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The TV drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, gave an entertaining, accurate and worrying glimpse of the future of political communication and of democracy itself. It would be comforting to think it particularly British but it could happen anywhere. The conditions are certainly present in Ireland and the methods will be applied where and whenever possible.

A first glance can lead off into the mistaken view that this is all utterly new and a product of the net society. The reality is that today’s technology is being used to exploit something that has been ever present in democracy and feared by democrats.

The Brexit e-campaign
Before going on to talk about that old and feared weakness in democracy, lets look at what the Brexit campaigners did and which is available to any campaigner, party or candidate with the will and the money to emulate.

1. They studied the issues, fears, prejudices etc. which preyed on the minds of their target voters.
2. They distilled these feelings into a small number of slogans which connected the feelings of their targets to the political objective of their clients.
3. Knowing what their target voters wanted to hear, they told them: that delivery – or indeed their voters’ deliverance – was not only possible but crucially it was without any risk of negative consequences.
4. They achieved messaging that was close to bespoke. Using extensive data, amenable on-line voters were identified and sent simple, tailor-made messages – telling them what they wanted to hear.

In brief, this amounts to nothing more than routing quite particular, near-personal messages to voters, messages telling them that voting the client’s way will sort out their issues or whatever concerns them. Familiar? Of course it is. That’s because it’s not new. However, the delivery system and the scale of information on the targeted voters are new, i.e. there is now the web and the ability to mine it for masses of personal data.

There is, moreover, one other new feature – and it’s crucial. Opponents of democracy with deep pockets have become aware of something radical. They know that undesirable election results can be achieved by using today’s technology to exploit democracy’s oldest and most intractable flaw: the manipulation of passive citizens, their target audience. Mass manipulation has become both possible and affordable.*

The risk of tyranny inherent in democracy
Generations of democrats have worried about the dangers of passive – as opposed to participative or deliberative – voting. The march towards universal suffrage consisted of reforms allowing wider and wider participation in voting. Each enlargement was supported by democrats who saw all as equal – at least in terms of voting – and opposed by conservatives who feared what the uneducated mob or easily swayed herd might vote to implement.

As any democrat would be quick to point out, the conservative arguments were not only elitist but served to defend wealth and other privileges. However, the arguments were not dismissed as nonsense. Democrats could see the danger of huge numbers of votes cast without deliberation. John Stuart Mill for example feared the masses, feared that they might impose majority doctrines and limit liberal freedoms, might be easily swayed by and elect demagogues. Mill considered weighted voting – giving more than one vote to the educated – but eventually he placed his faith in people. He argued that the responsibility of voting would change voters, that – aware of the power of their voting decisions – they would engage, examine arguments, deliberate, come to judgement and only then vote. In other words, voting would improve them: make participative, engaged, republican citizens of them.

Fairly similar arguments appeared in recent decades when the democratic potential of the net became apparent. Net optimists felt that those deprived of the information necessary to full citizen participation would find it on-line; citizens would free themselves of the influence of demagogues, conventional wisdom and anyone who would stifle information.

Today’s demagogues and other anti-democratic chancers who want to win an election without winning an argument know full well that Mill’s faith and the hopes of net optimists have not been realised. Not only are there masses of voters – perhaps constituting a majority – ripe for manipulation but the technology exists to find and message them.

There is of course a question of law here. The e-Brexiteers certainly violated electoral laws – laws on funding – and they violated emerging norms, soon perhaps to become law, in relation to gathering and effectively selling personal data. This raises the question of whether electoral law is capable of protecting democracy from an inherent flaw which has been routinely exploited largely without criticism by virtually all parties and candidates.

The little anti-democratic attacks that became the norm
What the e-Brexiteers did differed only in scale and efficiency from conventional campaigns. Indeed, it’s likely that for a very long time now electoral success has been impossible without patronising passive voters who have no wish to be addressed with political arguments or talk of risks, priorities, alternatives, unpleasant consequences, clashes of interest etc. On the contrary, they want to be soothed, told that their problems will be solved or that sought-after resources will be delivered. Candidates know this and crave effective methods for delivering a simple, preferably local, targeted message. In Ireland cynics reduce this to the cliche, “All politics is local.”

Political campaigners use many different media. Taking a look at one of the oldest reveals it to be a small, inexpensive version of what the e-Brexiteers did so spectacularly on a huge scale. The similarity is so great that the difference is almost pathetic.

Now, very few people will admit to paying a blind bit of attention to political leaflets/pamphlets delivered into their domestic letterbox. Most regard these as junk mail and bin them on sight. This is well known and it can be hard to explain why campaigners resort to them. Explanations are offered: they’re relatively cheap; they give some level of public visibility; delivery can give loyalists and activists something to do; and crucially in a world of mass media, leaflets can be localised.

The most cursory look at leaflets reveals that they tend to have little or no political content in any meaningful sense of the term. They deliver useful public information on the likes of welfare entitlements or changes to the tax regime. They tie the candidate to the locality in two ways: pictures in the locale or with local notables at an event; and expressions of support for local campaigns for, say, a swimming pool, a library, playing field or school.

There is no intention here to open up a discussion of local political leafleting. The practice is raised merely to illustrate that patronising local, passive citizens is a mundane, accepted feature of political campaigning. That it is so accepted is telling: democracy has been reduced to numbers and the thoughtful, deliberative, participating, republican citizen has been largely forgotten. Securing a vote has become a tactical affair of showing concern for or involvement in resolving issues. Argument is not uppermost and contradicting a voter would be almost out of the question. Indeed pointing to the existence of thoughtful, republican voters risks being dismissed as elitist or “out of touch”.

Long promised comes to pass
It is hardly surprising then that when the technology and data became available to exploit the passive citizen, it would be used enthusiastically by those smart enough to realise its potential. What is surprising is that so many who ought to know about or who pretend to know about democracy express shock at a large well-executed attack on democracy while they have been unconcerned at the thousands and thousands of small but similar attacks that have been allowed to form an accepted part of the political process. What the e-Brexiteers did was waiting to happen and the ground was prepared by activists, many of whom now appear shocked and silly.

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* There’s a seeming paradox here which will be left for now: the mass is accumulated by near-bespoke messaging.

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