Our Democracy Emergency Needs Urgent Action
The electorate must remain vigilant and prepared for the tactics used by political parties through digital platforms which electoral safeguards weren’t built to cater for.
Right now, we cannot have a free and fair election.
These words kept ringing in my ears as I watched Parliament vote en masse for the country to go to the polls on 12 December. But, these words aren’t mine. They are printed in black and white in a report into Disinformation and Fake News by Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, published in February. That warning was not heeded by Parliament and, yet, Britain will be voting in another election in just a month’s time.
On top of this, Boris Johnson’s Government has – after several requests – refused to release a report examining Russian meddling in UK politics, including attempts to interfere in the 2016 EU Referendum. No. 10 provided a process excuse – that it needed more time to assess publication – as its flimsy reason for refusal.
Worryingly, the result is that we will now have a General Election without a full understanding of the extent to which we already know a hostile foreign actor possibly infiltrated important recent democratic events. The investigation is done. The report is written. The Government has knowingly called an election when new information exists on possible threats to its legitimacy. As a result, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, which commissioned the report, will now be unable to use it as evidence for recommendations for greater election safeguards for the upcoming General Election.
This has all happened almost simultaneously to the Conservatives producing the first “deepfake” of the election campaign, when they doctored a video from Good Morning Britain to suggest that Labour’s Keir Starmer had no response when asked what his party’s Brexit policy was. In actual fact, he responded instantly and gave a firm, coherent reply. When challenged, the Tories didn’t remove the post or apologise. No, they doubled down, modified it again, then pushed it back out on social media. This won’t be the last time such a tactic is deployed and it won’t just be used by the Conservatives. The Lib Dems have also already been criticised for using misleading polling figures. They, however, apologised.
This General Election is perhaps the most important of a generation and we’re knowingly sleepwalking into a dystopian democratic nightmare. Nobody has the wherewithal to take off their Brexit blinders and look at the situation holistically.
We have already acknowledged two threats – foreign interference and deepfakes – but there are others of critical importance:
- This will be a totally digital campaigning election. I estimate that at least 50% of campaign budgets will be spent on advertising on Facebook, which remains entirely unregulated despite its law-breaking and problematic consequences for democratic processes.
- Facebook is allowing politicians to knowingly lie on its platform in the name of “free speech”. Mark Zuckerberg has refused to overturn this policy.
- There are known bad actors in charge. Dominic Cummings – the campaign director of Vote Leave, which has been found guilty of electoral law-breaking – is running things for the Conservatives.
- These bad actors don’t feel bound by truth. At Vote Leave, Cummings was telling people that Turkey was about to join the EU and that the country’s 80 million people would be moving to the UK. When at least one side doesn’t feel it needs to be truthful, fair elections are condemned.
- There are no serious consequences for breaking electoral law. The maximum fine per offence is £20,000 and only the agent and candidate (if it is a local offence) can go to jail. In half an hour of research, I couldn’t even determine when that last happened. I worked with a cross-party group of MPs to amend the General Election bill to allow unlimited fines to be included – but it was not considered “germane” to it. Without real consequences, there is no real deterrent.
These threats, taken together, have created the perfect conditions for a political party to steal an election. While that may sound dramatic, it’s not. And, as fewer people place their faith in democracy, fewer people will continue to participate in the democratic system as they won’t see the point of doing so.
We forget how democracy is. It’s not the norm of human history, it’s the exception. If we don’t do something soon it may be game over. But you won’t hear our party leaders talking about that in this General Election campaign.
Kyle Taylor is project director at Fair Vote.