General election: Whatever happens we must address real dangers to democracy like these – Laura Waddell

Fake tactical voting apps are just one example of how political discourse is being manipulated and undermined, writes Laura Waddell

This has been an election campaign of darkness and a dissolution of meaning, says Laura Waddell (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)

This has been the election of darkness, where canvassers have strapped on head torches to venture outside on wet December days turned dismal anytime after half-past-three in the afternoon, while the incumbent Prime Minister turned the lights off, pretending nobody is home. Looking already like a child’s drawing in heavy-handed yellow crayon, posters on every lamppost in this frostbitten land should read Boris Johnson: Missing. If found, return to Andrew Neil.

This is an election where the programme of austerity put in motion by the former coalition government has had enough time to clearly reveal its inevitable outcomes. We can see poverty and cruelty in dry statistics; we can see it in the streets. Many, including children, feel it in their bones and bellies. With the prospect of more crushing domestic policies, likely worse than before, what is at stake is vast and the possibilities grim.

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Fortunes are twinned; it feels like the last-chance saloon, both for a country still clinging to its NHS and food standards as vulpine Bullingdon boys tie napkins around their necks for a feast, and for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader running another election campaign he cannot afford to lose. Meanwhile, the open gate has never stopped creaking for Scotland, always with an eye to the horizon and a way out.

This election, tactical voting became memified like never before. With graphics and generators spreading spore-like online and distanced further from their point with each share or retweet sending them off in a new direction unboundaried by constituency, the concept is easily exploitable. Some tactical voting systems which popped up for this election were shown to be nonsense, generating the same suggestion no matter which postcode was entered.

Hollowness of vague tactical spam

By now it’s no surprise that even MPs fall for this stuff, promoting junk sites and apps to their wider audience, like Mike Gapes unhelpfully punting a site that recommended voting for Mike Gapes, no matter one’s constituency. If the Member for Ilford South can fall for it, there’s every chance a voter in Huddersfield or Hamilton who also took it at face value will be bamboozled in the booth when Gapes is nowhere to be seen on their ballot.

But away from instances where tactical voting is strategic and purposeful in its intent to swing marginal seats, the hollowness of much vague tactical spam speaks ultimately to a lack of faith in the Westminster two-party, win-or-lose system, where gaming it feels like the best chance of success, and particularly to the despondent. Tactical voting groups have sprung up all over the place on Facebook and they are both social and easy to engage with, drawing not just the hobbyist data analysts but also the uncertain or apathetic voters, or those frozen in the lights of polarisation, to the savvy veneer of gamification with its winks and nudges. It can seem occasionally like an end in itself. “How are you voting?” “Tactically.”

We can probably expect tactical voting sites and apps to become more malevolent in the future. They’re at the apex of the perfect storm: personal data-sucking, exploitatation of ignorance about online media, and opportunity for misinformation.

Trust in BBC falling

But for some, diminishing the idea a vote stands for something concrete goes hand in glove with general operative cynicism. Does it matter to ruling classes with vested interests in privatisation if democracy is diminished? Brexit itself continues to degrade into meaninglessness; a fluid form moulded to the desires of anyone and everyone, like a horoscope designed to appeal to personal biases. Fatigue over the whole affair has been taken advantage of. Parliament has been pushed to its limits of conduct. Nothing can be taken for granted. Everything can be evaded. We have barely touched on the legacy of Windrush and Grenfell. The Panama Papers have blown away in the wind.

This political era has trashed precedents, from the Brexit campaign onwards. Public trust in the BBC’s news coverage has also suffered, just as it did during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. In Johnson, the UK has a candidate for returning Prime Minister who calculates his chances are better when he’s slated for his absense than if he shows his face in a debate, and he’s more or less getting away with not turning up. When Marine Le Pen was the only candidate to be profiled in a serious sit down interview on the Andrew Marr Show during the most recent French elections, apparently she was the only candidate able to be pinned down and that discussions were ongoing with others; weeks passed and no other candidates appeared. Astonishingly, the clip is hosted on BBC News’ own Youtube account titled “Marine Le Pen: Front National ‘not racist’ – BBC News”, demonstrating the exact problem with shining the light of media legitimacy on the far-right. And yet, has nothing been learned in the three years since producer Rob Burley celebrated the viewing figures for the scandal of that interview, broadcast on Remembrance Sunday? Yes, of course it’s hard to work out the schedules of top-ranking politicians in an election campaign, but never has the phrase ‘you had one job’ been more relevant. What was to stop the BBC recording all candidates before any were broadcast, in possession of the foreknowledge Johnson has evaded debate in the past? More than ever, robust editorial standards are needed to combat misinformation, derision of experts, and far-right figures who know how to crystalise their hardline bases via a mainstream media who weakly insist they can be debated away. We switch on the TV to a hall of mirrors.

This has been the election of darkness, anonymous sources, and dissolution of meaning. It will be over by the end of today, wrapped up before the 12 days of Christmas can begin. I hope very strongly that Johnson falls from his pedestal. But no matter what happens when the votes tumble in, there will be more dark days to come. The problems the UK faces as an institution fundamentally warped by insiduous power and money are deeply ingrained.