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Mainstream Weekly, VOL LVI No 15 New Delhi March 31, 2018

Remotely-controlled Weapons hit Democracy

Saturday 31 March 2018


by L.K. Sharma

National electorates have lost their primacy in deciding the outcome of their elections. They have the vote and they go to the polling booths, but their choice may be determined by a foreign government or a private company. In the new information order, manipulated voters have come to outnumber threatened voters and bribed voters.

Democracy stands diminished as the world debates whether Donald Trump was sent to the White House by American voters or by Vladimir Putin! Not a month goes by without protests by those who believe that the Russian state meddled in the US election.

This controversy has been followed by reports that a British data analytics firm energised Trump’s poll campaign by using allegedly stolen private data for targeting American voters.

Democracy has spawned manufacturers of dissent and consent who can be contracted for swaying the election results in one country or organising a political “spring”and destabilising a regime in another. If it is illegal to subvert free elections in another country, the official intelligence agency can outsource the job to private commercial players. This formula for plausible deniability has been tried and tested.

Technological advances have increased asymmetry in power relations and the new business leaders come from the same regions that dominated manufacturing and financial services. Their business depends on data mining based on technologies monopolised by the privileged.

Stealing of private data seems easier than pilfering coal from the mines. Data is far more expensive than coal. The victims of robber barons knew what they lost but the victims of data miners do not know what is being stolen from them.

Data mining is as important a weapon in the arsenal of a political leader as it is for a company selling soap and shampoo. It is through data mining that Russia is alleged to have helped Trump’s poll campaign.

The involvement of a “foreign hand” was one of the reasons that made Donald Trump’s victory controversial from the moment the results were announced in 2016. One senior US official or the other keeps revealing details of cyber-meddling by Moscow. A grand jury in Washington accuses 13 Russians and three organisations of plotting to sway the US presidential election in favour of Trump.

The indictment goes beyond the charge of an online operation and using a “troll farm” in Russia to flood the social media with pro-Trump and anti-Hillary content. Some Russians even travelled to the US clandestinely to contact social and political activists and organise demonstrations and protests designed to harm Hillary and benefit Trump.

This indictment was used by the US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to say that”Russian meddling is incontrovertible and beyond dispute”. Trump denies the allegation and blames the FBI for investigating his election campaign.

As if the alleged Russian involvement was not enough, it turns out that some credit must also go to a British data analytics firm which carries the prestigious word “Cambridge” in its name. Sample a newspaper headline: “Cambridge Analytica boasts of dirty tricks to swing elections”.

According to media reports, the Cambridge Analytica executives boasted of their role in getting Trump elected. Their weapon was “unattributable and untrackable” advertising to support their clients in elections. The firm, according to a senior member of staff, was behind the “defeat crooked Hillary” advertising campaign. It just placed false information into bloodstream of the internet and then watched it grow!

Such stuff infiltrates the online community with a lightning speed. Hillary Clinton, the victim of this social media campaign, did notice something unusual. She said that she faced a new kind of campaign that nobody had ever faced before.

This data scandal led to the suspension of the company’s chief executive. Also, Cambridge University asked Facebook to tell it whether one of its academics used university data and resources to help Cambridge Analytica.

The Observer reported that the company had unauthorised access to tens of millions of Facebook profiles which were used to build a political targeting system to help Trump. The British company faces the allegations of the theft of personal data of American voters. The newspaper headlines appearing every week will not let the controversy die or let the Trump poll campaign get a clean chit soon.

A report of foreign interference in national politics has been reported from another democracy—France. The former President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been taken into police custody for being questioned over allegations that he received millions of euros in illegal election campaign funding from the late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Sarkozy won that election in 2007. Sarkozy also faced another allegation of false accounting for his failed re-election campaign of 2012 when he was described as a “political showman” because of his expensive rallies and the US-style stadium gigs.

In France, a foreign power directly helped the then President by funding his re-election campaign. In the US election, a foreign power allegedly meddled by abusing social media.

The employment of foreign poll consultants by the candidates in emerging democracies has become a known strategy. In a new scenario, a foreign government can offer this expensive service to a favoured candidate in the Third World in a clandestine manner. It can evade the charge of meddling in a foreign election by enlisting the Diaspora favouring one candidate of the other, one ideology or the other in the motherland.

The US and Britain have a long history of using the expatriates in their official as well as unofficial campaigns to dislodge a foreign ruler, elected or non-elected. The Diaspora operates from the safety of their adopted country and does not mind if its campaign finance causes social unrest and political instability in the motherland.

The Iranian Diaspora in the US plays a big role in the politics of the motherland. The US Government offered grants worth millions of dollars inviting applications from the groups wanting to promote human rights and democracy in Iran. This was seen even by some Iranians in America as a veiled attempt at regime change in that country.

A political revolution in Iran can be seeded in Brooklyn! This meddling is done in the name of promoting democracy in the target country. In some cases, the new regime turns out to be more oppressive and a transient political “spring” is followed by a harsher winter.

A big power smells an opportunity if the Diaspora belongs to a politically polarised country. Depending on the foreign and economic policies of the target nation, official agencies recruit either the dissidents or the supporters of the regime from among the expatriates.

Social media is a very powerful political tool in possession of the Diaspora! Digital patriots have proliferated in the recent years. The Diaspora helps its favourite leader’s campaign in the motherland through tweets and online campaign videos. It organises impressive events for a visiting leader from “home” and holds a token protest against his political opponents or his critics in the media. If a Third World leader cannot afford data mining, analysis and poll consultancy by a foreign firm, the Diaspora can foot the bill.

Such remotely run campaigns influence the voters of the target country as the US Presidential election proved.The growing external influence on the democratic process is now understood by every smart elected leader. He knows that his people’s mandate for a given number of years is not enough and he fears destabilisation. He wants to strengthen his position by gettinga big external power’s endorsement. Italso enhances his popularity in his country, especially if it happens to be a former colony.

If America gives a favoured-nation treatment, global appreciation follows and the media in the US and Europe starts seeing that country in a new light. Eric Hobsbawm once told this reporter that young India’s achievements were ignored by the Western media for decades because America had reservations about India’s policies.

The Third World leaders realise the importance of the President of the United States and seek a bargain with him. Abandoning their party’s election manifesto, they open up the domestic market a little more to become more acceptable to powerful nations. They carry orders for big-ticket military equipment when they go to meet their counterparts. A smart elected leader does not antagonise a big power for fear of ruination. His democratic credentials are not enough to keep him safely in power.

A vilified dictator who benefits the commercial and manufacturing interests of his host country is hailed as a world statesman.And the same dictator refusing to play ball at a later stage can be deported from the world. An old photograph of an American Defence Secretary bowing in the court of Saddam Hussein illustrates how an enemy was a great friend once.

Democracy is often threatened by external elements posing as a force for democracy. The use of social media and foreign funding has increased challenges facing the election regulators. In the best of times, the democratic order faced threats from domestic money, media and muscle power. The dominant castes of Bihar or the money bags of London’s Golden Square Mile have always swayed the election results in their respective areas of influence. The latter do not send armed ruffians to capture polling booths but underwrite a friendly political party’s poll campaign.

The City’s financial might has protected its extraordinary rights and privileges, granting it immunity from the elected Parliament’s authority! The unkindest description of the Golden Square Mile, from where the old East India Company operated once, comes from The Guardian columnist George Monbiot. He says it is the place “where democracy goes to die”.

Another columnist Jeremy Fox calls the City of London “the prime launderette for dirty money and the world’s largest controller of offshore tax haves”. It became the prime destination for the super-rich Russians after the end of the Cold War. Following the suspicious deaths of a former Russian spy who spied for Britain, some British columnists made dark references to the Russian oligarchs helping the ruling party in Britain.

Some British media moguls have perfected the art of winning friends in a coming government by influence the people during the election campaign. A media owner doesn’t just ask his editors to write the desired kind of opinion pieces and editorials but unleashes his trusted reporter on a leader whom he doesn’t want to become the next Prime Minister. At the behest of the government, the media moguls can deploy massive financial resources in publishing and distributing a book written by a foreigner fighting the leader of that country.

Their Indian counterparts have quickly learnt from them. The Indian media scene has become so dismal that every now or then a TV or a newspaper journalist either resigns in protest or is thrown out for showing signs of independent thinking. This happened twice this month.

Such domestic threats to democracy have been discussed for years. But it is the external threat that has grown manifold and is set to acquire greater lethal power to disrupt a democracy.The new weapon is safer to use, and technological advances will make it more and more effective. It has demonstrated its capability not just in the young democracies but even in mature democracies.

Globalisation, data collection and analytics and social media have given a remote weapon to subvert democracy in any distant country. This weapon is humane. An unfriendly foreign leader no longer needs to be killed physically. It is easier to assassinate him politically.

Some powerful Western democratic nations who preach democracy while supporting cruel but friendly foreign dictators used to suppress the democratic movements in those countries by offering a dictator the best of weapon systems plus substantial financial aid while keeping quiet about the human rights violation by his forces. They can now help a subservientdictator by using subtle methods to sabotage the electoral chances of his democratic opponent.

Many democracies keep trying to curb the misuse of money and muscle power in elections. Now the spectre of the “foreign hand” has come to haunt the democratic process. The media coverage of the external meddling in elections makes the true democrats anxious and gives credibility to those forecasting the death of democracy.

(Courtesy: Open Democracy)

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free- lancer.

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