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How to Break Democracy

Carole Cadwalladr’s latest exposés of Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave campaign funding have finally propelled the data hacking that compromised the EU referendum and US presidential election into global headlines. The timing could hardly have been better for my course on Digital Education in Global Context, which had been looking at social networks the week before the Wylie story broke, and at ethics and surveillance the week it happened.

Now the revelations are coming fast:

Covert data harvesting was routine at Facebook.

My cow game extracted your Facebook data.

U.S. sociologist Zeynep Tufekci is a crucial commentator on it all:

Facebook’s surveillance machine.

YouTube, the great radicalizer.

We're building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.

One piece of news about this information war has been somewhat underreported while the focus has been on Cambridge Analytica:

DNC hacker Guccifer 2.0 accidentally revealed he was a Russian intelligence officer.

The issue with Cambridge Analytica isn’t only that—maybe not even mainly that—UK and US voters were being fed fake news. It’s that their Facebook data meant they could target messages designed to increase the chances of specific groups turning out to vote (Leavers in the UK, Republicans in key US states) and messages that decreased the chances of others (Remainers, Democrats).

Those messages could even be benign on the surface: Facebook once tested a tweak to a “be sure to vote” message—a single message—that increased turnout in a US election by 340,000 simply by adding pictures of each target’s Facebook friends.

Imagine sending that sort of message only to Leavers or Trump supporters, rather than to everyone across the board: using seemingly innocuous psychology hacks to add a couple of percent here, shave a couple off there.

That’s how you break democracy. An artificially distorted sample can’t give a fair result. The US and UK need Australian-style compulsory voting, just to begin to find their way out of this. (Having debated compulsory voting online with various non-Australians over the years, I can’t see that happening any time soon.)

All this casts the legitimacy of the EU Referendum into serious doubt. It wasn’t just the Brexit bus, or “Project Fear”-style rejection of expert opinion, or that some voters cast a protest vote without realising it would actually matter. The UK’s system of non-compulsory voting was potentially gamed by a covert campaign to turn out Leave votes and suppress the Remain vote in ways that few could have suspected beforehand.

A deliberately distorted vote can never be considered the will of the people.

26 March 2018 · Politics


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