There is an irony in the appointment by the House of Lords of a committee to explore the impact of digital technologies on democracy. The Internet is now, however, global. The majority of users live in parts of the world which had city states and empires while our ancestors were still wearing woad. They tend not to equate not to equate “democracy” with “listening to the empty vessels who make the most noise”. They believe that social cohesion is better served by a more “mature” process in which elder statesmen decide after listening to the views of all parts of society.
The formation of the Global Alliance for Responsible Media is likely to have far more impact on the way the Internet functions than the actions of politicians and regulators. The latter are in thrall to those with the biggest budgets for lobbyists and lawyers. No-one today has lobbying and legal teams bigger than the US West Coast Internet giants. Players like Facebook and Google have, however, seen the need to take action to preserve their advertising revenues from spending strikes by global brand-owners, like Diageo and Proctor and Gamble The advertisers are also looking to take back control from the intermediaries who put their brands at risk , placing them alongside content from terrorists, abusers and peddlers of click bait.
The moves to deny a voice to those who have been driving “moderates” off-line raise questions as to who should exercise editorial control over content. If the dominant players exercise their ability to block/remove content which damages the brands whose adverts they appear alongside, can they sustain the argument that they are not publishers – with the responsibilities of the latter for the content of “letters to the editor” and “classified adverts”.
1) From open debate to self-reinforcing cyberghettos
Early enthusiasm about global dialogue and “on-line town halls” morphed into disappointment that most on-line forums served to polarise opinion into self-reinforcing groups. In parallel we saw the rise of mass-market social media and advertising/trading platforms dominated by a handful of US players. That led to the collapse of the traditional channels of communication between politicians and people. National and local press and broadcast services and labour-intensive write-in and phone-in campaigns have been replaced by botnet-driven spam and twitter storms organised by who-ever has the budget and expertise.
The primitive “dictatorship of the sysadmins” (mediating on-line voting systems) has given way to the automated “dictatorship of the algorithms” with precedence to those views/stories which generate the most clicks, regardless of whether these are from humans or botnets. Now, after protests from around the world and pressure from large advertisers, players like Facebook are bringing back banks of humans to remove material which damages the image of brands alongside which it appears.
2) Mediated by the most powerful cartel the world has ever known.
The rise of on-line bring and buy services and pay-per-click programmatic advertising model have made it uneconomic for newspapers and broadcasters to employ journalists to do much more than regurgitate press releases. The cartel has thus come to dominate communications between current and would-be political leaders and their current or potential followers via advertising funded social media. It appears impossible for that dominance to be challenged by those who recognise US copyright and patent law.
It may be intellectually satisfying to discuss how this situation came about. The bigger question is what should be done to restore democracy. But that masks the question of what we mean by “democracy”.
3) What is democracy?
For over a century we equated “democracy” with universal adult suffrage based on a published electoral register and a secret physical ballot. Then with the rise of postal voting our electoral system rapidly degenerated into one that would disgrace a banana republic . Add on-line registration, the failure to prosecute election fraud and an allegedly “stolen” by election in Peterborough and we have growing scepticism that UK election results reflect “the will of the people”.
Meanwhile we have a steady flow of comment from the intellectual and business elite of the Country, as represented by the BBC, Guardian, Institute of Directors and CBI, that the people were mislead and lied to when they had the temerity to vote to leave the EU. They feel we should therefore re-run the referendum because the plebs had the temerity to disagree with the consensus of the graduate, metropolitan intelligentsia over the nature of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
4) How did the ruling establishment of Westminster, Whitehall and Media City become so out of touch with over half the electorate?
That split between the plebs and the intelligentsia is not confined to the UK. It is reflected in debate on the supposed need to address the “democratic deficit” of the European Union as a whole. The Union uses hierarchies of consensus creating bodies to produce policies, directives and regulations for Parliamentarians elected by proportional representation to agree. Is that not a triumph of mature democratic process over the shallow populism of Farage, Le Pen and Trump?
London and Brussels have produced consultation processes which engage and satisfy those sufficiently well organised to employ professional lobbyists. These grind on until any dissidents have lost the will to live. We have similar situations in local government. E-mails to councillors protesting against decisions are blocked as spam. On-line objections to planning applications are acknowledged but not registered. But there are no longer any trainee investigative journalists on the local paper seeking to make their reputations by investigating why, how and what is accidental, careless or deliberate.
In consequence dissent can gain traction and grow to critical main using communications channels that politicians and pundits fail to monitor.
5) Leading to Government by Protest
The UK has a long and proud tradition of peaceful protest. Rhis erodes when the gulf between the political establishment and the people becomes too wide. Perhaps the most spectacular example was the UK fuel protests in September 2000 . These appeared to come out of nowhere and were supposedly resolved by firm Government action, alias capitulation followed by revenge (as with the Peasants Revolt). A better way of looking at what happened is to see it as the first and last spontaneous mass protest to be organised over CB radio.
40 years ago CB radio spread from truck and taxi drivers to farmers and teenagers, with illegal burner/relay station on urban tower blocks and rural hill tops. National “cover” was probably as ubiquitous as wifi today. Faced by crippling fuel prices rises, groups of farmers and lorry drivers discussed mounting a French style protest. Support for the idea spread nationally within a couple of days. The consequences are history. Appalled by what they had achieved and with no plan to handle the consequences, the nominal leaders called for the protests to end as soon as the Government, faced with no credible alternative, publicly gave in.
Unfortunately the lesson the Government learned was that independent lorry and taxi drivers and farmers were outside Trades Union control and had to be brought to heel, including surveillance by the security services. The Radio Communication Agency set about monitoring CB radio and shutting down relay/burner stations. No-one concluded that Government needed more sensitive consultation and communication processes in order to avoid provoking such anger.
6) Using the Social Media of the day
Over the next few years mobile phones replaced CB radio over most of the UK. The 2011 riots were “organised” via SMS, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger. Subsequently more of the rioters were caught from social media footage than from CCTV or material collected using powers under RIPA.
The effect of social media campaign and fake news on the 2016 referendum campaign is a matter of disagreement. Government, the EU and those campaigning for Remain spent many times more than those campaigning for Leave. Cambridge Analytica had little if any influence on the results and techniques it tried to sell to the Leave campaign were used extensively used by the Remain campaign – but to little effect. Those using them appear to have miscalculated either the audiences (plural) or the messages (plural).
Then came the 2017 elections which caught no-one, except Conservative Central office, by surprise. The shock result resulted largely from a short order social media campaign to encourage students to register at both home and University and vote and get their parents to vote.
More recently we have the rise of the Brexit party, based on the use of social media to communicate simple messages to the audience that came together for the referendum campaign and were increasingly tired of being patronised and told they did not understand.
Almost exactly two years ago I took part in an event organised by ISOC UK on the theme “Fake news: annoying symptom or life threatening disease” I recommend listening carefully to the comments of the Facebook speaker. What do we really want from them and their peers with regard to editing news, views and comment? I blogged my views on the question “Is fake news destroying democracy?” in advance of the meeting . I quoted Tom Standage’s excellent book “The writing on the wall“. It traces the evolution of social media from the first stirrings of literacy through the ages. The first election campaigns to be successfully distorted by fake news were those of Julius Caesar. His letters described the genocide of the Gauls (we now have archeological evidence) to steal their gold as a series of heroic fights against vast odds. I also used the opportunity to blog my paper for the 50th Anniversary of LEO under the title “Everything on-line is potentially fake and we cannot tell the difference“.
My conclusion was a question: “Can you check the sources, or are you left deciding which editor (Google, The Guardian or the Goebbels of the day) you choose to believe?”
7) The propaganda to influence “democratic decisions” is only part of the problem.
The honesty, integrity and auditability of consultation processes and voting system are critical. The public have to feel confident that results said to represent their views/wishes do indeed do so. That is being lost in the UK.
Key questions for House of Lords enquiry include how we could/should use technology to help restore confidence that our representatives are honestly elected, our “democratically accountable” institutions really are, and that their decisions are not so far out of line with the consensus of public opinion as to risk serious civil disobedience.
I f we do not find and implement answers quickly, the next General Election could be the most fractious, vicious and violent since the 19th century, when the processes for a secret ballot based on a published register of voters were developed. The candidates in the Conservative leadership debate organised by the BBC after the second leadership ballot all wanted a General Election postponed until after trust in Parliament had been restored. Others might say that a General Election is needed to help restore trust. But in the current mood would the losers have any more faith in the result than in that of the Peterborough By Election?