Mr John Brace – written evidence (DAD0009)
- I am a journalist writing in an individual capacity who writes mainly about local government for the website https://johnbrace.com/ and also my video of public meetings of local government bodies on my YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/level80 .
- This is a one page summary of my submission that can be found on the following pages 2-6.
- There needs to be greater online transparency of election processes and publication of information online that is open to public inspection such as candidate election returns for the elections of local councillors, MPs, PCCs and combined authority mayors would be a welcome step in increasing transparency especially as this would highlight where information has been deliberately left out of returns or is incorrect.
- The filter bubble and the way websites optimise themselves (whether manually or automatically) to increase their influence leads for some websites to different information being shown to different users. The purpose of the algorithms is to make money though by automating tasks that would be very time consuming or impossible for people to do - the problem is algorithms don't seem to quantify or be programmed to understand harm. This is usually done by a person.
- Education has a role to play but there are still those that see technology as a bad thing and thwart its introduction and deter people from using it.
- How information is published online and the format it is published in impacts on how easy it is to find. Doing it according to best practice can be time consuming but there are steps that can be taken to improve matters along the way to what is considered best practice.
- Geotargeting can help with tailoring a political message to a specific audience. Targetting can also be done in other ways or combining audience attributes to microtarget. Misinformation can be dealt with in a number of different ways.
- The dangers to online technology and the filter bubble is that it can cause harm to those with protected characteristics (race and disability) by changing social attitudes which leads ultimately to violence and abuse (much goes unreported).
- I am making this submission in an individual capacity. I am John Brace, a journalist who covers mainly local government.
- In order to provide structure I will be answering based on my experience the questions in the call for evidence that can be found here https://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/Digital_democracy/Digital_Call_for_evidence.pdf and not restating the questions in this submission.
- In answer to question 1, I routinely inspect candidate election expense returns in the local government area I live in Wirral (mainly candidates for councillor and member of parliament) and have done so over a number of years both for regular elections and byelections.
- Over that time there has been a shift away from spend on paper based campaigns (such as leaflets through electors doors) to a mix of traditional campaigning to digital campaigning both in local and general elections. Just as a general observation - the candidates that appear to have experimented with digital campaigning at election time can send their message to a larger number of people at a lower cost. However candidate expense returns do not always reflect the true cost of digital campaigning as some costs that should be declared are sometimes left out or other more basic errors are made on a return (for example putting down spend on an invoice using the amount before VAT has been added). Generally though election laws aren't enforced and much doesn't get reported - in part as there is little understanding or investigation by police forces and also there has been a general reluctance of the Crown Prosecution Service to start prosecutions due to time limits on prosecutions and also the perceived "technical" nature of offences. Even though "technical" could be used to describe every law on the statute book!
- I have worked in the area of digital technology for a month short of 20 years - the positive effects of digital technology on democracy are that has allowed the media to tell stories in a different and more immediate way as well as include more user generated content, allowed politicians and campaigns to present their message more directly to the electorate and also email has massively revolutionised the way democracy happens. Another positive effect of technology is greater collaboration by different parts of the media on stories about the public sector. However there are negative effects on democracy of digital technology too - the filter bubble causes major problems both on political perceptions and then on the reality of decision-making and the way people think is influenced masively by the way technology is a part of peoples' lives. I remember having pretty much all my childhood without internet access at home - and when I eventually did have it it was over a phone line and at a slow speed. It meant the UK education system taught me when a child we had to learn respect for other peoples' viewpoints (even those we disagreed with) in an amicable way. Resolving differences that resulted in an angry exchange of views online wasn't an option available then.
- All websites I know of that grow over time optimise themselves (whether manually or automatically) to increase their audience because a larger audience/impact means for example that higher advertising rates can be charged and the business model is more sustainable. However the social media algorithms use aspects of basic human psychology to encourage greater use and that can lead to addiction. The impact and effectiveness of this varies from individual to individual - but the algorithm tailors its approach based on the user. The purpose of the algorithm though is to make the organisation money - the algorithm shapes democratic debate by effectively making an automated choice as to what is displayed to individual users and how the content that users create is displayed to others. As to the subquestion about accountability of the design of the algorithms, it is hard to answer this briefly but all algorithms are flawed. But my own personal viewpoint is that what is lacking is what the American science fiction writer Asimov referred to the first law of robotics which is "a robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." The algorithms as far as I perceive it at the moment aren't quantifying harm or injury that their decision making may cause to either individuals or populations both in the short and long term. The algorithms behind say large social media websites such as Twitter or Facebook are now too complex for one person to understand fully. Plus the algorithm is changing over time. Yes there should be more accountability and certain practices should be banned because of the harm caused.
- My view is that there isn't a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy as there is a low rate of adult literacy in the area I live in and rates of poverty and unemployment are pretty high. You can only have a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy if those using the digital technologies know and understand how to use them properly as well as a population with the financial means to use it. Having gone through the education system - ranging from nursery, primary, secondary, further and then higher education the area of technology was too new, scary and misunderstood for the generation that was doing the teaching/lecturing for them to want that outcome. Their reaction was more to punish people that wanted a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy as they regarded this behaviour as contrary to their traditional ways of dealing with matters such as democracy. They saw technology as a threat and people who used it as dangerous.
- In answer to question 4, at the moment (if I want to) I have to physically inspect paper copies of election expense returns, even if I desired to publish this information it would take time and in any event some information is redacted before public inspection (such as the home addresses of indiviual donors). There are two ways though I have published it in the past - the quickest is just the images of the pages and accompanying invoices. The better (but more time consuming method) is converting the forms and the information on them to HTML. This area really needs legislation though to bring it into the 21st century as it's still stuck in the 19th century and election material open to public inspection can't be requested through FOI/EIR legislation as far as I know.
- In answer to question 5, it makes it easier for different audiences to be shown different messages. For example a political campaign to improve disability access at local train stations might refer to the local train station by name based on geotargeting but messages can also be micro targeted at audiences based on what can be measured and beyond just simple geotargeting (which is often done in online political campaigns to limit the message to a defined geographical area and of course also based on age). There is already regulation in the form of costs limits - but as online advertising can be done at a much lower costs than print it does appear to make a mockery of overall cost limits that weren't designed for this sort of online campaigning. Maybe future regulation could have specific costs limits just for campaign election expenditure on online activities as well as the existing overall cap on total expenditure?
- In answer to question 6 there will always need to be some sort of private online space for encrypted messages and private groups but I don't understand how these levels of social organisation present a challenge to the democratic process.
- In answer to question 7 about anonymity, there are often matters that people wish to divulge to journalists in an anonymous fashion and some people prefer to continue the print tradition of a nom de plume online. Personally as a journalist I feel I should be accountable for what I do so I publish in my own name - but both a positive and negative aspect to that is perception of myself is based in part by perceptions of my work. There are however perceived negative impacts though through associating one's name with one's political views as it can lead to those who hold opposing political views and disagree with your right to express your views doing things to either silence you, discredit you, punish you or harrass you.
- In answer to question 8, it's when social media goes into areas that are unlawful that the problems start. The ongoing matters since the 2016 referendum and the way public discourse has happened have led to a rise in racism and racist violence which worries those of us from ethnic minorities. Although I have held elected public office in the UK many years ago I would not want to do so now due to the way that both those with disabilities and from ethnic minorities are treated.
- In answer to question 9, democratic processes and democratic institutions need to be much better at communicating with the public and not taking actions that damage trust such as the bad way that the MP expenses matter was handled. There needs to be much better engagement with the media by democratic institutions - less of an adversarial approach and less of individuals trying to punish journalists for doing their jobs well by deliberately excluding them. Faith in democracy can be improved by better behaviour both by democratic institutions and those working for them. Also if democratic institutions/politicians better reflected the communities that they served (such as on gender, age, ethnic minority etc) there would be less distrust. It goes beyond democratic instiutions though to perceptions and culture of the whole public sector that democratic institutions make decisions about and have an oversight and scrutiny role of.
- There will always be misinformation - which falls into many different categories of types - I run a blog and over the year there have been many complaints from individuals about comments made by third parties that refer to them. There is however a process that is followed that can lead to this content being removed. My answer to this question is that there is a difference between inadvertent misinformation and deliberate misinformation. The purpose of the social media platforms is to spread information though and removing content can lead to a Streisand Effect. There are therefore basically three ways but not mutually exclusive ways to deal with misinformation - remove it, put out more information pointing out its flaws and educate people better about misinformation so they they don't believe it so easily.
- In answer to question 11, those based in the UK are already subject to UK laws, but the multinational nature of companies mean that cultural attitudes and laws towards this differ. Automating moderation processes is open to abuse but the staff time involved in moderating content causes delays. I do think though that large technology companies could make it clearer and easier how such content should be reported to them, clear communication on the processes that will be followed when it is and the organisational view/policy on this too.
- I think the Government of the day (of whatever political persuasion) already supports the positive work of civil society organisations (even in some cases financially) especially where the work of those organisations align with its policy objectives. It's a two way process though. There are many in civil society organisations that are happy to engage - some prefer to stay out of the party politics or are required to do so (such as the political restrictions placed on charities). I would welcome less restrictions on the re-use of video footage of the House of Commons/House of Lords as it would allow stories about national democracy to be told in a different way.
- In answer to question 13 the problem is that many elected representatives don't do this or their use is impacted by the filter bubble. I know of elected representatives in local government that delete their emails without having read them, whereas MPs have staff to deal with residents queries. Webcasting of public meetings in local government by both Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority has led to greater public engagement (especially when meeting rooms are full because of a controversial issue). Both Parliament and Government in my opinion use technology far better than local government - both because it adopted technology at an earlier stage and it has the expertise to implement it and use it as well as the political will to want to improve. In local government technology is often purchased - then mothballed and left unused. There's a lack of understanding (although not as bad as it used to be) by local government politicians so they rely on senior managers for advice. The senior managers don't know so then expensive outside consultants are brought in so that the senior managers can take the credit for the consultant's advice and just repeat it to politicians. This approach however leads to skills gaps within local government at many levels as although senior managers due to their age often retire the ones who replace them often just appear to carry on the same approach and working practices.
- In answer to question 14 - live webcasting of public meetings in local government, journalists live tweeting of public meetings, local government bodies engaging with their population on social media, standing agenda items at public meetings for public participation when questions can be emailed in and public meetings held of House of Commons committees outside of London such as the recent one I attended in Liverpool.
- However the innovations in local government on technology and its impact on democracy appear to come mainly from how the House of Commons/House of Lords does something and copying it. This sometimes happens many decades though as the use of new technology often requires budgetary approval and the poltical will to implement it. Councillors haven't always been as a working culture in favour of openness and transparency as it pertains to how they make decisions and who makes them in local government. This is in part because it makes it harder for councillors to "spin" to their own political party and residents what happened/what was decided when there is both video footage of a public meeting and also media coverage contradicting their personal viewpoint of events.