The danger to democracy posed by voting apps and internet politics – Alastair Stewart

Technology and the internet is changing the way democracy works and no one should be left behind, writes Alastair Stewart.

Technology may change the way we cast our votes  in more ways than one (Picture: Jane Barlow)
Technology may change the way we cast our votes  in more ways than one (Picture: Jane Barlow)
Technology may change the way we cast our votes  in more ways than one (Picture: Jane Barlow)

Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ is the original time-travel story. An American from the 1900s finds himself in medieval England and – in the shape of real-life interventionism to come – introduces the latest weapons of his time to utter disaster.

Imagine a time traveller from today in the 1800s with nothing but a mobile phone to show for himself. “It contains the entirety of human knowledge,” says our time tourist. “Have you future men used it to bring enlightenment to the four corners of the Earth, have you banished ignorance and given education to all?” ask the astonished locals.

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The modern man pauses: “Not really; we share pictures of angry cats, shout at strangers and crush moving candy.” Sad pastiche it may be, but it’s partly true. How excusable is political ignorance in today’s world when the answers to most questions are at our fingertips?

The answer is contradictory. Not everyone has an interest in politics, yet everyone is affected by it. There is no compulsory vote and no mandatory community service. Referendums are sporadic, and elections are usually at five-year intervals. We have a representative democracy where (mostly) elected politicians make decisions, so you don’t have to. Not giving a damn and a passionate concern for our country hold the same moral weight. That’s the contradiction of British democracy.

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But here we are, living in the age of the sixth great reform act. The digital democracy has extended the political franchise to include near-ubiquitous access to knowledge. As sure as gender, class and creed were once boundaries to casting a ballot, today’s empowerment issue is about who can access and participate on the internet.

“Democracy,” Lord Balfour once said, “is government by explanation.” News outlets may saturate us with detail, but if the internet contains ample data, it also suffers under a fair share of unsubstantiated trifle. There is still a need for a professional political class to articulate and translate what the deluge of information means and, in theory, to avoid the dangers of rampant misnomer and populism.

It’s worth remembering that paid members of parliament are a relevantly new phenomenon in British public life. As Noel Skelton notes in his excellent pamphlet ‘Constructive Conservativism’, there was a disconnect at start of the last century between paternal patrician governance and the real-world issues of the electorate.

The 1911 Parliament Act, remembered for breaking the constitutional deadlock between the House of Commons and Lords, also provided for MPs salaries to allow citizens who were not independently wealthy to enter politics.

Policy and politics are a full-time responsibility; not a hobbyhorse or self-indulgent exercise in noblesse oblige. Nowadays it’s Twitter, YouTube, websites and podcasts, not just political loquaciousness, that form the backbone of elections. As a result, tech-savviness is in danger of pushing parts of the older members of society out of the franchise altogether.

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Age Concern UK reports that older people who do not use the internet are more likely to feel isolated from others. If someone cannot leave the house, has only distant family members or a memory impairment, they’re going to find it far harder to learn how to use a mobile phone or tablet to access critical political developments. The abandonment of free television licences for the over-75s only underlines the point that information is “free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t”.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has found that 18.2 per cent of the UK’s population in mid-2017 were aged 65 years or over, compared with 15.9 per cent in 2007 with a projected jump to 20.7 per cent by 2027.

Current internet use in the 65-74 age group has increased from 52 per cent in 2011 to 80 per cent in 2018, but we must ensure there is a generational, structural and political protection so no older person is left behind. We cannot take for granted the intimidating glossary of digital terms and challenges of using the internet for older people.

As the Queen meets her 14th prime minister and grapples with Brexit, she may be the most informed nonagenarian in the country. The ONS reports that nearly one in 20 people aged 75 and over and one in 25 people aged 65 to 74 have used the internet but not in the last three months. Their struggle, isolation and political exclusion are a plight campaign groups and governments must do more to address.

The franchise gap is likely to increase if voting apps become a reality in Britain in the coming decades if not years. Internet voting schemes have gained popularity in recent years and were used for government elections and referendums in Estonia, Switzerland and municipal elections in Canada, as well as party primary elections in the United States and France.

To prevent a return of voter stagnation (which was surprisingly high at 68.8 per cent at the 2017 general election, including an impressive 64 per cent turnout among the 18-24 demographics), voter apps may well be the future. It’s vital that the exclusion risk for an ageing population is limited and that necessitates a return to genuine public discourse over obsessive online soundbites.

Former Tory leadership candidate Rory Stewart is perhaps the first mainstream politician in the last ten years to return the Socratic method to public life and, for the briefest of moments, the national platform was a better place for it. Political leaders must articulate without oversimplifying, explain without meandering and raise the level of public debate.

While it’s easy to deride the so-called gravy train politicians, we need professional politicians as sure as we need doctors and lawyers. The internet is not enough. Renewed faith must be placed in our political culture; we should take solace that voter turnout is up but be mindful that if democratic participation is to increase, if technology is going to form a greater part of the political discussion and electoral process, we must ensure it is accessible by ensuring robust support for our older citizenry.