Thursday 19 September 2019

Politics in an internet age: Is digital technology undermining our democracy?

If you watch a recent viral video of actor Bill Hader impersonating Tom Cruise on a talk show, the first thing that hits you is how he seems to morph into the Hollywood star. His eyes narrow, he perfectly captures Cruise’s distinctive smile and even his nose seems to change shape.

It’s uncanny but it’s also not real. The video is a deepfake, part of a new trend for doctored videos that can swap faces to create an utterly believable but fabricated reality. In an age of fake news, polarised opinions and social media echo chambers, deepfake videos are just another emerging technology that could have wider political implications.

Jamie Bartlett is a journalist, tech blogger and author who will be speaking at this year’s Secure Computing Forum in the RDS on Thursday, September 12. Ahead of his talk, we asked him how our online habits are influencing modern politics and what this could mean for democracy.

Jamie Bartlett.png
Journalist, tech blogger and author, Jamie Bartlett

Much was made of how the Brexit campaign used personalised, online ads on social media to encourage people to vote leave. According to Jamie, the lack of empirical evidence makes it unclear how effective these targeted, personalised ads actually are.

“When it comes to sophisticated, personality-based profiling and targeted messaging, it’s very difficult to be sure,” he points out. “I fear there’s a slightly different problem which is that all political parties now use it. All political parties profile people and try to target them with personal messages.”

These online ads can potentially target specific voters with emotive, reactionary content designed to appeal to their natural bias. The Trump campaign famously targeted undecided voters in swing states during the US presidential election.

Jamie’s biggest concern is that the lack of legislation around online ads makes it impossible to tell what people are seeing or even if the ads are telling the truth. With no legislative checks and balances in place, it’s also easy to accuse whoever wins an election or referendum of cheating.

“I think it probably does work a bit but I think the really important thing about it is it makes it very, very difficult for any regulator to quite know who is doing what. So it undermines the trust that people have in the result, which undermines the legitimacy of the result.”

A clash of new and old cultures

Representative democracy has survived the rise and fall of empires but Jamie notes that many digital technologies don’t adhere to the laws, systems or norms that traditionally underpin representative democracies.

“For a democracy to work reasonably well, citizens have to have the ability to know what they really think about things, to reflect carefully on complex decisions and to engage constructively and meaningfully with each other to find compromises over situations.

“That’s an idealistic vision of how that should work but I don’t think that digital technology helps us to achieve that at all because it’s all based on immediate, emotional, aggressive, snappy, short messaging. The whole logic of how we communicate is not one that a representative democracy is based on.”

Our changing habits are increasingly causing a disconnect between our traditional democratic system and our modern lifestyles, with Brexit offering an example how this can play out.

“I think that what is going on in the UK at the moment is a sort of clash of world views between immediate, direct democracy based on emotion and a careful, thoughtful representative democracy, both of which are obviously imperfect. But I think this is a clash that’s coming to most democracies sometime soon.”

The search for truth

One consequence of living in the internet age is that people are drowning under the sheer amount of information that they are being asked to process. 

“We’re now living in an age of complete information overload,” explains Jamie.

“We’re overwhelmed with conflicting information all the time and the only way you can really deal with that is to take sides and engage with it almost at an emotional level – what feels right, using all those heuristic shortcuts to make sense of the confusing noise.”


Objective truth can be a casualty of this noise. The online success of radical groups – many of whom were early adopters of online technology - in spreading mistruths and amplifying false narratives with a kernel of truth has also helped to muddy the waters.

A common misconception around so-called echo chambers is that we don’t encounter people with different political opinions when we’re online. Jamie points out that this happens all the time but that we don’t have the time or the inclination to actually engage with them, to see what they’re really like as people or to try to understand their viewpoints. Instead, we often focus on the fact that we don’t agree with them. 

He describes this phenomenon as a ‘backfire effect,’ where encountering opposing views can actually reinforce our existing views. People rarely change their views after encountering contradictory viewpoints. Instead, it can actually make us more entrenched in our positions, something that can lead to even more polarised politics. 

And so we come back to those deepfake videos, which Jamie believes will make it even harder for people to know what is real and what is fake. It seems only a matter of time before this technology is available as a simple app on your phone and anyone can make a deepfake video.

It won't be long before the average person can easily make a reputation-ruining video featuring world leaders, local politicians, your boss or even a work colleague.

“Already but increasingly in the next couple of years, it’s going to be very, very easy to make anybody say anything, to doctor video footage so it looks incredibly lifelike and realistic, and this is going to be a huge problem.

“It’s going to be harder and harder to work out what’s real and what’s fake. And all those problems of your cognitive bias, your willingness to believe things you already think, is going to be turbocharged by the sort of possibility of videos being perfectly changed. I think the danger there is not that people will just believe anything they see but they just won’t believe anything.”

With plausible deniability, people in power could simply claim that any embarrassing or incriminating video evidence is a fake. If people aren’t able to trust their own eyes, it will be difficult to believe anything that they see.

“That’s a problem because when people don’t believe anything, they just believe their own emotions and their own gut instincts.”

Just as John F Kennedy’s success in the first televised US presidential debate made TV something that politicians couldn't ignore, it’s clear that the internet is now becoming a major influence on modern politics. The question now is whether we can adapt our legislation, public discourse and online habits to make sure that this influence is a positive one. 

The Secure Computing Forum takes place on September 12 in the RDS in Dublin. For more information on its fantastic line-up of speakers, check out the Secure Computing Forum website.

Tickets are €100 (excluding VAT) and refreshments will be provided throughout the day. You can register for tickets here.

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