newDemocracy in the Media

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In the Media

Picture a candidate out on the hustings today. In Western Sydney, he or she visits a kindergarten and shares messages about spending public money on teachers and after-school care.

Later that day the candidate dons a hard hat and talks about a commitment to jobs and making sure the engine room of industry is there for workers.

And within hours that same candidate will be among the trees (now in mandatory casualwear) talking about a commitment to the environment.

This targeting of audiences is Political Science 101. But it’s basically "analogue" micro-targeting. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that Facebook can now let that candidate tailor his or her message to hundreds of niches. Nothing new, just greater scale and destructive power.

Voting has always been open to the simple manipulation of telling an audience what they want to hear, even if this conflicts with what you say to a different audience on another day. But when this task of message delivery is individualised and then disseminated at scale - using cheap computing power - then the limitations of the mechanism are magnified.

This story highlights that voting itself has become a dated mechanism in need of radical reinvention. Elections alone are insufficient for the purpose of fairly identifying a group of representatives to make shared decisions. An additional, complementary element is now required.

Cambridge Analytica micro-targeted voters based on inferences drawn from the aggregation of many small traits. They had a clever recipe, then arguably shoplifted the ingredients. You’ll find Facebook offers those key ingredients to political parties and third-party activists through the front door today. Download your Facebook profile data and you’ll see the same themes in the micro-targeting labels against your own name. You are the product.

Now that we can see how this form of political advertising works, we must consider how its impact on our elections can be addressed. Much as the atomic bomb could not be uninvented, nor can you uninvent micro-targeting of voters – it appears impossible to regulate.

Where Cambridge might sink from its PR hit, it has paved a way for copycats to proliferate – and to do so while staying within the rules. In an era of Facebook, is it possible to ever run an unmanipulated election again? It’s hard to say "yes".

This story has been presented as an unprecedented attack on democracy. It isn’t. It’s the next logical step in electoral democracy and has emerged precisely because of many successful precedents in how voters have been targeted before.

The real alchemy in what Cambridge Analytica have done is to create profiles of different types of voter: lists of personality traits which serve as markers for where they will be receptive to political messages. That genie is never going back in the bottle. But is it really so different from knowing young parents want to hear promises about childcare?

Citizen satisfaction with how we do democracy has been falling for years. This scandal reveals the flaws in the mechanism of voting itself: votes are swung mostly on emotion, not on critical thinking. Now that we live in a technology environment which can calculate how to target emotional triggers, it would pay to have a conversation about how to update the voting mechanism.

There are no simple solutions. As long as we place all our faith in a single mechanism which asks for no minimum level of thinking – the act of voting – then it will be easy prey to manipulation.

The federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is tussling with how to manage regulation of campaign advertising and donations – a task which has just become more difficult and more important. It should share its burden with a wider group of people to see how that group recommends the challenge be met. We should be open to the idea that they may recommend forms of representation beyond elections that are less able to be gamed by clever profiling.

With an Australian election just a year away - and faith in the system trending ever downward - our political leadership can hopefully see both the need and appeal of sharing this hard decision - and others - with the wider community. Drawing on a randomly selected jury of citizens to consider how we solve this problem and explore how we do democracy better is an ideal response which our parliament should be interested in hearing.


Iain Walker is executive director of The newDemocracy Foundation.

Sydney Morning Herald, Opinion, 3 April 2018