Through television and other media sources we are exposed on a daily and almost irresistible basis and in very graphic ways to the current controversies in the USA over the challenges to democracy in that country. Perhaps the most fascinating of these controversies involves the use of new technology and the impact of the information age. We have for the first time an American President who uses Twitter as his preferred method of communication. And we see the unfolding of an investigation by a Special Counsel into interference by a foreign power with the US electoral system involving hacking and the systematic abuse of social media and the internet. It behooves us while we watch this drama to consider whether there are any lessons which we can learn from it to strengthen our democracy. I will be offering a series of commentaries on this subject.
The use of social media, and it seems Facebook in particular, is very popular here, not only, as we should expect, among the younger people who grew up in the information age, but older people as well. It has recently been revealed that Facebook was used in the 2016 US Presidential election as a tool of the Trump campaign. One of the ways in which it was used should concern us greatly here in St. Kitts and Nevis. That was the “harvesting” of data on over 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent with the intention of creating psychological profiles of them and targeting political messaging at them. This was done by a personality test app on Facebook containing a quiz which attracted 270,000 Facebook users. But the ploy had a secondary, more sinister purpose and that was to gain access to data of the Facebook contacts of the users of the app. The scheme successfully produced the “harvest” of 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge and consent and seemingly without the knowledge and consent of Facebook. In other words a massive online theft was perpetrated.
The UK Guardian newspaper of Sunday 18th March carries a fascinating article on the young genius, a 28 year old Canadian, who helped devise the scheme but who is having regrets and is spilling the beans. He has since been appearing on US TV.
I have learned a number of obnoxious terms from this episode including “cyberwarfare for elections”, “psychographic messaging”, “psychological warfare”, “behavioral micro targeting”, “informational dominance” and “attitudinal inoculation” all used in reference to the theft to which I referred.
The current controversy comes very close to home because the company at the center of the storm in the US, called Cambridge Analytica was formed by the British company SCL Communications. Several years ago, SCL Communications formed SCL Elections to manage election campaigns. SCL Elections has managed election campaigns in several islands of the Caribbean. It has boasted that it has never lost an election which it managed. It has also boasted that there is no point in fighting an election on the facts.
SCL Elections says it carries out behavioral research and offers strategic communication, a nice way to describe brainwashing and manipulation of public opinion. As with so much election campaigning to them the end justifies the means. To them truth and democracy do not matter one hoot. And there are reports in the UK media that the SCL boss Nix referred to two black potential clients as “n***ers” in an internal email. SCL is also reported to have a self destructing email system and to use charities and activist groups to spread untrackable political messages.
SCL Elections managed or contributed to the operation of the Labour Party campaign here in 2010. There was some pretty underhanded campaign activity in St. Kitts and Nevis in 2010 including a case of entrapment which affected the election result. I haven’t seen any claim by SCL to have been involved in the 2015 election here but one wonders whether the disinformation messaging and fear mongering peddled extensively on social media when the Elections Supervisor abandoned the count on the night of the election was learned from or carried out by SCL.
How ironic and satisfyingly funny therefore that SCL has now got a dose of its own medicine. It has been exposed undercover by Channel 4 TV in England with two of its senior management, including Nix, boasting on camera how SLC operates. Their admissions include using entrapment in the exact way it was used here. They boast also of using Ukranian prostitutes in their election campaigns. We seem to have been spared those.
On a serious note however, there is a clear lesson for us. We need campaign finance legislation to ferret out where the millions come from to pay these sinister, cynical and arrogant predators and manipulators. Those millions of dollars leave the country when they could be used to develop it and the financiers then expect a return on their money from the public purse. So the country gets a double whammy so to speak. Campaign finance, Freedom of Information and integrity legislation would help to counter these devious practices.
The second lesson is that the Facebook genie is truly out of the bottle. We have to recognize its dangers as we take advantage of its benefits. We need to ask ourselves are psychological warfare and information operations and psychographic messaging and data harvesting acceptable in our democracy. The answer must surely be no. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle therefore we must devise ways to limit its dangers to our democracy.
The use of words like harvesting and mining show the cynicism which the perpetrators and the politicians who engage them, have for those they seek to fool. They equate the human mind with crops and natural resources. We need laws to protect our data online.
We see that in the US and the UK and elsewhere around the supposedly civilized world whistleblowers play an important role in disclosing breaches of the law. We desperately need laws to protect whistleblowers not only of this type of activity but whistleblowers who disclose abuses and corruption in our governance systems.
We need to add provisions to our elections legislation to prohibit the abuse of social media and technology generally for election campaigning. The truth is however that we have a poor record of sanctioning electoral abuse. We have had laws since the first election was held here in the 1950s to prohibit bribery of voters but those laws have been blatantly ignored none more so than in the last 25 years with the practice of the election aircraft charters. Removing the so-called overseas vote would be the easiest way to end that form of electoral bribery.
The most fundamental requirement however is that our people should be educated and savvy enough not to fall for propaganda and lies whether peddled over the internet or otherwise, whether by locals or by foreigners. Our education system is intended for that among other purposes. But how many people, educated or not, are brazenly exposing their data on Facebook and otherwise on the internet and becoming sitting ducks for exploitation? It is scary also how naive people have become in accepting every thing they read online. I have seen that weird phenomenon even with highly educated people. I wonder whether the ease of access to information is making people as lazy in the exercise of their brain power as ease of travel and modern day conveniences have made people physically lazy.
I wonder how much of the interaction on social media is superficial and emotionally driven. How much consists of rational in depth discussion of issues? It is so easy to post online that the fingers often work more quickly than the brain.
But on the positive side social media provides an excellent tool for the development of our democracy to extricate us from the prevailing tribalism and to make our interaction issue based and mature.
In closing we need a national dialogue to promote the use of social media and the technology to enhance democracy and on ways to deter its abuse by predators parading within and without our system. We should not allow our electorate or any part of it to be harvested like sugar cane or mined like a quarry. We should not tolerate political parties being marketed like sneakers and pizza.
We need legislation to protect online data. We need legislation to update our elections system to regulate the use of the internet in election campaigning. This should be done at the same time as legislation to end the overseas vote. We need legislation to protect whistleblowers. We need legislation to improve governance and integrity in public life and to regulate campaign financing. If not, like the Americans, our election system could again fall prey to rascist mercenaries and vultures like SCL Elections.