Hacking Democracy


(Andy Wootton) #1

I’m not sure if this is a discussion or a project yet. It was inspired by @mattpointblank saying he wanted to have a meeting to try to ‘do something’ about the general election but I’m not sure we’ve really got time to DO anything very substantial now. In many ways, the strength of the Conservative Party which got us into Brexit, by accident or design, is a symptom rather than the disease. Democracy isn’t working properly. I hope we can use this mess as motivation.

I’d like to do some root cause analysis and see if there is general agreement, so we can start looking for solutions. “If not us, then who?” etc. As a semi-outsider, I’m rather proud of Birmingham’s radical, liberal, democratic traditions. I’ll try to make in non-party-political which should be easy because I don’t like everything about any of the parties. Please give me some feedback, even if it is just to say you agree or disagree.

FPTP
First-past-the-post voting is perfectly adequate on simple issues with only 2 options when there is a clear winner. A split decision means the argument continues. FPTP is a proxy system for a battle. 2 teams who care about the issue turn up at the field of battle, see which is biggest and the small army go home defeated, without a drop of blood being spilled. This is not modern UK politics. There are several tribes who seem incapable of co-operation. Most of the electorate don’t turn up because they don’t trust any of them. It is incredibly difficult to start a new, better party because people are afraid of wasting their vote. The last 2 referendums in the UK have been on complex issues with options that were not offered as alternatives.

Politicians
Lie to us. They are not held to account for dishonesty or for their voting records. We can’t tell the good politicians from the bad ones because everyone gets tarred with the same brush. The worst have even stopped resigning on matters of honour.

The media
Are biased. They lie to us and fail to hold politicians to account when they lie or act against the public interest. George Obsbourne recently made a statement that he can do more to help the Conservative Party as the editorof a London evening newspaper than he can as a back-bench MP.

Journalism
We need journalists to be held to higher professional standards for news articles that are misleading, without giving politicians control of the media. We need to know the reliability of everything we read in serious news sources, as we would trust a Chartered Surveyor to say if our house might fall down.

Education
Half of the electorate are below average intelligence. There is a huge divide in opinion between graduates who have been taught critical thinking and the rest, bringing many of us to question if democracy is doomed.
We need schools to teach children to evaluate the trustworthiness of their sources of information and the powerful to be prevented from manipulating them.

Distributed Power & Innovation
We are leaving the EU because people felt bullied. Scotland want to leave the UK. Some of us are sick of all decisions being made primarily for London’s benefit. I see no evidence that politicians come up with the best innovative ideas that we should vote on. We need better political communication and democratic power distribution networks.

Have I missed anything? Have I gone too far anywhere? I think our ‘wider, local’ community has something to contribute at the local level which might flow up. Why can’t new politics start from a hub in the centre of the wheel?


(Matt Andrews) #2

This one is really, really hard. We’ve just been through a revamp of the press regulatory body going from the toothless PCC, to the current IPSO (which the Guardian, FT and Independent refused to join), and then the unofficial IMPRESS, which is basically made up of tea room gazettes. My point: holding journalism to standards is broken even after going through Leveson (and the time/money that cost).

But my wider complaint really is that it doesn’t really matter, in my opinion, if journalists were somehow regulated and poor work and blatant lying was exposed somewhere public. People would still read tabloids and repost “fake news” on social media.

What we really need to do is—somehow—encourage more critical thinking from the people whose media consumption is made up of this low-quality journalism. As long as media is a matter of consumer choice (rather than “you lose the ability to publish if you lie too much”) then some people will always read, say, the Express, even though it’s garbage. And defining truth/lies is really hard, too.

The only bright light in this is that tech/networks are making it much easier to disprove/debunk, but then, #fakenews means that works in reverse too. Ugh, having typed all this out I feel a bit hopeless about it all now.


(Matt Andrews) #3

Oh, and also, I used to think (in my naive, tech-biased way) that the advent of digital tech would make our system of government a relic, and we’d have easy digital voting on issues so we didn’t need to elect someone to “represent” us in Westminster when we could self-represent and have direct democracy by voting on issues as they came up. Post-Brexit, the idea of plebiscites on everything just sounds like a shortcut to a dystopian nightmare.


(Stuart Langridge) #4

…and it’s also close to impossible to see how we can actually preserve the secret ballot in such an environment, and that’s important because it prevents corruption and vote-buying and so on.


(Andy Wootton) #5

I’m very rude about BBC News and Radio 4 but I actually think some of their in-depth coverage is very good. There was something on recently about how Reith was given the job of setting up the BBC because ‘the L33t5’ had given the working man the vote in return for dying in the trenches and realised they were too ignorant to know what to do with it. I’m sure in my youth they would interview 2 politicians who would give their biased opinions then an expert would step in and very diplomatically point out the lies. It’s possible I was too innocent to realise that the expert was biased then too. Now, they seem to want ‘shouting heads’ and no analysis because they perceive that we demand blood. I heard virtually no challenge to the idea that immigration is a bigger problem than benefit to the UK, until after the Brexit vote.

I didn’t want to suggest solutions yet, but I was thinking of individual journalists who had signed a professional code of conduct agreement not to mislead their customers, as I have. If I broke that, or claimed knowledge I didn’t have, I’d be kicked out of the BCS and lose my right as a CEng to put my official engineer’s seal and Registrant Number on a technical report (I actually did it once, for LOLs.) Articles by these journalists that claimed to be facts, rather than political opinion pieces could be ‘stamped’ too and a council of other journalists who are sick of all the cowboys, could deal with complaints. Defining that it was a doctors fault that a patient died is hard but the Medical Council still strike off doctors and deny them their income. I’m only suggesting journalists lose their stamping rights, so maybe have to go and work for the Sun for lying on an ‘official news’ article. The Wikitribune should be interesting.


(Andy Wootton) #6

I’ve only recently realised how horribly uninformed people are. I lean towards having tests to check if people are able to understand the issue but we’d have government bills within weeks, written in very complex language to remove the rights of the uneducated and a referendum campaign that convinced them it was their own idea. I think we’re stuck with universal suffrage, so we have to get people to understand what they are voting on. It appears that which grown-up makes decisions for them is about the hardest decision they can be trusted with, so we have to keep representative democracy too. The problem is that I don’t want my MP making decisions for me because he writes to thank me for my letter but tells me he isn’t going to do that. He only cares about gypsies, fly-tipping and whipping Tories. I’d like to be able to at least express something honest with my vote and STV seems to allow me to vote first for the candidate I really want, even though they can’t get in. I want everyone to know that my MP was my (someone’s) 7th choice, when he is claiming I voted for him because he said he’d kill more foxes.

I’m fine with paper voting, backed by digital recording of the information, so the voting forms exist as a physical backup record. I’m more interested in networks to feed ideas ‘up’ to government. Some of the petitions have been very inventive. I wish people had used them more responsibly but I think that is a sign of our frustration at our lack of influence on the idiots with the power.


(Steve Pitchford) #7

as we would trust a Chartered Surveyor to say if
our house might fall down

My sceptical “passenger” fears that the hypothetical chartered surveyor might suggest, in this instance, that they cannot draw a conclusion regarding the structural integrity of the foundations, which should be deferred to a suitably qualified professional, and in any case, the insurances they possess might provide an insurance cover giving a legal budget greater than the home owner could hope to raise…


(Steve Pitchford) #8

“easy digital voting” Noooooooooooooo!

There is so much value in the transparency of a voting slip!


(Andy Wootton) #9

Journalism is always going to have political nuance. I’m only asking that they are held to account when they tell a blatant lie. The bigger problem is obviously that the main newspapers only present the side of the argument that their proprietors support. The change of reporting by the BBC since the election was called has been striking.


(Jon) #10

Great, discussion - thanks.

The problems begin and end with the media, in my view.

  • There is a lot of careerism - journalists’ opinions are shaped because they know that some opinions sell and others don’t. A few radical writers are tolerated, to “prove” that the press is free, but broadly the British and American printed press fall into line with government and corporate views. Writing in order to oppose profiteering from war or the ruination of public healthcare is mostly not a good career move. Chomsky and Herman covered this process of psychological adjustment in journalists quite well in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, which I think is still very relevant.
  • There is a lot of lobbying. Wealthy people and groups can afford to shout loudly, and the media tend to be comprised of upper-middle types who will give them a better hearing. We all know that lobbying is a dirty business, but it has not yet been chased out of our media or our political systems. Newspapers will sometimes type up obvious corporate-influenced material because it is pre-prepared copy that they do not have to pay a journalist to write from scratch.
  • There is a lot of government propaganda. Newspapers who are not amenable to the country’s military adventures will not be assigned a “handler” from the state security apparatus for very long. Being cut off from a government source can be a death-knell for newspapers who already cannot afford to send foreign correspondents overseas, so most papers take a “pragmatic” approach and keep such people on-side.
  • The newspapers are fairly broke, which means (see above) the quality of their journalism is getting worse. Most of them have a free version online, and the number of people reading papers is at an all-time low. The Guardian now features a begging note for donations at the end of every story.
  • The lack of diverse voices in the media, and the lack of context in most stories, means that readers are kept in ignorance. The EU referendum was conducted in such a propaganda blitz, I think it should be hard to regard the voting conditions as “free and fair” (the international standard for democratic elections).

What are the possible solutions?

  • Read and support the alternative media. The Conversation is a pretty good effort from
    academics world-wide, to try to give a referenced and supportable views from academics. They do not carry advertising.
  • Read and support radical writers. The Intercept is excellent, featuring Glen Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, but it makes for depressing reading. Most of their work is on neo-liberalism, war, and the security state. Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone “only” writes for a music magazine and yet he deserves to be read much more widely. He is angry and excellent.
  • If you’re on the left, The Morning Star is available in print and online editions. Their socialist analysis is a welcome antidote to the right and the centre-right perspectives available everywhere else. Their online material tend to be a bit sparse, but the paper is pretty good. It is carried in a number of outlets in Birmingham.
  • Buy Private Eye. I’m sad they’re giving Jeremy Corbyn a hard time, given that satire is meant to challenge the powerful, but their work on exposing council-level corruption is consistently good. Most of the front-page splashes in the broadsheets are raised months or years earlier in the Eye, and each case of belated mainstream “discovery” will usually get a wry mention after it happens. Editor Ian Hislop is reportedly the most sued man in England, and there’s a reason for that. I will buy the Eye over any corporate paper in the UK these days.
  • Read and support the folks who are doing media activism. Media Lens in the UK and Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting are the main ones (UK and US respectively). Media Lens are interesting: they are two ex-journalists who dropped out of the mainstream to critique the British “liberal” media. They exhort their readers to write to journalists to hold them to account, or to ask for corroborating sources on stories that are obviously propagandistic.
  • Support the work of Wikileaks. To my mind they are effectively exposing what our political masters won’t say, which is that the deep state has effectively carried out a coup within our political machinery. Their current releases are their largest yet: an expose of the hacking tools used by the US security establishment.
  • Learn about online tools to hold newspapers to account. Newsniffer is particularly interesting - it snapshots news stories over time, and has already been used by activists to show how stories get modified (perhaps when a government official or lobbyist expresses their displeasure).
  • I am in two minds about advocating a general boycott of the media, and people probably would not listen to such a call anyway. Outside of unusual circumstances (sales of The Sun in Liverpool are very low, for example) people will still pay money for terrible rags, even knowing they’re terrible rags (“Oh, I just read it for the sports coverage” etc). I can see how a successful media boycott could make matters worse (at least in the short term), but my personal view is that the print and broadcast press do an inordinate amount of damage by largely accepting the world as it stands.

I’ve sometimes pondered a web app to help citizens hold journalists to account. It would work on a Media Lens model where a story could be annotated or commented safely (i.e. without the newspaper being able to delete those comments - a common complaint about the Guardian). Readers could then be encouraged to contact journalists and ask them for corroborating evidence, or complain to the editor, etc. However whilst media activism may a useful tool in challenging the power of the media, I fear it may be seen more widely as an esoteric and inefficient use of time, and that any tools built to help would simply not get used.

On an end-note, I have been intrigued by the phenomenon of “fake news” that has been mentioned in the media recently. Does this just refer to online stories that do not have a verifiable source? It seems to me that this is another form of propaganda, and the one issue the news media won’t touch with a barge pole is that a lot of their output is fake too, even if it comes from “respectable” sources.


(Andy Wootton) #11

@KateRaworth on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08njtjg this morning, said that in her economics degree, the idea that we can just keep growing and keep within our finite ecosystem wasn’t challenged once.
She pointed out that in nature, organisms grow then stop. The exception is cancer.

I only heard a bit of it but I plan to listen again. I liked the sound of her doughnut model so much that I bought 10 for a quid at Co-Op.


(Andy Wootton) #12

Finally remembered to listen. Well worth it for her bit.

Your new mayor has just been on TV. His first plan is to visit the PM, then he sees his roll as communicating with leaders. Who IS my leader, the Chair of the BCS? :slight_smile: I fear that some of you may not share my natural respect for my betters.

The WM(v4) Mayor says he plans to take the transport needs of us folk in the out-lying regions of the Midland engine into account too, so at least he knows we exist. I guess we’re like France, next door and a bit smelly.


(Andy Wootton) #13

We are the Midlands Engine; download our PDF of stratagems https://www.midlandsengine.org/