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Between freedom and manipulation

Ever since the earliest days of democracy and electoral competition, successful politicians have understood the importance of effective communication. The ancient Greek city states had their great orators such as Pericles and Demosthenes whose speeches are still cited today, and a guide to winning elections from Rome in 64 BCE advises using “all your assets to spread the word about your campaign to the widest possible audience”.

In ancient Malay polities too, securing and maintaining high office – from chiefdoms to the throne itself – branding was key, and came not just in the form of providing efficient government but also the dissemination of one’s impeccable reputation, good deeds and glorious ancestry through traditional art forms and the hikayat.

Since then, the rise of participatory democracy throughout the world has been accompanied by technological change that has shaped how societies have chosen their leaders. Each time a new medium has been invented – the printing press, newspapers, radio, television, the internet and social media – people aspiring to be in power have tried to exploit these new means of communication.

In similar vein, ever since the earliest days of capitalism, providers of goods and services have used available media to persuade people to choose their products.

The power of communication in competitive politics and markets had led to a proliferation of companies offering services to political and corporate organisations aiming to improve their public relations, branding, marketing and advertising. We all know people who work in these sectors, and we regard their activities as legitimate, even if we suspect that they’re just trying to manipulate us. Still, at the end of the day, we believe we are capable of making sensible decisions that are right for us.

Indeed, conceptually it would be difficult to object to the notion of choosing our leaders and products according to systems governed by law. Yet today, the virtues of both democracy and capitalism have been cast into doubt even in societies that thrived from them, with both political authoritarianism and economic centralisation seemingly on the rise.

Recently the disillusionment has grown courtesy of an expose by Channel 4 in the United Kingdom of Cambridge Analytica, a firm being accused of illegally acquiring millions of individuals’ personal data from Facebook and using that data for the purposes of influencing elections. The apparent boasting by its bosses about its methods of entrapping politicians to embarrass them and supposed access to hacked email accounts have added to the public disgust. Those involved are now facing lawsuits in the United States and further scrutiny by British members of parliament. In Malaysia, the revelation that the company previously did work locally has triggered accusations and counter-accusations about who engaged them and for what. (We also see the hypocrisy of those willing to forgive its use by one side but not the other: such is the blind affinity to party over principle.)

Yet, in our reaction, it is important to consider what it is that is truly offensive about the saga. Are we offended merely by the illegality of what Cambridge Analytica is being accused of? Or are we offended by the idea that someone can use data to manipulate us? To prevent their conflation, perhaps we should different questions.

First, if we consent to our data being mined through a platform that we voluntarily use (by clicking “I agree” to an app’s terms and conditions), then do we still have the right to be offended? If so, then what does that they say about our faith in assessing the information we are presented with? Do we not have a responsibility to question the veracity of messages we see, whether or not they appear to us as a result of data mining?

One could argue that higher standards should apply when strategic communications companies serve political rather than corporate clients, on the basis that markets are always competitive whereas political parties essentially acquire a monopoly over certain powers for the period they are in government.

Yet, there is a risk in overreacting to this scandal with new regulations that themselves could undermine democracy. Take the proposed legislation against fake news: activists already fear that it will be used to protect those in power (who get to define what is ‘fake’). And we have seen elsewhere how the restriction of social media platforms is always intended to protect the incumbents.

The freedom to choose will always come with the risk of manipulation and deceit. As laws and regulations try to navigate through those precarious waters, the best defence remains our own healthy scepticism, our own personal analytics – and of course an education system that encourages these traits in all our citizens.

First published in Conservatively Speaking Freely, and, 23 March 2018.

Tunku Zain al Abidin

YAM Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin ibni Tuanku Muhriz is the Founding President of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs and a Trustee Jeffrey Cheah Foundation.

2018-03-23T10:20:38+00:00 23rd March 2018|Opinion|Comments Off on Between freedom and manipulation