Mr Barry Thain – written evidence (DAD0001)



  1. How has digital technology changed the way that democracy works in the UK and has this been a net positive or negative effect?


    1. It has given a voice to the underclass and led directly to the rise of Populism.


    1. For any given topic there is a pyramid of knowledge. At the top there’s one person who, all in all, knows more about the subject than anyone else. Beneath them, a few people know a very great deal. At the bottom of the pyramid is the vast mass of humanity – people like me – who know nothing (which doesn’t stop us having strong opinions). We are the people who decide the winners in a democracy. Plato disliked democracy because he thought the people were not wise enough to make good decisions.


    1. Until recently the constituents of the base of the pyramid had no voice. We did not publish books or write in journals or submit evidence to the House of Lords. We were not featured in broadcast media. We had some collective representation through trades unions but no individual voice.


    1. Digital technology gives everyone a platform. Anyone can publish whatever they like, and any sympathisers can easily find it. The ignorance of the masses can no longer be contained. This is a positive thing if you subscribe to the simplistic notion that the ‘voice of the people’ must be obeyed. Personally, having listened to his Reith Lectures several times, I would rather delegate (abdicate?) decisions about law, politics, Brexit, human rights, the Constitution and so on to Lord Sumption than be invited to make them myself, because he clearly knows and understands so much more about them than I ever could.


  1. How have the design of algorithms used by social media platforms shaped democratic debate? To what extent should there be greater accountability for the design of these algorithms?


    1. I’m not convinced this is an issue. For all we might suspect the algorithms produce echo chambers I’m not sure that matters as debate rarely changes minds (see the House of Commons Meaningful Vote debates).


    1. Of greater significance than algorithms, I believe, is the character count on Twitter. 280 characters is insufficient for a nuanced argument. It serves shouty headlines and the more extreme the better if you want to get noticed. The average Tweet is only 33 characters. Enough for “Yeah! Just get on with it!”



  1. What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy?


    1. Digital literacy is the new handwriting. Kids should be taught it in infants classes. Beyond that it is a matter of vocational education. I’m not sure it necessarily needs to be wedded to democracy or vice versa.



Online campaigning

  1. Would greater transparency in the online spending and campaigning of political groups improve the electoral process in the UK by ensuring accountability, and if so what should this transparency look like?


    1. Online campaigning by political parties should be restricted and regulated akin to offline campaigns.


    1. Other actors (individuals, groups and states) seeking to influence are harder to control. I would make the GIFT (Google, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) operations Publishers rather than Platforms and, in doing so, make them responsible and accountable for their content.


  1. What effect does online targeted advertising have on the political process, and what effects could it have in the future? Should there be additional regulation of political advertising?


    1. That Genie is out of the bottle. The good guys need to compete better with the bad guys. Again, I think that making GIFT publishers rather than platforms would help.


Privacy and anonymity

  1. To what extent does increasing use of encrypted messaging and private groups present a challenge to the democratic process?


    1. Hardly at all. I think this is a real red herring. Encryption is a security concern and even there an overstated one. Terrorism is scary and horrible but its effect on society is insignificant relative to smoking, obesity or even road accidents. Since the Madrid train bombing one person has been killed in Europe every two months by terrorists. One death across Europe every two months is tragic. But 1,500 people die from dementia in England and Wales every week.


  1. What are the positive or negative effects of anonymity on online democratic discourse?


    1. It’s a choice. Actually, it’s two choices. People can choose to remain anonymous if they fear a hostile response to their message, and people can choose whether to give credence to anonymous commentators. I think there are bigger fish to fry.


Democratic debate

  1. To what extent does social media negatively shape public debate, either through encouraging polarisation or through abuse deterring individuals from engaging in public life?


    1. It has simply given a voice to people who didn’t have one before. It doesn’t make them polarised or antagonistic. It allows extremists and idiots access to the same forum as intellectuals.


    1. Nothing in social media is a detrimental to society as the decision to grant a referendum on a matter of long-term significance (EU membership) to a people whose whim can change from one day to the next.


  1. To what extent do you think that there are those who are using social media to attempt to undermine trust in the democratic process and in democratic institutions; and what might be the best ways to combat this and strengthen faith in democracy?


    1. Trust in the democratic process is undermined by career politicians who vote whichever way increases their chances of climbing the greasy pole. One expense claim for a duck pond does infinitely more damage to trust in our institutions than any number of Kremlin bots.



  1. What might be the best ways of reducing the effects of misinformation on social media platforms?


    1. Make them publishers.



  1. How could the moderation processes of large technology companies be improved to better tackle abuse and misinformation, as well as helping public debate flourish?


    1. Make them publishers.


Technology and democratic engagement

  1. How could the Government better support the positive work of civil society organisations using technology to facilitate engagement with democratic processes?


    1. I have no idea.


  1. How can elected representatives use technology to engage with the public in local and national decision making? What can Parliament and Government do to better use technology to support democratic engagement and ensure the efficacy of the democratic process?


    1. No, no, no, no, no! We elect MPs so they can assemble the brains at the top of the pyramid and arrive at decisions on behalf of us idiots at the bottom of the pyramid. That’s what Parliament is there for. Don’t keep asking me to get involved in making decisions. I don’t know anything. That’s your job. Give me a vote every five years so I can approve or not, but don’t flatter me that you are interested in my opinion because my opinion isn’t worth anything.


  1. What positive examples are there of technology being used to enhance democracy?


    1. Beyond BBC Parliament???