Democracy is in trouble unless we confront the dark forces of social media disinformation and ‘voter suppression’ which are already corrupting debate and influencing outcomes, writes Brian Wilson.
Democracy as we know it used to be simple. We voted, we elected a government, we accepted the result, we either rejoiced or waited for a better outcome next time.
We complained sometimes about a hostile press. But that was seen as a problem to be managed and moaned about rather than an interference with process. The alternative was to blame the gullibility of the electorate for the failure of one’s own message.
It is difficult to avoid concluding that this innocent era in which we all thought we knew what our democracy amounted to is drawing to a close and that “something must be done” though heaven knows what.
That mood has been accelerated by referendums which offer to reward those who “only have to win once”. The end then justifies the means because, no matter what may follow, the outcome is irreversible. It is a dangerous game for democracy.
Referendums are ideal platforms for disinformation because of the difficulty in extracting a subsequent price. But they are not the only ones. Emerging evidence from America is equally significant in confirming democracy’s vulnerability to mendacity.
Asked to define our democracy, most might say “one person, one vote” but that has never applied in the US. Up to a quarter of the population is not even registered to vote and that, in the main, is not through inadvertence.
Reports into Russian interference in support of Trump reveal massive efforts to discourage black people from voting under the false flags of social media campaigns with names like Blacktivist and Black Matters US. They inculcated the message that voting would only damage black interests.
My mind went back to reporting American Presidential campaigns, leading to a crash course in the institutional depth of American racism. I remember visiting an organisation in Birmingham, Alabama, devoted to encouraging black voter registration.
The tactics used to prevent this extended to making recitation of the US Constitution a prerequisite. Good people who believed in the power of the vote worked night and day to overcome all this and presumably still do – while “voter suppression” has become a sophisticated Republican strategy.
Now, on top of that, a foreign power is exploiting centuries of distrust to tell black Americans it is against their interests to vote, countering everything the voter registration drive has worked for decades to develop.
It succeeded. Trump boasted: “The African-American community was great to us ... if they had any doubt, they didn’t vote, and that was almost as good, because a lot of people didn’t show up.” For the first time in decades, the black vote went down.
It is one spectacular example of how the terms of political engagement have changed irrevocably. At least in America there are inquiries and demands for regulatory controls over Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
We hear little of that here yet there is not the slightest doubt that similar forces are at work, preying upon fear and ignorance from behind the masks which social media licences.
One thing 2018 taught us is that the groovy technocrats behind these media channels are just as ruthless and greedy as press barons of old – but with much, much more power and information at their disposal. Their freedom to subvert must be constrained.
The UK rule of thumb is to avoid investigations, particularly if there are dubious allies who might be offended. Who will go to jail for Cambridge Analytica? Why has there been no inquiry into the strong evidence that Saudi money was channelled into the Brexit campaign via the DUP?
We have learned recently of a bizarre “charity” in Fife which gets millions of taxpayers’ money to counter Russian interference, has only 3,000 Twitter followers and a sideline in smearing Jeremy Corbyn. Is that really the appropriate level of democratic response?
Rather like drones at airports, this is a threat that demands pre-emptive action rather than belated running to catch up. There is an urgent need for an Electoral Commission capable of recognising the nature and scale of the challenges.
Trump and Brexit are early warnings of the alternative direction of travel.