Back in March, I warned that a failure by politicians and commentators to understand what data does and does not do for political campaigns is obscuring debate on crucial issues relating to our democracy. Widespread ignorance of the true practicalities of new approaches – or the application of new technology to old approaches – has left the field open for a combination of wild alarmists and opportunist snake-oil merchants to further muddy an already little-understood topic.
Make no mistake: there are very real questions about how to update and strengthen our electoral law. I laid out several such questions in August.
Failing to answer them will leave us reliant on laws and institutions that are already ill-suited to the digital age, and which are becoming more obsolete with every passing year. Alternatively, answering them wrongly, particularly on the basis of partial or flawed information, will equip us with defences which might be shiny and new but aren’t up to the task or able to adapt to future challenges. In addition, viewing technology only as a threat to democracy would represent a serious missed opportunity to improve engagement, debate and understanding.
In other words, we need to get this right. But achieving the necessary clarity to produce the necessary good answers is made harder by the existence of plenty of charlatans who are keen to take advantage of the fact that most people don’t know much about the topic, still less about the technicalities. And such people have a shared interest in distorting the discussion.
For every person with a conspiracy theory about a magical black box which they would like to believe is the real reason for their defeat at the ballot box, there is a salesman to confirm that yes, that box really does contain a wonder-weapon capable of controlling people’s minds, and yes we do accept cheques for the eye-watering sums required to recruit it to your team. Add in the natural media preference for attention-grabbing alarm over rather more dull reality, and the environment is not ideal for producing sensible, practical solutions.
This week’s report on data in the EU referendum campaign by the Information Commissioner’s Office tends to bear out what I argued in the spring. The report provides further basis for very real and serious concerns about how data was misused and data rights breached, by a variety of actors on various sides of the referendum, while finding apparently no sign of the grandiose theories that were touted in some quarters about Vote Leave. And yet the latter has garnered the lion’s share of publicity, while the former has been relegated to the status of a mere backdrop.
That does a dis-service to our democracy. The grubby business of harvesting contact and demographic data against people’s wishes, and exploiting a populace who are under-aware of the reasons to value and defend their data, before flogging it for a quick buck or using it for marketing spam, is not as glamorous or titillating as fantastical ideas of dark arts, hi-tech psychological manipulation, and shadowy conspiracies, but the evidence keeps suggesting that it is the former problem which really exists, and which requires close scrutiny. And yet the incentives appear to be mismatched – those who want to make a name for themselves do better hyping up what is flimsy but glitzy, while neglecting issues that are real but less exciting.
The ICO report shows that there are real, important and pressing problems to inform the public about, and on which to begin to base reforms to the law. Allowing that real need to be obscured by flights of fancy has done our democracy no good whatsoever.