There's now clear evidence that a hostile power, Russia, made some considerable strides in manipulating the 2066 presidential election. Russia was out to sow chaos and, if possible, undermine the Hillary Clinton campaign while giving Donald Trump a leg up to the White House.
And, yes, there is evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in this effort.
While that was underway, American democracy was also under attack from within. What had once been the remit of dirty tricksters, the Atwaters and the Roger Stones, went high tech and on a massive scale. Enter Cambridge Analytica, hatched in Britain; funded by a shady American billionaire, Robert Mercer; and directed by Mercer's clone, his daughter, Rebekah, and rightwing extremist, Steve Bannon.
In a nutshell, Cambridge worked to manipulate American voters. They used what were essentially brainwashing techniques through social media and relentless, targeted advertising aimed at confusing and discouraging Clinton supporters while inflaming by playing on the fears of undecided voters and Trump supporters. To evangelists they presented Hillary as the servant of Satan. To bigots they labeled Clinton as an open door for illegal migrants. They branded her a criminal and fueled the "lock her up" mantra.
The Guardian addresses the basic problem as a mortal threat to democracy itself.
British electoral law is based on two principles. First, that elections should achieve a level playing field in terms of resource; parties and candidates face national and local spending limits. Second, that elections should be conducted under conditions of openness and transparency: candidates have to be transparent about the material they are using to communicate with voters, and it is illegal to make false claims in that material.
The ability to spend large sums on micro-targeted advertising based on revealing data harvested from voters’ social media profile removes much of that transparency. If the material in question goes unseen by the vast majority of voters, it becomes harder to track exactly what a party is putting out, so easier to put out false claims, and for spending to go undeclared, particularly when the money is channelled through little-known intermediaries. Social media platforms are overtaking the national and local press as the channels through which politicians communicate with voters, but they perform that function without the same level of scrutiny, regardless of their own ideological or business interests. Anomalies abound. Broadcast advertising is banned; yet advertising on YouTube – where videos can garner more viewers than primetime television – is unlimited so long as it is within spending limits.
But this goes beyond the regulation of democratic processes, to the very nature of democracy itself. Public deliberation and debate are the lifeblood of a healthy, functioning democracy: this manifests itself in parties that run campaigns with broad appeal; in wide-ranging, public platforms that provide a basis on which voters can hold governments to account.
The trend towards micro-targeting risks moving us further away from the democracy of the public forum, towards a fractured, individualised democracy in which “swing voters” are targeted based on narrow issues, using false claims or under-the-radar dog-whistling that are not subjected to public scrutiny. Meanwhile, voters seen as already decided, or insignificant to the result, go ignored.In the United States, false claims about another candidate are the bread and butter of election campaigning. Trump lied his way through the campaign and he hasn't stopped ever since.
Britain has electoral laws intended to stop liars like the Cheeto Benito in his tracks. The Canada Elections Act has one similar prohibition:
91 No person shall, with the intention of affecting the results of an election, knowingly make or publish any false statement of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of a candidate or prospective candidate.Yet today when electoral skulduggery crosses borders, even continents, effortlessly and readily lends itself to cyber-crime, we need something far better than the feeble enactment we have on our books.
What if Trump thought it in America's interests to do to Canadian voters in 2019 what Russia did to American voters in 2016? It's not like America has an impressive record when it comes to staying "hands off" in other countries' elections.
The Guardian (Observer) concludes:
asking questions about transparency and fairness is driven not by a partisan wish to overturn a referendum result, but the desire for a critical debate about whether our electoral laws, and ultimately our democracy, remain fit for purpose. Left or right; remain or leave: this debate concerns democrats from all political traditions.With our own general election a year away, isn't it time we assessed our own electoral laws and our own democracy to ensure they remain fit for purpose?