(In case it isn’t obvious, this article is meant as satire.)
image from The Daily Show
Canadians go to the polls for a federal election this fall; Americans do so next fall. There is already evidence of large-scale election meddling through social media, with campaigns of misinformation attempting to convince target demographics to change their votes or their views on particular subjects.
These misinformation campaigns prey on the fact that, under our hopelessly broken first-past-the-post electoral system, people vote against the party/candidate they least want to win, rather than for anyone or anything. And in referenda, they are much more likely to show up and vote against a resolution if they’re unsure or frightened about it, than to support it if they’re OK with it.
The objective of misinformation campaigns is usually to find ways to outrage one side, or sometimes both sides of an issue simultaneously, in order to polarize, obfuscate, and/or distract. To polarize so that reasonable consensus can never be reached; to obfuscate so that the important aspects of an issue, or the important positions of the candidates, get lost in the shouting over one particular (usually misrepresented) fact, issue or position; and to distract so that no one is paying attention, either to what’s really important or to those who are coherently offering understanding and new ideas about the real issues and crises we’re facing.
Danah Boyd recently wrote a fascinating article about the deliberate propagation of misinformation through social and mainstream media, including gaslighting (the systematic, psychological manipulation used by cults and abusive partners to the point the victim begins to doubt their perceptions, reality or even sanity), using untruths to encourage conspiracy theories, and flooding the Internet, its bubbles, and the faux-news channels and talk-shows, with inflammatory made-up phrases (“partial-birth abortion”; “death taxes”) for which there is no rebutting or factual information available, because there are no links to articles where the correct terms are explained. In other words, this is the business of deliberately manufacturing ignorance, misunderstanding, and conflict to subvert the political process.
Such misinformation campaigns are not used exclusively by the Russians and Chinese (though there is evidence they have become particularly advanced in those heavily repressed countries). They are increasingly used everywhere in campaigns by the parties and candidates themselves, and especially by special-interest groups with a vested interest in keeping the public uninformed, misinformed, distracted and put off by the whole political process to the point they cease participating in it, so the special-interest groups’ political power and influence is unchallenged.
This is not hard to do. But why would anyone want to do this? Several reasons: To change the results in favour of candidates the saboteurs prefer, most obviously — candidates who are dysfunctional or easily corruptible and/or who share the saboteurs agendas. Or simply to destabilize the country’s body politic to weaken its global influence. So much power is at stake there is always great motivation to try to steal it, and misinformation (in both mainstream and social media) is an increasingly effective way to do it.
If you wanted to sabotage the upcoming Canadian or US elections, here are a few things you might do, if you had the money and power (that probably lets you and me out):
- Propagate demoralizing stories that suggest a tight hegemony of powerful interests will override the will of any elected government, so that “it doesn’t matter who wins”. In some of these stories, you could paint this hegemony as left-wing (and throw in the name ‘Soros’), and in others, you could paint it as right-wing (and throw in the name ‘Koch’). This would outrage and frustrate some older and more polarized voters, and discourage many younger and more moderate voters. Especially in missives that will be read by the young and others with very limited power, you might reinforce that (a) all politicians are liars, (b) all parties are the same, and (c) what happens is unaffected by whoever gets into power — to discourage people from voting — this is particularly easy and effective because it is more than slightly true.
- Infiltrate public demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations, with paid agents who identify themselves as ‘anarchists’ (or some other title almost no one wants to be associated with). You might ensure these agents are masked, and suggest they randomly but ferociously confront authorities, provoke counter-demonstrators, use obscene, inflammatory and threatening language, and commit meaningless and visually-spectacular acts of property destruction. This would demoralize both sides and polarize them at the same time, as they point fingers at each other.
- Fiercely defend the current electoral system, especially the first-past-the-post electoral system, to encourage fewer and fewer parties to run, and to discourage supporters of third parties from bothering to show up. This way, only two parties will be left for you to bribe and control, and they will generally have close-to-identical platforms (for fear of alienating the mythical ‘moderate’ voter). You would of course run misinformation/fear campaigns to ensure all attempts at electoral reform fail. Likewise, you would (through op-eds and lobbying) defend gerrymandering (but call it ‘redistricting’), and encourage large-scale voter disenfranchisement (but call it ‘reducing voter fraud’). This can further discourage voters from showing up, and ensure that incumbents already under your control are not challenged.
- Hack voting machines. This is incredibly easy to do, and has the advantage of frightening voters of all political stripes into believing that perhaps their votes don’t/didn’t count and the election has been stolen. Outrage and helplessness — great combination for manipulating voters!
- Distribute wildly inflated, conflated and invented stories about political correctness, especially at universities. Nothing enrages struggling people across the political spectrum as much as the fiction that privileged students are boycotting their English literature classes because some of the books have ‘trigger words’, and nothing infuriates traditionalists as much as the insistence that in most contexts the word ‘Christmas’ be dropped in favour of ‘holiday’. You might therefore insist that all candidates denounce political correctness as something that ‘was well-intended but has gone too far’ and then leave them to fight over what the hell that means. This is especially effective when there’s a need to distract people who want to hear candidates’ positions on real issues like climate change, gun control and reproductive choice.
- Finance single-issue negative candidates, and, if it’s not too unpleasant or dangerous, hate groups. This helps them get more media attention, so that extremists are emboldened to make outrageous statements, terrifying much of the electorate and focusing them on that particular single issue, and distracting from other issues you don’t want talked about.
- Support candidates who play on people’s fear and shame over being poor, sick, or uneducated, especially by exaggerating (or fabricating) isolated stories of misbehaving poor, sick and uneducated people. This will distance people from the victims (particularly if they appear ridiculous or inarticulate on camera), make progressives feel more defensive about supporting social programs, make conservatives feel more self-righteous about cutting social instead of military programs, and make those struggling feel too ashamed to speak up. Triple win!
- Propagate conspiracy theories. Finance candidates and ‘experts’ who whip up fears of government conspiracies on issues like 5G, 911 and vaccines. These are perfect issues for turning progressives against each other and hence neutralizing their momentum on other issues, because it’s essentially impossible to prove conclusively that something didn’t happen. They also help foment further anti-government sentiment among conservatives, but then again, there are so many conspiracy theories that you can use to work up anti-anything fervour among conservatives that it’s not even a fair fight. Several can be squeezed into a single sound bit.
- Invent and redefine words and phrases. Deliberately and repeatedly use words that misrepresent and connotatively slur perfectly acceptable and desirable projects and groups. A great example: “entitlements” — a way better word to use than “pensions for public service workers” if you want to make people think there’s something wrong about them.
- Use lawyers to scare advocates and opponents. Lawyers should be employed liberally to support and enhance your democratic subversion efforts — that’s what they’re there for! For example, enable parties and governments to launch or threaten legal actions against each other’s supporters, or against your opponents. This can have a particularly chilling effect on any free speech you want to squelch. Just make sure not to call your witch hunts by that name: they’re ‘investigations into possible impropriety’. Best to say the investigation is focused on unnamed ‘foreign interest groups’ to get the xenophobes whipped up into a fury too.
- Blame ‘foreigners’. You don’t have to name which ‘foreigners’ specifically, but be sure to blame ‘them’ generously for everything, including your election hacking. If you can work in ‘illegal immigrants’ or the subtler ‘political refugees’ into your statement of blame that’s a bonus — thanks to the media, even liberals are afraid of them now, and they can’t defend themselves! Particularly effective is to blame ‘foreign influence’ and ‘foreign money’, which sounds shady as long as it isn’t referring to what your country does elsewhere, and it’s so vague you can’t really be called on it.
- Paint both sides as anti-semitic, anti-democracy, or anti-(your country name here). No one wants to be labelled any of these things, since they’re anathema to every part of the political spectrum. And it doesn’t take much to get the label to stick (supporting a boycott of Israeli goods, or opposing holding a referendum before electoral reform can occur, or ‘disrespecting’ the flag, should be enough to deep-six the labelled candidate or group for at least one election).
- Create out-of-context and faked videos: This is the newest and sexiest way to disrupt any campaign. Issue lots of videos of candidates that have been altered by selective mixing and editing to convey a completely different picture from what actually happened, and which make what was said or done look particularly egregious. If that isn’t convincing enough, create faked videos from scratch using new digital graphics, sound and animation technologies to show something that never happened at all, and then attribute the video to an ‘anonymous source’ that sent it indirectly to you. Act concerned and alarmed, and be agnostic about its veracity, putting the onus on the victim to ‘prove’ it is altered or faked.
Then again, you may not need to do any of these things. The political parties and candidates in both countries seem bent on sabotaging their election campaigns all by themselves. Nevertheless, I think we may be unnerved by what may happen over the next months and years about how election processes work, and don’t work, in the 21st century. There are some rumblings that the entire idea of (at least representative) democracy is in inevitable and permanent decline. Whether that happens or not, we should be prepared for a roller-coaster ride, and some big surprises, in the elections to come. The voters, in both countries, and across the political spectrum, are not happy with the current processes, or the candidates and actions they produce.