Participate, or democracy erodes

Fiona Onasanya column
Fiona Onasanya column

Before the break, Westminster was still abuzz with talk about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. There are a number of worries: first, there’s the way that Cambridge Analytica got hold of users’ private data. It’s one thing if you enter a competition and willingly submit your information as a consequence. However, in this instance, the data of friends of those who took a quiz was also extracted without their knowledge. This has forced Parliament to confront Facebook’s less than stellar record in securing our information.

There’s also the matter of democracy in the digital age. Cambridge Analytica does “microtargeting”, which means tailoring messages to a very granular level.

For example, if you are a woman with two children in your mid thirties, living in Lincolnshire, and employed in retail, you may very well get a message that is different from say, a man in his fifties who works in London, whose children are grown and works in the financial industry. Some might consider tailoring messages this way to be clever; but what if the messages pass on disinformation designed to cater to our deepest fears?

I salute Channel 4 News for exposing the third cause for concern: ugly politics. In the course of investigating Cambridge Analytica, they secretly filmed a meeting with its CEO, Alexander Nix. Among other things, Mr Nix suggested it would be possible to arrange for “beautiful Ukrainian girls” to be used to compromise political opponents. He also suggested that a phony property developer could also be deployed to manufacture a financial scandal.

The twin courses of politics and democracy have rarely run smoothly. I’m informed that the American Presidential election of 1828 was especially dreadful: one candidate suggested that the other was in the business of hiring sex workers for the benefit of the Tsar of Russia. However, there is an ebb and flow to life, and it feels like our present period is particularly ugly. Thanks to advances in technology and the prevalence of disinformation, this ugliness can travel further and faster than ever before.

We should take care and make fine distinctions: certainly, there is cause to look at the record of any government and compare it to what was promised. It is quite another matter to tear down individuals and institutions, make assertions about their character that lack truth, but the stain of which remains long after the matter is clarified. We need to be particularly mindful of this as we enter yet another local election cycle here in Peterborough: the uglier the politics, the less likely it is that people will want to engage in the process. If people do not participate, then democracy itself erodes. If British democracy as a whole erodes, the only people who will be truly gladdened are the autocrats of this world who tell their people that democracy is worthless. I hope we can avoid this; we can make positive choices for change. I look forward to the case being made in the coming weeks.