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Democracy in the digital age

In the wake of investigations into already proven Russian influence on Donald Trump’s election campaign, the US Congress has announced measures to control online advertising campaigns, requiring the same degree of transparency as traditional channels such as radio, television or print: online advertising must retain a publicly accessible database with copies of all advertising with political content, the segmentation criteria used, who for paid them and how much.

So far, political announcements on platforms such as Facebook have been subject to the same levels of control as badges, pens or other giveaways, which facilitated the entry of players able to successfully influence the results of the campaign.

So far, so good: anyone who invests more than $500 a year on online electoral propaganda is subject to control and will feature on a database, something that was already mandatory if that amount were invested in posters or radio or television advertisements. In a world where campaigns increasingly use the internet and social networks, taking advantage of their segmentation and metrics, interactivity, etc., it seems only logical to approve the same control and transparency as other channels. But what exactly are these measures?

Anyone who believes that these measures will end interference in a country’s elections by foreign interests, is naive. The measures, although positive, cannot avoid such interference, because they exclude anything that is not strictly electoral propaganda, such as false profiles, astroturfing, articles and news with political content, etc. According to information that Facebook, Google or Twitter are providing to the special prosecutor overseeing the case, the bulk of Russian-financed activities was not advertisements, but in many cases invented profiles and bogus activist pages that did not carry out propaganda as such, but which nevertheless attracted attention, spread fake news and promoted discussion on certain topics.

Russia, after rehearsals in several election campaigns in its regional sphere of influence, seems to have found the key to hacking elections: identify the issues that most polarize voters and public opinion, and then create profiles, pages and false accounts to raise tension in discussion forums. Racism or white supremacism, for example, although obviously a lingering issue in the United States, had been off the political agenda for decades, but were suddenly a feature of this campaign: according to research , some Facebook and Twitter pages and accounts that most contributed to these discussions, including so-called black activists or Nazi-exalted pages were designed to sow division in the electorate, and were created by Russian interests alone: their only function was to polarize the campaign and stir things up. A textbook example of cyberpopulism: put issues on the political agenda to mobilize a part of the electorate and bias its vote towards a certain candidate.

Can this type of electoral interference be avoided? Possibly, but any response will require greater coordination and complexity than simply requiring greater levels of transparency for campaign material, because the success of these kinds of activities is based precisely on pretending that they are not campaign material.

Such activities are clearly unlawful and should be dealt with, because they potentially responds to interests very different from the electorate’s. We are all free to decide on what we read and how we inform ourselves, but we should also know just where that information comes from and particularly whether it is a paid for or provided by a foreign power.

We have now reached the point where we have to ask ourselves if the way we voted was influenced by Facebook Twitter, or if it was really a reflection of a group of similarly minded fellow citizens concerned.

Ensuring that we are not being manipulated, whether from within or without, is an extremely complex task. In the meantime, all elections, wherever, are likely to be targeted by a government that seems to have specialized in this type of manipulation, that seems to have learned and perfected the technique of leveraging the resources of the internet to manipulate democracy. Anybody who thought democracy could remain immune to the influence of the digital age needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

(En español, aquí)