Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Democracy hacked? Puhlease.


I've just had an interesting conversation with someone who just watched The Great Hack, a documentary about digital electioneering. They remarked that this stuff is now getting so good that we can't even say we are a democracy if those with the big bucks can pre-programme the outcome.

Naturally I'm highly sceptical of this claim. Big data is shrouded is mystique. Hardly anybody really knows what it does or how it works which is why so many believe it has magical properties. This works quite well if you are an electoral services provider. You're dealing with campaign managers who have more money than they know what to usefully spend it on so it's in your own interests if people believe these techniques are more potent than they actually are.

It then suits the likes of Dominic Cummings to big up this technology in front of a largely ignorant media to further inflate the legend of his own genius. Cummings is widely believed to be the mastermind who pulled off the impossible. It also suits the agenda of Brexit opponents to say that democracy was hacked. It absolves them from examining their own inadequacies. Anything but admit it was their collective fault.

We should also not forget that the other side was using more or less the same technology. They also had the establishment advantage. These techniques were used by the Obama campaign which was then hailed as the superior campaign having taken advantage of big data innovation. Nobody thought it was a threat to democracy then. Y'see it's only bad when the wrong people win. Only now are we having a moral panic about it. There's a lot of vested interests who want us to believe - not least because what follows is calls for regulation so that the establishment retains complete control over the message.

For certain digital analytics has its place now that politics is done on the internet and no doubt it does have an effect, and you can micro-target your messages, but when there is so much noise on the internet it's impossible to say what actually works. Every message is competing for your attention.

Here we shouldn't underestimate the power of imagery. Probably the most indelible image of the whole campaign was Bob Geldof and his well to do party apparatchiks leering and giving the two fingered salute. That image epitomised the culture war - a privileged celebrity known for finger wagging and moralising showing his naked contempt. That was a gift to the leave campaign.

If there was one consistent message from the remain camp it was that you are somehow intellectually and morally inferior for thinking differently. Leavers are cast as little englander xenophobes whereas remainers are supposedly righteous internationalists, outward looking and blah blah blah. It seemed that nobody on the remain side gathered that it's not a good idea to insult the people you're trying to persuade. They lost and they deserved to. Referendums come down to which side is hated the least.

But then I'm of the view that not only was Vote Leave's digital campaign ineffectual, it actually cost us a larger win. The remain camp went with economic arguments, not least because they would never sell Britain on the idea of a federalised Europe under a supreme government. The mistake Vote Leave made was to fight them on their own turf offering up £350m for the NHS. No serious leaver could argue this honestly and there were several reports of campaigners ditching printed Vote Leave material simply because it wasn't persuasive.

Any activist who did take up the leave cause did so on the grounds of democracy, sovereignty and self rule. Vote Leave could very well have made the point that the EU was an unreformable behemoth with a contempt for democracy by way of pointing to how little David Cameron had achieved in talks with Brussels. Not only did he come away with nothing worth talking about, we had an establishment that wouldn't even asked for meaningful reforms - then having been rebuffed, came away lying about having secured reform.

Being, though, that Vote Leave was essentially a Tory establishment operation whose donations were contingent on not attacking the Tories (Blue on blue attacks is not the done thing), Vote Leave ditched its most powerful hand and then fronted a dire campaign with Boris Johnson whose appeal could not extend to those places we needed to reach. It is arguable that Vote Leave cost us a bigger win.

Far from being a people's referendum, this whole exercise was conducted largely through television media and subsequent debates were on the basis of what politicians had said on camera. We had endless debates following Gove's "sick of experts" remarks. Throughout it was a top down campaign where outside voices were actively excluded. Independent grassroots leave and remain campaigns were frozen out of it by a wonkocracy who wanted to ensure they kept control over the respective narratives.

Still it is the case that our politics runs on coprophagia. We eat whatever shit is served up to us by mainstream corporate media. Though many anticipated that the internet would lead to more horizontal engagement, I really don't think it has. The corporates have been highly successful in maintaining the media hierarchy and though it faces competition from social media, the content of social media is still heavily dependent on outputs from legacy media be it BBC politics, The Spectator or Guardian.

This is especially so in silly season. With parliament in recess and no official activity from Number Ten, the media pack is starved of its daily fodder so it latches on to whatever morsel it can find rather than generating its own investigative news. Consequently, Monday's whole online debate was dominated by idiotic remarks made by Caroline Lucas. It's still the traditional media apparatus steering the debate agenda.

We are told, though, that digital messaging does not focus on core votes; rather it seeks to identify possible swing areas and feed tailored messages to them. The final two or three percent. Being that Leave won inside that margin, digital messaging is credited with the win over all other efforts. But at that level we are talking about margins of error, assuming the recipients are empty vessels with no agency whatsoever and no critical faculties of their own and not subject to competing messages.

In the end people had diverse reasons for voting to leave; from my own reasoning ie. reclaiming the nation state from the march of globalisation, right through to vox pop reasons as inane as liking Boris Johnson's hair. It takes all sorts. The idea that digital messaging has a measurable impact on voting outcomes is for the birds.

Undeniably Vote Leave did invest a lot of money on internet advertising, not least because they wouldn't have had the first clue what else to do with the money. The rest of their efforts largely focused on deserted stalls manned by teenage Toryboys in red Vote Leave shirts in places like Peterborough on a wet tuesday morning. If they hadn't handed massive chunks of cash to social media snake oil merchants they'd have had to give it back.

The moral panic about internet messaging is really just the swansong of the legacy remain campaign who need us to believe that the result was somehow tainted by dodgy dealings. No doubt Vote Leave did stretch the rules but you'd have to be born yesterday to believe Stronger In wasn't up to the exact same shenanigans. The real question is whether it would have gone any other way had the two organisations never existed at all.

Far more disturbing than the online activities of Vote Leave is still the dominance of legacy titles deliberately feeding misinformation into the debate through regular channels. It has always been the case that newspapers are answerable to their corporate owners and advertisers but now we are subjected to no holds barred propaganda that has strongly influenced public perceptions. There has been an ongoing campaign to mislead the public in respect of the viability of WTO rules as a basis for Brexit, with numerous allied vessels promoting the same messages.

This is nothing at all to do with the potency of internet advertising, rather it has to do with nepotistic, incestuous nature of the politico-media bubble and the prevailing groupthinks therein. This is as much to do with the tribalism within Westminster and the propensity to evaluate sources on the basis of prestige and proximity to power. Much is taken on trust on the basis of its adherence to tribal scripture. You can get followers to believe virtually anything provided it carries institutional prestige or recognition from a gatekeeper within the tribal hierarchy. This is far more dangerous than anything cooked up by Cambridge Analytica as we are about to find out come November. This is why we need to break the Westminster system.

But then, it would not now matter if the public were not deliberately misinformed about WTO rules etc. This is now beyond the rational, as indeed was that day in 2016. The referendum more than anything was a rejection of the establishment and the status quo. The battle is now between those who demand the verdict be implemented and those who will stop at nothing to ensure that it is not. Subsequently, this is not about the issues anymore, or who is right. This is a fight to the death over a fundamental constitutional question; Are the public in charge or not? All other factors are subordinate now. 

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