Elections and media: Hi-tech hijacking of the people’s sovereignty

Daily Mirror

If any election does not reflect the will of the people, it is a sham. Whoever tries to distort the will of sovereign people is committing an act of treason. Identifying the rogues before they commit the act of treason is a national call of the highest order.

In the past, the culprit was the area thug, who, in collusion with the area politician, forcibly collected polling cards of the people and sent impostors to the polling booth to vote for the politician over and again.

But today, in this digital era, election fraud is a highly sophisticated affair. Election officials and monitors worldwide are at a loss for a solution. If large scale fraud could mar the 2016 presidential election in the United States and the 2016  Brexit referendum, how safe can the developing nations’ elections be? Who can forget the term ‘computer jilmart’ in the Sri Lankan context?Image result for cambridge analytica cartoons

At the centre of this great robbery of the people’s will are billion dollar Big Tech companies. One such company was the now disgraced Cambridge Analytica. The Britain-based company was accused of distorting the people’s will during the 2016 US elections and the Brexit referendum. Its underhand role was also suspected in elections in India, Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic and several other countries.

Donald Trump’s victory was the biggest shock in US election history.  Perhaps, he would not have breasted the tape, if not for the involvement of Cambridge Analytica, whose vice president was US media baron Steve Bannon, who later became the Trump White House Chief Strategist.Image result for cambridge analytica Alexander Nix cartoons

Cambridge Analytica’s boss Alexander Nix (pic) once bragged that they were able to use the data in the company’s possession and identify that there were large numbers of persuadable voters who could be influenced to vote for Trump. He displayed no remorse that his company was hijacking democracy while remaining in a dark alley of the digital world.

How did the company manipulate the people’s will?
For the US election campaign, it is alleged that Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained data from up to 87 million Facebook profiles – including status updates, likes and even private messages.  It then misused its data harvest to micro-target swing voters.  Data harvesting companies are the online version of the Orwellion big brother. They secretly record whatever we do online. When we pay our utility bills online, book a movie ticket online, or visit a particular website regularly, our activity becomes data for Google, Facebook and other big players lurking behind the screen. Using psychographic analytics, the data harvesters then categorise us into various target groups.

“Hillary Clinton is a danger to US National Security” was one of the pop-up advertisements which Cambridge Analytica strategically used to influence unsuspecting swing voters to vote for Trump.  Usually, political ad makers, in their attempt at behavioural manipulation, resort to fear mongering. During the Brexit campaign ahead of the referendum, this was the tactic Cambridge Analytica adopted to ensure the victory of its client — the ultranationalist United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) which wanted Britain out of the European Union.

It goes without saying that any surveillance is a violation of our right to privacy. Besides, using unscrupulous means to influence our voting decision is a criminal violation of our political rights.

What’s more? There is always the danger of foreign countries interfering in the election process of a target nation.  A big power can hire the services of a company like Cambridge Analytica to get its preferred candidate elected in any target country.  By hiring hackers, it is alleged that Russia successfully influenced the outcome of 2016 US presidential election.

To combat this violation of the people’s sovereign right, US Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein is introducing a Voter Privacy Bill. It seeks to empower voters with new authority over how their data are collected and used by political campaigns. If approved, campaigns would be required to notify the voters that they have obtained their data through a data broker. This will allow voters to protect their data. Voters would also be able to ask platforms like Facebook and Google to stop sharing their data with these campaigns.

Given the magnitude of the problem and the meagre resources, how much can Sri Lanka’s National Election Commission do in combating international interference and fake news campaigns?Image result for election commissioners of sri lanka

The invertebrate election commissioner DD (Dayananda Dissanayake) in 2010  

We can only find solace in the fact that the NEC is a much independent institution today after the 19th amendment.  Before the democracy-promotion amendment was introduced in 2015, the election commissioner was a virtual faint-hearted invertebrate. For instance, in 2010, he could not stop the state television being misused on the day of the presidential election by politicos supporting candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa to spread the fake news that opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka was not a registered voter and therefore the vote cast for him would be considered invalid.  This blatant violation of election laws did change the outcome of the election. It is also said the Election Commissioner went missing for some time while votes were being counted. He later admitted that he was under tremendous ‘tension’.

The same election commissioner should have also nullified the 2005 election results after it became clear that the LTTE, by use of threats, had prevented the northern voters from exercising their franchise. He should not have declared the winner because if the northern voters had been allowed to vote freely, the election result would have been different. Usually if the election could not be held in a polling area due to violence or if the polling in the area was nullified due to flagrant malpractices, the commissioner before declaring the winner will say that in his opinion even if every voter in that area had voted against the winner it would not have changed the result and announce the winner. This principle was not used with regard to the LTTE boycott. The United National Party did not challenge the election results in courts, probably knowing the futility of such an exercise at a time when courts were not seen to be independent.

With its independence restored, the NEC is seen to be determined to make the November 16 presidential election free and fair.  Under the Constitution’s Article 104B(5)(A), the NEC has issued guidelines to the media, including social media platforms, urging them to provide accurate, balanced and impartial information. It warned that the neutrality of the media would be monitored by special committees appointed for this purpose. But the NEC’s Gazette notification did not spell out details of punitive measures against misbehaving media groups. It remains to be seen how tough the NEC could get with media groups which violate election laws.

In recent months, we saw certain media groups stooping so low to in promoting hate speech. The disdain these media groups had for the code of ethics of the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka has rendered the self-regulatory mechanism ineffective.
Certain media groups still think they can make or break governments. If that is so, their attitude is as disgraceful as that of Cambridge Analytica. No media outlet should think it can be the kingmaker. The kingmakers are the people who exercise their democratic duty on election day.