On Whistleblowers and... Democracy

Christopher Wylie and Shahmir Sanni are two rather remarkable whistleblowers. One is a gay coder with a Canadian accent rocking a pink hairdo, the other is a muslim who was last week outed as gay by 10 Downing Street. Both of them voted Leave and yet here they are, outside Parliament on a rainy Thursday afternoon, talking to a crowd of lefties about why they came out. "Oh that was a bad choice of words" Shahmir coyly reprimands himself.

Shahmir, who had worked on the BeLeave and Leave campaigns, has now had to deal with the government's fury for having gone public with allegations of cheating and misappropriation of funds - ultimately undermining the Brexit referendum.

"I've worked in politics. I still work in politics. And it is dirty. But I never thought that they would get this dirty. I'm not doing this for Brexit, for anything other than the fact that two young volunteers were used to funnel money into the campaign."

The two whistleblowers have made allegations indicting both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election. Both speak candidly about being Eurosceptics and would vote Leave again if they could. But that's not the point. Otherwise they wouldn't be standing up there, lives half ruined, talking to us. "This is not about politics. This is about something much more fundamental, which is ensuring that we do not mutilate our constitution with cheating and lawbreaking" Chris says, eliciting a cheer. "If we allow cheating on the most profound decision on this country in a generation, then we are eroding what makes democracy function. How can we have trust in any election in the future if we simply allow cheating to happen? If we allow money to buy a vote?"

The Fair Vote campaign aims to remedy that and you ought to go on their website and sign up/donate what you can to make that happen. To me it honestly comes as no great surprise to hear about all these dirty tricks being pulled during an election. The West is simply better at hiding it (or not) from the rest of the world. The chapter I had read about algorithms in Homo Deus mentioned a 2015 study whereby a computer algorithm was better at predicting your answers to a 100-question personality test than were your colleagues, friends or spouse. The author mused about the implications this could have on future elections. Low and behold 2016.

We feel cheated, if the evidence Shahmir and Chris have exposed is proved correct, that our votes were manipulated by campaigners paying for an algorithm to target us and convince us to vote one way or another. As Alex Taylor, Cambridge Analytica's head of data put it: "When you think about the fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3m votes but won the electoral college vote that’s down to the data and the research." Cambridge Analytica's data and research, obviously. We can only expect this technology to get better and better at targeting the right people, convincing more and more undecided voters, and who knows maybe one day convincing someone to just stay put at home. Better that than vote for the opposition.

We feel outraged, quite rightly, that such is the state of things in today's day and age. For Chris, "Although it sounds a bit boring it is about overspending; it is about breaches of electoral law. Fundamentally electoral law is what we use to insure the integrity of our democracy." I would go a bit further and say, not only is the current law broken and abused, but it needs to be severely reformed if we are truly concerned with the integrity of our democracy.

Democracy, it is worth remembering, has a long and rich history. A lot of its kudos lies on the assumption that human beings over the age of 18 are responsible, free individuals, thereby owning the right to decide who governs them and how. Yet there is everywhere evidence for the persistent erosion of all of these traits. Responsibility is stolen from us when convenient (i.e. for all decisions relating to questions of power) but kindly bestowed upon us when it comes to trying to swim upstream (i.e. when you're poor get your shit together and make some money). Only when there's NO OTHER CHOICE (and this is where Chris is right to underline the importance of existing legislation) do we get to be responsible citizens and have a referendum once in a blue moon, but even then, as we've seen things are not in our hands.

Legislation exists to protect and serve citizens. Safeguarding our capacity to be responsible and free individuals is one of its top jobs, because there are so many forces at work that exist solely to mould and alter those capacities of ours in the direction of their choosing. I'm not talking about some Star Wars force, but about the Media. About Advertising. About all the millions of images, slogans and products we are submitted to ever since we are born, against our will. At the same time, we acknowledge how much our lives, our decisions, our very identities, are influenced by all of this. Humans can be manipulated in a million different ways and there is an entire industry dedicated to coming up with better and better techniques at doing just that.

This is the biggest threat to our democracy. It's a glaring fact and goes much further than politics. It affects every single aspect of our lives. How we define ourselves as men (powerful, dominant) and as women (sexual. That's it). It doesn't take a neuroscientist to tell us that this severely hinders our understandings of ourselves, our relationships and ultimately our lives. It's as if the entire spectrum of humanity was forcibly reduced to what the media thinks we are or ought to be. And we fall for it, because that's just how it is. How can we leave this huge, powerful, sophisticated mind-manipulating machine in the hands of the highest bidder? I agree with Chris when he says that we cannot allow money to buy a vote. Money though, is buying much more than votes.

When we talk of preserving the integrity of our democracy then, we need to talk about preserving our own integrity. That is to say, our freedom and capacity to make responsible decisions.

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© 2020 by Pierre Smith Khanna