It used to be said that politicians complaining about the press was like sailors complaining about the sea. These days the same might be said of social media; many people in political life have very serious criticisms not only of the way social media changes behaviour, permits abuse and trolling, and proliferates disinformation, but also of the basic business model.
Political parties have always tried to collect information about voters. At the most simplistic level that means keeping records of conversations on the doorstep, finding out where their supporters are, and trying to understand what’s motivating them in their choices at the ballot box. But over recent decades the tools for collecting, storing, buying and analysing the date have become ever more sophisticated. The addition of global social media platforms into the mix, the monetisation of the data they harvest, and the creation of a window into the lives of vast numbers of people, has fundamentally disrupted the basic functions of democracy.
When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said years ago that “by giving people the power to share, we're making the world more transparent” few people realised how much information about us would be shared without our permission, or how much power that information would transfer into the hands of hidden, unaccountable players.
The revelations about data from 50 million Facebook profiles being exploited by Cambridge Analytica, which has bragged of its disgraceful business practices, have made more people aware of how dangerous the situation has become. But it has also shown how dependent many powerful political forces have become on the very same companies responsible for these new dark arts.
Some people are responding to these revelations by quitting the platform, deleting their Facebook accounts. Even those who are informed enough to delete the data at the same time (no simple task) will sadly not achieve a real change. Given how heavily people have come to rely on social media, we can’t expect change to come about because a small number of people leave. Instead we need a fundamental reassessment of the issues of data ownership, privacy and security. These have become abstract, intangible ideas, and they must become clear legally enforceable principles.
Social media, and the wider digital agenda, doesn’t need to be a threat to democracy; it could become a tool to empower people instead of empowering big business or authoritarian regimes. But that won’t happen by wishing for it, and those who have control of the system now won’t give it up easily.
Back in 2014, when Scotland was on the verge of gaining powers in this area, the Greens tried to open up debate by publishing a paper on Digital Rights. We were concerned about the issues like whether people retain ownership of data about them, whether they can give truly informed consent for it use, what would happen to the gap between rich and poor in the digital age, and how to balance freedom of speech, privacy and intellectual property.
Around the same time, the Royal Society of Edinburgh produced its own paper, which warned that “technology has so altered our capacity to acquire, store, process and communicate information that a number of issues that underpin modern society must be revisited: surveillance, anonymity, trust, copyright, privacy and freedom of speech, to name a few.”
These issues have only become more urgent as the tech landscape has continued to develop. Yet both the Scottish and UK governments still talk about this issue in terms of the ‘digital economy’ and ‘digital participation’. The never-ending spat over who is responsible for broadband coverage is a good example of this, as though download speeds matter but privacy and security simply aren’t on the agenda.
There is also a danger that governments get swept along with anything “innovative” without examining the potential pitfalls. For example, the Scottish Government recently consulted on electoral reform, and suggested online voting as a way to increase turnout. But the evidence simply doesn’t stack up that it would achieve this, and it comes with a genuine threat to the security, anonymity and verifiability that elections depend upon.
A piece of paper, put into a metal or plastic box with a physical secure tag on it, opened in front of people’s eyes and counted physically gives a tangible sense of trust. And that trust is deserved, because the system is indeed secure, and the evidence is that abuse is extremely low. Even if a technological solution is theoretically possible (which has not been shown) the more complex it is the fewer people will be able to understand it, and the less trust people will have in the system.
Electronic voting, like New Labour’s ill-fated ID Database scheme, might hold some appeal to governments and certainly offers opportunities to the businesses which want to sell the tech. But it could result in yet more opportunities for powerful interests to manipulate insecure systems, and for big data to be used against the interests of a democratic society.
There is no simple solution to all of this, and many relevant powers are currently outwith the control of Scotland. But teaching our children to be creative people in the online world, as opposed to passive consumers; developing a media-savvy and network-literate population; building open-source solutions to the technical challenges we face, and placing digital rights in the heart of policy; these are within our grasp now, and should be urgent priorities.
This article first appeared in the National