#democracydisrupted Last Tuesday, @Demos organized a discussion on The Future of Political Campaigning (13 November 2018). The panelists included the Information Commissioner (@ElizabethDenham) and the CEO of the Electoral Commission (@ClaireERBassett).
The presenting problem is social and technological changes that disrupt the democratic process and some of the established mechanisms and assumptions that are supposed to protect it. Recent elections (including the Brexit referendum) have featured new methods of campaigning and new modes of propaganda. Voters are presented with a wealth of misinformation and disinformation on the Internet, while campaigners have new tools for targeting and influencing voters.
The regulators have some (limited) tools for dealing with these changes. The ICO can deal with organizations that misuse personal data, while the Electoral Commission can deal with campaigns that are improperly funded. But while the ICO in particular is demonstrating toughness and ingenuity in using the available regulatory instruments to maximum effect, these instruments are only indirectly linked to the problem of political misinformation. Bad actors in future will surely find new ways to achieve unethical political ends, out of the reach of these regulatory instruments.
@Jphsmith compared selling opposition to the “Chequers” Brexit deal with selling waterproof trousers. But if the trousers turn out not to be waterproof, there is legal recourse for the purchaser. Whereas there appears to be no direct accountability for political misinformation and disinformation. The ICO can deal with organizations that misuse personal data: that’s the main tool they’ve been provided with. What tool do they have for dealing with propaganda and false promises? Where is the small claims court I can go to when I discover my shiny new Brexit doesn’t hold water? (Twitter thread)
As I commented in my question from the floor, for the woman with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Clearly misuse of data and illegitimate sources of campaign finance are problems, but they are not necessarily the main problem. And if the government and significant portions of the mass media (including the BBC) don’t give these problems much airtime, downplay their impact on the democratic process, and (disgracefully) disparage and discredit those journalists who investigate them, notably @carolecadwalla, there may be insufficient public recognition of the need for reform, let alone enhanced and updated regulation. If antidemocratic forces are capable of influencing elections, they are surely also capable of persuading the man in the street that there is nothing to worry about.
Carole Cadwalladr, Why Britain Needs Its Own Mueller (NYR Daily, 16 November 2018)
Nick Raikes, Online security and privacy: What an email address reveals (BBC News, 13 November 2018)
Josh Smith, A nation of persuadables: politics and campaigning in the age of data (Demos, 13 November 2018)
Jim Waterson, BBC women complain after Andrew Neil tweet about Observer journalist (Guardian, 16 November 2018)