Author note: As noted above, I work as an academic at the University of Leicester. My most recent research has centred on crisis communications, and the way in which social media can be used to increase levels of situational awareness, and improve operational outcomes, whilst guarding against mis and disinformation campaigns. I am also writing a book – to be published in 2020 – on the impact of digital technologies on the business of intelligence and on our relationship with intelligence as a function of government, which spreads into the cyber and hybrid warfare realm that has become relevant to the operation of our democracy.
How has digital technology changed the way that democracy works in the UK and has this been a net positive or negative effect?
1) The growing usage of digital technologies has highlighted and exacerbated pre-existing frailties that existed in our political system. It has also introduced additional vulnerabilities, including the ability of external adversaries to manipulate our political discourse and national direction, including our strategic disposition and resilience.
2) The structural frailty exists in the first past the post electoral system, which – in effect – places the ability to shift power in the hands of relatively few voters in key marginal seats. It exists in a FPTP system where, for reflective electors, the ability to aggregate a wide range of policy preferences into a single mark on a sheet of paper is a blunt instrument at best. It has also highlighted the poor levels of political education and policy understanding amongst the public at large who are more strongly guided by values-based choices than evidence-based choices. The description of ‘Westminster bubbles’, ‘establishment elites’ and so on can, I think, be boiled down to a fundamental gap between values and evidence-based dispositions or choices. The growth in the usage of digital technologies has served to amplify the poor job our news media does in informing and educating the public about difficult public policy choices, creating an addictive pattern of consumption and production
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?
3) The most obvious impact algorithms, that underpin social media and search platforms, have had is the curation of news items (and these might be actual news items, but equally they can be opinion pieces, or contacts posting views on news) for the individual based on an algorithmically assessed view of their preferences. These preferences are drawn from a large sample of measurable indicators, but have included their known social network, the search terms they use, the webpages they browse, the ‘likes’ and re-posts of stories and how long they remain on a web-page or story. The result of this machine assessment has been – for example – that someone flagged as concerned about immigration and tending towards wanting to leave the EU would be served items that reinforced these concerns and tendencies, whereas a remain leaning individual would be served stories, for example, highlighting irregularities in the referendum process and negative assessments around Britain leaving the EU. The effect of these computer systems does help to partly explain why two individuals might ostensibly believe they have read the same core material on a subject and yet draw diametrically opposed views upon it.
4) The citizenry and indeed much of policy community retains a view that computers are objective arbiters of facts because they are a machine and therefore cannot place subjective meaning to an assessment. But computer processing is objective only in the sense that is carries through the instructions given to it by its software. The conscious or unconscious biases of computer programmers do – therefore – come through the software used by all online platforms and that has an effect akin to compound interest of hard-baking these biases into our political discourse. These technologies should therefore be seen as being highly vulnerable to two forms of insecurity: 1) from enemy actors intercepting and analysing the data for warning notice and operational preparedness, 2) being manipulated or gamed by adversary actors to drive particular messages through into the public. There is good evidence around Chinese, North Korean and Russian efforts to not only influence news stories in the UK, but to try to unsettle or unseat the public’s faith in what they read from their governing institutions.
5) The news feed algorithms, in concert with newspapers and their ‘search engine optimisations’ have moved news increasingly towards ‘opinion’ and ‘speculation’, rather than reportage. The growth of social media platforms has supported this drift towards opinion, and with it the curate’s egg of opinion being weighted equally with that of expertise. In some fields, the impact of this is not vital, when it comes to toxicology, immunology, virology, the law, and indeed some might argue economics, trade and security it does have the effect of undermining our collective resilience to emerging threats.
What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy?
6) My recent experience of primary to secondary school education on this matter has led me to conclude that the state education system is doing a good job of providing access to the basic skills required to navigate online news and social media spaces. Universities seek to provide critical thinking and evaluative skills that should also provide some comfort that future generations will be less susceptible (still vulnerable, but less susceptible) to misinformation and particular forms of campaigning that we have seen in the last four years. I remain very concerned – however – about generations of our citizenry who are no longer in education, because my experience of discussing public policy issues with them strongly suggests to me that a significant proportion of them would benefit from the sort of educative programmes currently being run by schools.
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?
7) It would be difficult to argue ‘no’ to this question. The issues surrounding the 2016 referendum, the fierce debates that still rage around whether there was improper foreign influence and funding during that campaign because of or despite of the views of the Electoral Commission, leads to a conclusion that the transparency rules that this country already has do not necessarily require changing, but they do require enforcing. And that enforcement should happen more quickly, and that the reputational loss (but to whom, might be a reasonable question) of an election being re-run, or candidates being debarred, or fines being levied at a significant rate, is necessary to avoid the conclusion from 2016 being that investigations and fines associated with breaches of electoral rules are now transaction costs in the process.
8) A significant cap on donations to groups and parties, would lessen the impact of sectional interest groups. The registration of any and all donations to political groups would open the system up to absolute transparency. If this was coupled to a stricter regime of enforcement (and there is an open question about which organisation should do the investigating, and I would prefer a variant of the French investigative magistrate for this function), including debarment and election re-runs, it would most likely have the impact of producing a rule-set that was more closely adhered to.
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? Privacy and anonymity
9) The impact of targeted advertising is dealt within other sections of this response. In terms of regulations, and as with political donations, there should be a requirement to lodge all audio, visual, digital or written political advertising – along with the funding sources for it and what criteria was used for distribution - with a government or quasi-government repository so that it is open to be scrutinised by the public, civil-society groups, academics and appropriate judicial and quasi-judicial authorities. This is a direct response to the incidence of highly targeted, but anonymous digital political marketing that was seen in the 2016 Referendum and 2017 General Election, which is a trend that it would be reasonable to assess will continue.
To what extent does increasing use of encrypted messaging and private groups present a challenge to the democratic process?
10) In the UK we have seen the negative impact of encrypted messaging and broadcast to large-closed-groups in the organisation of street violence in August 2011. The open source literature is quiet on the subject of whether the British electorate has been confronted with closed-group, encrypted and organised political messaging. Where this has occurred – notably in Brazil and India – there have been concerns that the messaging has appealed to the baser instincts of the electorate and some messages may have been actionable under incitement laws.
11) There is clearly a balance to be struck between protecting what is increasingly becoming a veneer of personal privacy and the right to a cautiously limited freedom of speech. The registration of all political marketing, which would include political messaging, with commensurate penalties for failing to register, would help to maintain the balance between private messaging (which increasingly sophisticated encrypted communications technologies try to ensure) and the need to ensure the preservation and sanctity of our democratic processes.
What are the positive or negative effects of anonymity on online democratic discourse?
12) There is a general assumption that we live in an open society, and one in which lawful dissent is tolerated. There are some notable counterpoints to this well-constructed and nurtured collective self-image. The ongoing inquiry into undercover policing has seen civil society groups publicly bringing forward evidence of groups acting lawfully being subject to extensive surveillance measures by covert police officers, up to and including them forming relationships and parenting children with surveillance targets. The use of public order imagery capture and lawful interception of communications prior to demonstrations has also been cited as having a deadening effect on political discourse in this country. If we match that to the chilling impact of the ‘electronic detritus’ we all leave behind during our lives online, we are increasingly making public service a space for those with hides like rhinos, or who have lived monastic lives. This is as much a challenge for security and intelligence agencies trying to recruit those with no blackmailable facets to their lives, recorded online, with the need to look ‘normal’. Even yesterday (18th September) an upset father who confronted the Prime Minister in a hospital was ‘exposed’ as having been a Labour Party supporter, and thus the substance of his complaint – which was focused on the treatment of his child and the facilities in the hospital – was eroded because a prominent journalist investigated his background and other were then able to suggest that a potential political allegiance trumped his paternal concern. This sort of deadening of discourse and lawful dissent will further fracture the relationship between citizens and elected politicians.
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?
13) As noted earlier, there are adversary actors operating in the UK’s cyber space who have operationalised a pattern of behaviour to undermine certainty in knowledge, and to undermine faith in democratic institutions, and democratic processes. Some of the more skilled proponents of these techniques have thus far avoided effective censure for these activities, whilst the relatively early stage of the technology and widespread usage of it, means that our citizens remain uniquely vulnerable to these activities. There are very few practicable ways of counteracting these developments that do not conflict with our fundamental values of openness, or that place undue surveillance on the population. Recent attempts at countering adversary misinformation, funded by the FCO, came under sustained attack, and created a narrative of the UK being no better than its adversaries. The solutions are very long term, and would require a wholesale transformation and responsibility within our legacy media outlets to improve levels of educative reportage. Such reforms might require a change to the rules around ownership of media outlets in the UK to facilitate adoption of a new news media culture.