure that digital technology serves to strengthen the inclusivity and integrity of elections, and thus promotes and protects civil and political rights – rather than the opposite.

Using digital technology to manipulate polls

As noted above, digital technology has already changed the nature of democracy and the ‘rules of the game’ – for better or for worse. This ‘disruptive’ impact will only increase over the coming years. And yet, at present, UN member States, including established democracies like the UK and the US, are notably unwilling to address the questions thrown up at the fault-line of digital technology and democracy/elections. That may be because, as explained below, they do not want to know the answers – or are actively benefitting from this new normal.

The Brexit referendum

The UK’s 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum on whether or not the country should leave the EU was one of the most momentous democratic votes in the country’s history – with significant long-term implications for the civil, political, economic and social rights of almost everyone in the country –especially the poorest and  most vulnerable.

In May 2017, almost a year after the referendum (won by those campaigning to leave the EU), a journalist at the Guardian newspaper, Carole Cadwalladr, published an article (the first in a series) entitled ‘The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked.’ In it she demonstrated how a shadowy data analytics firm with links to the ‘alt right’ in the US and the UK – Cambridge Analytica[1] – had used the stolen personal data of millions of Facebook users[2] to inform a military-style ’psychological operations’ (psych-ops) campaign on the British electorate.

According to Cadwalladr, ahead of the referendum, Vote Leave (the official Leave campaign) had spent £3.9m, more than half its official campaign budget, paying for the services of AggregateIQ, a small web analytics company based above a shop in Victoria, Canada. AggregateIQ, it transpired, provided the ‘back office’ (e.g. software and databases) for Cambridge Analytica. Using data ‘harvested’ from Facebook user profiles, Cambridge Analytica/AggregateIQ had identified ‘emotional triggers’ for each individual voter, and then ran a nationwide social media campaign ‘microtargeting’ those voters with messages tailored to play on their known fears or prejudices (e.g. unsolicited Facebook posts warning that if the UK were to remain in the EU the country would be ‘swamped’ by Muslim immigrants arriving from Turkey).

Although two investigations were launched on the basis of Cadwalladr’s articles, one by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office into the possible illegal use of data, and a second by the UK Electoral Commission on donations to and payments by parts of the Leave campaign, neither has led to any prosecutions or to a strengthening of the country’s ‘democratic defences,’ leaving Martin Moore, an academic at King’s College London, to conclude that the UK’s electoral laws are ‘weak and helpless’ in the face of new forms of digital campaigning.

US Presidential elections

In August this year, the US Senate released a final report on its investigation into Russian interference in American elections using social media. The report criticised major US technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, for helping spread misinformation during the 2016 Presidential polls, and pushed them to better coordinate to prevent a repeat during the 2020 elections.

The Senate Committee’s report, which built on earlier American investigations into foreign interference, including via social media, stopped short of saying that such ‘digital interference’ had influenced the election’s outcome, but did find that interference was ‘overtly’ and ‘almost invariably’ supportive of Donald Trump to the detriment of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Those conclusions are in line with the findings of the US intelligence community and former Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The report also gave examples of how misinformation can spread. Days after the 2016 election, a falsified media account of President Trump having won the popular vote briefly ranked higher on Google than stories that accurately reflected the popular vote, which was won by Ms Clinton. In another example, in the run up to the vote, the Committee found that YouTube had been used to unduly influence black voters in order to suppress turnout and stoke racial divisions.

Looking ahead, Senators underscored the importance of partnerships between government and digital technology companies in order to forge an effective response. For example, Senator Mark Warner, the Committee’s top-ranking Democrat, called for Congress to act, saying ‘we cannot expect social media companies to take adequate precautions on their own.’

In the absence of such a response, there is a clear risk of similar interference in this year’s Presidential poll. At the beginning of September, Facebook and Twitter announced that the main Russian group that interfered in the 2016 elections, known as the Internet Research Agency, is trying to repeat its strategy by pushing voters away from the Democratic candidate, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Digital technology companies are also – increasingly (though, many argue, insufficiently) – taking their responsibilities vis-à-vis human rights and democracy more seriously. For example, Twitter recently announced that it would aggressively ‘flag’ fake news (for example, in August it marked some of President Trump’s posts as ‘potentially misleading,’ after he falsely called postal voting ‘fraudulent’ and predicted that ‘mail boxes will be robbed’), and hate speech (such as his infamous ‘you loot, we shoot’ threat against ‘black lives matter’ protesters). For its part, Facebook has announced that it will flag any attempt by the Trump campaign to declare a premature victory in the presidential race on the platform.

Speaking about these and similar developments, Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said: ‘This election is not going to be business as usual.  We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy. That means helping people register and vote, clearing up confusion about how this election will work, and taking steps to reduce the chances of violence and unrest.’

The key question of course, when the current political-economic establishments in both the US and the UK are the main beneficiaries of the status quo, is whether such assertions is anything more than clever PR?

[1] Owned by a secretive American billionaire and directed (as Vice President), at one time, by former Strategic Advisor to President Donald Trump, Steve Bannon.

[2] Current estimates put the number of users who had their data stolen at 87 million.


Featured image: ‘Facebook femme présentation’. Copyright: Creative Commons

Share this Post