These small steps would bolster our democracy

Democracy is under threat in 2024. But there are reasons to be hopeful about small steps to bolster our democracy.

A photo of the House of Commons

Much has already been written about the political significance of 2024: with 2 billion people voting in the US, Bangladesh (where the PM has been re-elected for a fourth term, after an election boycotted by the opposition), Pakistan, India, Russia, Indonesia, for the European Parliament and, in all likelihood, the UK, the conjecture around these multiple elections, and their ramifications, was always going to fill untold column inches.

Whilst the numbers voting will be a first, this won’t be the first set of elections vulnerable to a range of internal and external threats.

Faked photos and videos (covered in an earlier article for Left Foot Forward here) aren’t new. The first fake photos, crafted with political impact in mind, date back to the American Civil War.

Bots, often created by foreign powers or their proxies, amplifying messages or seeding disinformation and feeding polarisation have been multiplying since the US presidential election of 2016.

The use of bespoke attack ads, targeted almost down to the level of individuals, and big Facebook advertising budgets date back to the 2015 General Election, when the Conservatives were spending £100,000 per month in the run up to the election.

No country holding elections in 2024 will be immune from any of these underhand and deceptive techniques.

But what is different in 2024 is the role AI will play in making all these pernicious activities, which previously would have involved a degree of expertise to execute, as simple to perform as sending an email or downloading a document. And AI will help to replicate the fakes, bots and attack ads on an unprecedented scale.  

To make matters worse, in the UK, at least two other factors will come into play.

Firstly the increase in the General Election spending limit for political parties. This has been increased to around £35 million (from a previous cap of just over £19 million). This guarantees an inequality of arms, as most of the political parties fighting the next General Election will get nowhere near raising £35 million, allowing those that do to invest heavily in the political scheming AI can offer.

Secondly, the role of generously funded, influential and opaque think tanks, suspected of promoting the agenda of their undisclosed financial backers, could be significant in the election. Their apparently unbiased views are lapped up by some in the media and described as the opinions of independent experts. They help set the news agenda.

The beginning of any new year should be a cause for optimism.  Fortunately, in spite of this bleak political landscape, there are some reasons to be cheerful.

For starters, the populists’ and autocrats’ playbook is an open book.  The messaging and disinformation that will be delivered through the social media tools listed above was widely deployed in the run up to, and during the elections in the US in 2016 and 2020: an enemy or enemies, preferably someone who cannot easily defend themselves such as asylum seekers, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, is identified and then vilified; the claim, however preposterous, that populists champion the people against the elites is repeated with the frequency of a Go Compare ad; and wild promises, without explanation or financial corroboration, are made. 

We have been forewarned and, with an election at least three months away, we have time to draw on international experience and prepare rebuttals and counter-arguments.

Next, organisations dedicated to reversing democratic backsliding in the UK are better coordinated than ever, thanks to the Democracy Network, and a number of multi-organisation single issue campaigns are already in motion such as Compassion in Politics’, which is pressing parliamentary candidates to act with integrity, communicate with respect and lead with compassion are gaining momentum. Full Fact is geared up to ensure that the parties with the fattest wallets aren’t able, without challenge, to use their greater spending power to swamp the political arena with half facts and false facts.

On think tanks, Unlock Democracy, working with openDemocracy, and other groups is coordinating a movement that is pressing for think tanks to demonstrate greater transparency and accountability, and for the media to recognise that think tanks aren’t necessarily non-partisan observers.

Many other initiatives were outlined at a vibrant and packed democracy conference last week.

These are small steps to bolster our democracy, but they may just be sufficient to steer the UK clear of the fraud, deceit and intimidation that is likely to dominate most of 2024’s elections. That makes them a very sound investment.

Tom Brake is director of Unlock Democracy

Image credit: Diliff – Creative Commons

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