Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?

Robert F. Smallwood MBA, CIP, IGP

Publisher of IG World Magazine; and Managing Director at Institute for IG

Digital technologies are radically transforming business and government, and the lives of everyday consumers. We live in a new era where the world’s largest taxi company (Uber), owns no vehicles; the world’s most popular media owner (Facebook), creates no content; and the world’s largest accommodation provider (AirBnB), owns no real estate.

The digitization of modern society extends into politics, with Big Data sampling and analysis techniques being used to determine voter tendencies and trends to craft targeted messages.

Digital technologies will not make politics impossible, but they will have a growing impact that will make politics more complex, pervasive, and volatile. Although with a move toward e-voting, digital technologies should improve voter access and vote count accuracy.

Many agree that Franklin Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to master radio, as did his counterpart in Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. John F. Kennedy was seen as the first politician to master television and Barack Obama will likely be seen as the first to master the Internet. In 2008 and more so in 2012, Obama’s team used Big Data analytics to gain new efficiencies in online fundraising, television advertising, and even fundamental field organizing and voter turnout efforts. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump drowned out his competitors with a continuous flow of provocative messages on Twitter.

With advancements in Big Data tools and techniques, political campaigns can analyze large data sets quickly, and can do many types of analyses that were not available before. This has made politicians more sophisticated in tracking voter response to letters, pamphlets, and telemarketing efforts that pitch a certain message.

As digitization continues with the surging Internet of Things (IoT) trend, politicians will have new, more invasive and pervasive avenues to push their message through: imagine getting a political message on the display of your refrigerator or oven at home, on your wireless wearable fitness tracking device, your wearable insulin pump, or even a recorded message from your hearing aid!

The Post-Truth Era

We have entered a new era where politicians can rapidly spread outrageous lies through digital technologies. It is no coincidence that “post-truth” was the term that Oxford English Dictionary chose as its “word of the year” in 2016. Its definition is:

Post-truth – relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

Politicians lying to get what they want is nothing new. They call it “the Big Lie” and they know that if they create a lie grandiose enough, shocking enough, and with a kernel of truth, about one-third of the voters will believe it no matter what. Digital technologies can facilitate spreading lies pervasively like wildfire.

One troubling characteristic of both the recent stunning Brexit referendum vote in Britain, and the unprecedented election of non-politician Trump as President of the United States, was the preponderance of outright lies. In the 2016 Brexit vote, the Leave contingent falsely claimed that £350m a week would go to the NHS instead of the European Union, a claim they backed down from almost immediately after the election. In the recent U.S. election, constant reports that Hillary Clinton would soon be indicted or arrested flooded social media sites. Another rumor was that she was involved in a child porn ring that was run from the back of a pizza parlor. Donald Trump was also accused of child rape and even after the election he was accused of having lascivious sex with Russian prostitutes which was supposedly recorded by the KGB. None of these claims were proven.

Many of these lies and half-truths were propagated by a series of “fake news” websites. These fake news websites—and nearly all media outlets—drive advertising revenue by viewer clicks. So “alternate facts” which are sensational story lines, but are completely untrue, have been created by dubious websites and spread virally through the Internet and especially Facebook without first being fact-checked. This makes politics in the digital era extremely volatile and challenging. One terrible rumor can end a career. But media outlets under extreme economic pressures now will publish scandalous “click bait” stories that are “too good to check” solely to increase reader clicks, regardless of the facts.

Facebook users receive a customized news feed which uses algorithms and sends them more stories like the ones they reacted positively to, so they do not get a balanced view of news, they get a curated, biased view that they agree with. This reinforces their opinion but stifles balanced reporting and debate. It also keeps users engaged on the Facebook site for hours. Facebook is pervasive: it has over 1.7 billion active users, including over 1.1 billion daily users. In the U.S., almost 80% of digital users are on Facebook, and in the U.K. nearly 60% are. So its impact and reach is extensive. No traditional media outlet can compete with these penetration numbers. Facebook has swallowed up much of the advertising revenue of traditional media companies.

A flurry of false reports and rumors swirled around Facebook in the final days of the U.S. presidential campaign. Many of the stories were completely untrue, and created solely to damage one candidate and gain clicks to maximize advertising revenue. This became such a massive problem that Facebook has instituted a program to attempt to root out and ban these fake news sites.

The viral nature of lies can be characterized in one succinct quote, attributed to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill (but originating with neither), “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” And this was before the Internet!

Proof of this in one striking example is a rumor that circulated about former British Prime Minister David Cameron. According to The Guardian:

“…one Monday morning in September, 2015, Britain woke to a depraved news story. The prime minister, David Cameron, had committed an ‘obscene act with a dead pig’s head’, according to the Daily Mail…. Within minutes, #Piggate and #Hameron were trending on Twitter, and even senior politicians joined the fun: Nicola Sturgeon said the allegations had ‘entertained the whole country’, while Paddy Ashdown joked that Cameron was “hogging the headlines”. At first, the BBC refused to mention the allegations, and 10 Downing Street said it would not ‘dignify’ the story with a response – but soon it was forced to issue a denial. And so a powerful man was sexually shamed, in a way that had nothing to do with his divisive politics, and in a way he could never really respond to…. Then, after a full day of online merriment, something shocking happened. Isabel Oakeshott, the Daily Mail journalist who had co-written the biography with Lord Ashcroft, a billionaire businessman, went on TV and admitted that she did not know whether her huge, scandalous scoop was even true. Pressed to provide evidence for the sensational claim, Oakeshott admitted she had none…. There was no evidence that the prime minister of the United Kingdom had once ‘inserted a private part of his anatomy’ into the mouth of a dead pig – a story reported in dozens of newspapers and repeated in millions of tweets and Facebook updates, which many people presumably still believe to be true today.”

Such colossal lies can be spread virally in today’s digital era, damaging reputations and changing the course of elections.

Voter Suppression in The Post-Truth Era

Distributing pamphlets with misinformation used to be the way politicians attempted to scare off voters from the polls, especially in minority districts. Claims that the voter needed to have a clear driving and police record, could get a ticket for sharing a ride to the polls, or needed two forms of identification to vote are the kinds of lies told to suppress voter turnout.

Today, in the digital era, political hacks can take a page out of the playbook from phishing con artists, by spoofing email messages and the official websites of campaigns. There are commercial tools available today which allow a bad actor to completely copy any website with just one click. Then they make a few changes and begin a nefarious campaign, imitating a competitor’s website and email. With elections, timing is everything, so digital political scam artists can release misinformation just prior to the election with precise accuracy and using analytics they can measure the impact.

Digital technologies can also be used to bring websites down through denial of service attacks, or jam phone lines, which disrupts voter turnout efforts.

E-Voting: Is Blockchain the Answer?

Automated, electronic voting has been discussed for years, but few countries have actually implemented it. The tiny state of Estonia (population 1.3 million) pioneered e-voting in 1996 and in their last election nearly 25% of voters used the e-voting option. They use a smart national ID card with an embedded chip which allows citizens to verify their identity, apply a digital signature which includes critical metadata, and conduct other government business online. Switzerland began e-voting in 2011 and Norway is conducting limited e-voting.

There are several key issues that would have to be addressed to implement e-voting in Britain, the U.S., or other major countries. First, citizens would have to agree to carry a national ID card, or to be biometrically scanned to use fingerprints and facial and retinal recognition for identification purposes. In the U.S., shortly after the 9-11 attacks, Americans rejected a proposed national ID card based on privacy concerns. Secondly, certainly there would have to be funding, and a determination of whether it should be a national or state expenditure. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, are the cyber-security aspects, which would be extremely challenging.

Blockchain technology provides an immutable, unchangeable record of transactions in a distributed ledger system. It is highly secure as transactions are verified and logged by the entire network, which could be thousands or even millions of devices. The technology is quite promising for conducting financial transactions without an intermediary. In a recent IBM report which surveyed 200 global banks, “Leading the Pack in Blockchain Banking: Trailblazers Set the Pace,” it is purported that 15% of major banks worldwide will widely implement blockchain technology by late 2017. In fact, banking and financial markets are adopting the technology “dramatically faster than initially expected.” By 2020, 66% of major banks expect to have blockchain in commercial production. Eight banks successfully tested using blockchain to conduct bond transactions last year, and others have tested international money transfers. Blockchain technology will allow banks to cut costs and accelerate transaction settlements while cutting down on time spent on reconciliation.

Blockchain is an attractive digital technology for e-voting, due to its immutable audit trail and distributed nature. Hackers cannot just hack one system or server; they would have to hack every device within the network. But most experts thought that major cloud-based websites were highly secure, until the October, 2016 hack that brought down Twitter, PayPal, LinkedIn, Spotify and other major sites. This attack was conducted by hijacking a series of cameras—IoT devices—which had default security settings that the hackers were able to exploit.

To consider deploying blockchain for e-voting, it must be absolutely secure. This will be the most challenging issue and extreme security measures must be taken. Securing the network could be accomplished by segmenting the network into highly-secure virtual private networks (say, by precinct) and walling them off from the Internet so there is no chance of outside intrusion. Voters would still have to physically go to the polls to vote but the system would tabulate votes in real-time and there would be an immutable audit trail.

What is needed is a blockchain-based electronic tabulation system with a paper trail for audit purposes, like the receipt you get from an ATM. Regular samples and spot checks should be conducted to test accuracy. At least two auditing firms (and perhaps the U.N.) should oversee the voting and tabulating process. Isn’t it bizarre that the U.S. has auditing firms verifying votes for beauty pageants and acting awards but not in elections for the most powerful office in the world?

In summary, digital technologies will not make politics impossible, but will increasingly make politics more complex, pervasive, and volatile. There are new challenges on the horizon with the coming IoT trend, but there is also hope with newer technologies like blockchain which could change the way citizens vote and interact with their government.

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Robert Smallwood

Robert Smallwood

Robert F. Smallwood, MBA, CIP, IGP, is a thought leader in Information Governance, having published seven books on IG topics, including the world's first IG textbook which is being used in many graduate university programs as well as to guide corporate IG training programs.

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