Canada has enjoyed relative stability in its recent elections. But our stability and insulation from technological change cannot be relied upon to continue. Indeed, that one electoral exercise after another has been subject to controversy in peer countries is less a sign of Canada’s prescience in preparing for the digital age and more a matter of the sequence of the electoral cycle. Change is on the horizon, however, and certainly Canada has to make extensive preparations to strengthen our democratic institutions and processes in advance of the 2019 federal election.
Malicious interference in elections by foreign rivals has tended to garner the most media attention, yet this is but one manifestation of how elections are changing in the digital age. The underlying trend fuelling electoral disruptions is rapid technological development and the increasing pervasiveness of networked technology. The increasing ubiquity of technologies like big data and artificial intelligence is probably unstoppable.
Rather than being hacked, elections are being “gamed”: our technological capabilities for public opinion management and measurement have outpaced the design features of elections.
While some describe recent elections as having been “hacked,” there is little evidence to suggest that malign entities have actually been manipulating the results of vote-counting machines. Instead, observers are calling foul on elections that were marked by microtargeting, big data analytics, artificial intelligence and transborder electoral campaigning. It is more appropriate to suggest that elections are being “gamed,” in that our technological capabilities for public opinion management and measurement have significantly outpaced the design features of elections themselves. Only a few weeks ago in Ontario, a Doug Ford insider recounted how the PC party’s win was heavily fuelled by “literally thousands” of microtargeted ads, driven by big data analytics.
All this information is collected, analyzed and leveraged to influence a single variable: voter intentions on election day. As Daniel Savoie says, “Political parties have become little more than election-day organizations.” Although millions of data points are collected about citizens’ values and expectations of government, none of this really matters to political parties except in terms of how it influences voting behaviour. This newfound capacity for information collection exacerbates the hollowing-out of parties’ engagement with the public. The consent of the electorate that is conveyed through voting no longer necessarily entails the clear transfer of legitimacy to the elected that it once did.
The transformation has been gradual. Digital technologies have been used with increasing frequency in electoral campaigns for years. The most radical innovations, such as those of Cambridge Analytica — which combined data analytics with psychology to “know” voters’ personalities better than their loved ones do with only a few Facebook likes — operate with a vague semblance of legality, allowing them to credibly maintain that they have broken no laws.
There is no meaningful legislation governing this kind of activity, and the class-action lawsuit against Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, if it reaches trial, will be one of the first relevant judicial decisions on this matter. In Canada, Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act, seeks to place important limitations on advertising behaviour during elections, and if it passes it will be an important and timely improvement. But the Act may be far too little, far too late; important elections are imminent and the technology continues to advance exponentially while we fumble with legislation that will only help us run in place.
The only solution may well be to push forward faster. There is a tendency to view these disruptive technological advances as a threat to democracy, but there is a great potential for them to enhance our existing democratic processes. In a recent exchange overheard by the authors, a citizen exclaimed, “I don’t know which party stands for what policies. Can’t the government just scrape my browser history to see what policies are in my best interest?” Some might interpret this attitude as showing an appalling lack of engagement or even as evidence of antidemocratic values in the millennial generation, but one might just as well affirm the rich opportunities to enhance democracy that already exist. A recent study by Ipsos Canada supports the latter attitude, noting that 57 percent of Canadians felt that it would be acceptable to use artificial intelligence to examine the proposed policies of a political party in order to inform the public.
Far from being a problem for democracy, new technologies can and should be harnessed to promote democracy and enhance the quality of our democratic processes. While the potential for abuse of the electoral process may so far be the most visible impact of new technologies, big data could surely be used to improve the legitimacy and responsiveness of governments as well. Is there any reason why 21st-century democracy should be less nuanced and fastidious in its representation of public values than, say, the average online advertisement?
With the traditional democratic process under siege, the only way to get past the current fracas may be to embrace technology and incorporate it more deeply into our electoral processes.
The double-edged sword of technology’s impact on elections is coming at a time when our democracy is sorely in need of rejuvenation. Trust in government worldwide is at historic lows, and the citizenry is increasingly concerned about the system of representative democracy. A recent poll in the UK found that even with the emergence of 35 new parties, an astounding 56 percent of British citizens report feeling unrepresented by any party. This comes at a time when political parties have more data on voter opinions, values and behaviours than at any time previous. Surely increased knowledge of voters should be leading to enhanced democracy and representativeness.
Although political parties routinely use cutting-edge technologies to learn about citizens’ preferences, they tend to do so for the sake of capturing voter preferences on a specific day rather than as part of a systematic revisioning of democracy. Much better than the tactical implementation of new technologies being grafted bit by bit onto a system designed for the Age of Paper would be to reform the democratic process so that is well equipped by regulations, institutions and ethics to represent the multiplicity of complicated, and sometimes contradictory, voter sentiments. With the traditional democratic process under siege, the only way to get past the current fracas may be to embrace technology and incorporate it more deeply into our electoral processes. We have come too far to turn back and we need to start thinking about democracy as going above and beyond ballots alone.
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