In 1995 under 45 million people had access to the internet and in 2016 that number grew to be about 3.5 billion. In January 2018, the global mobile population stood at 3.7 billion unique users with the most amount of mobile internet traffic coming from emerging economies and democracies.
These are essential statistics when considering the role of the internet connectivity and the potential of its impact on the citizens’ decision-making abilities in electing their representatives. While the internet has created an online digital space for the freedom of expression and protest – albeit the extent depends on the country you are in – there is also a risk of rising inequality presented through the divide of those ‘who know’ and those ‘who don’t’, the issue I briefly hinted in one of my previous blog posts.
I guess a few major recent scandals that have severely impacted the public’s trust in the use of data in the democratic process have left a few unanswered questions and further suspicious raised eyebrows. In an interview with The Economist’s Open Future, Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook psychographic modelling techniques (PMT) scandal stated, “We need to change our mindset and understand that the protection of our democracy is a national security issue.” He carried on saying, “When any country interferes with your democracy, they are attacking you.” The impact of Cambridge Analytica’s PMT wasn’t just connected with the influence on the decision-making abilities of the voters in the US presidential election, but also with the British voters in their decision for the UK’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union and in Nigeria, for their presidential elections too. First, both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook denied any wrongdoing, but then the CEO of Cambridge Analytica apologised for the use of data without consent but maintained that “the data had been obtained in line with Facebook’s terms of service and data protection laws.” Facebook’s CEO finally came forward and apologised about the scandal in a full-page ad in several newspapers. As a consequence, Cambridge Analytica closed down, and Facebook was finned, about which some argued is pretty meaningless. On a broader national scale, by now, most of us might have already heard about the Russian cyber meddling in the US elections and in the UK’s referendum of leaving the EU, the allegations that Russia continues to deny.
So, what is going on? And more importantly, why the nations in whom we have put our trust for the security of this world – referring to their permanent member status of the UN’s Security Council – are not on the same page on a fundamental aspect of governing and self-determination through the process of democracy? Where did the things go wrong? Apologies for bombarding you with these questions but I am struggling to answer them as much as you might be right now if you haven’t been already. But one thing for sure, that these scandals have raised a debate of who should be controlling data and how it should be presented to the citizens, especially when making an important decision of self-governance, securing of their fundamental rights and electing their representatives to ensure their democratic values are upheld. So far, we have seen both the allegations of data hacking and its manipulation, and the way data is presented to the voters and its collection without their consent in targeting their behaviour.
Lastly, democracy has been around for centuries, starting from the ancient Greeks, but the way people interact within a democratic framework has changed. For example, I launched this online campaign a couple of days ago, petitioning the UK government to follow France’s lead on dealing with the issue of hunger and food-waste simultaneously. Within a couple of days, it has over 200 signatures. I wonder if that was even possible in the days before data and online platforms? We live in an instant online world, and I guess the people and institutions responsible for providing and securing our democratic framework, that gives an ordinary person like me a voice and helps to make decisions on the area of laws, governance, justice and activism have to be always on guard against the threats, both internal and external.