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PRINT EDITION
The best weapon against election interference? Our minds
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If foreign actors hope to hijack Canada's federal election, strengthening our decision-making processes should be our first line of defence
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By DAVID MOSCROP
  
  

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Saturday, April 13, 2019 – Page O4

Author of Too Dumb for Democracy?: Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones

Contemporary democratic life is marked by a tendency toward the permanent campaign - a state in which political parties are constantly raising money, carefully framing their messaging, attacking their opponents and repelling attacks against themselves, and working to ensure that the country is talking about issues that will serve their electoral prospects. This means that, in a sense, we're always in the midst of an election campaign, even if the intensity of that experience varies from moment to moment.

For voters, this means that parties are always thinking about us: what we like, what we don't like, what we want, what we don't want and what might mobilize us to vote or donate money to them.

All of that's fine, ultimately: Most of it is pretty standard democratic fodder, the sort of stuff you'd expect and, generally speaking, prefer in a system of self-government.

But there's more to it. The 2019 federal election will take place about six months from now, but observers will tell you that it's already well under way - and that's true too for foreign actors who would want to interfere with our democracy.

A report by Canada's Communications Security Establishment released this week warned that it is "very likely" the country will be the target of foreign cyberattacks during the 2019 federal election.

This is the new normal. Because of the internet and social media, such operations are easier, faster, cheaper, more effective, wider-reaching and less risky than in past years. As new geopolitical tensions rise, there's also growing concern that Russia and China, among others, are engaged in a sustained effort to undermine Western liberal democracy and the defence alliance that supports it. Reported interventions in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit vote in Britain suggest as much. The fact that similar shenanigans in France and the Netherlands have happened means Canada's democracy is certainly wearing a bull's-eye, too; in fact, "political parties, candidates and staff" have already been attacked by at least one foreign-state-backed hacking campaign, according to the Toronto Star and BuzzFeed News.

Of course, foreign election interference in and of itself isn't a new phenomenon, not by any stretch. Purloined information, misleading or false news, propaganda, microtargeted messaging, rabble-rousing and simple acts of violence have long threatened delicate democracy, and the 20th century is littered with examples.

In the 1990s, for instance, the Clinton administration pushed the International Monetary Fund to provide loans to its preferred candidate Boris Yeltsin to offer as part of his re-election campaign in Russia, the Atlantic's Peter Beinart writes. Between that effort and the sending of U.S. political consultants, Mr. Yeltsin overcame abjectly low polling numbers (worse than Joseph Stalin's) to win the election.

Indeed, 2016 research by Professor Dov Levin suggests that 81 American and 36 Soviet electoral interventions between 1946 and 2000 were effective, and that overt interventions worked better than covert ones. He sets the bar pretty low for what counts as foreign interference, but his conclusions are nonetheless remarkable, reminding us that no state is an island unto itself - including states that are literally islands, as reported efforts in Japan and the Philippines prove.

But what is often lost in all this talk about security threats is that foreign actors who would seek to disrupt democracies are often ultimately after one important thing, which happens to also be at the core of all democracies: voters' minds.

When an election gets hacked, the thing that is ultimately manipulated is the mind, and decisions, of the voter. Stuffing ballot boxes is tricky and risky in most advanced democracies. But hijacking cognitive processes - the ways we think - can work wonders for enterprising baddies who wish to put the finger on the scales of democracy.

In February, the CBC studied nine million tweets going back to 2013 and found that "Twitter trolls linked to suspected foreign influence campaigns stoked controversy over pipelines and immigration in Canada." As you might expect, their interventions were not constructive. But they weren't meant to be: Such attacks effectively skew citizen impressions of what we ought to be talking about and how we ought to be talking about it, warping our sense of what people care about and how much. They also typically encourage nasty politics of division, based not on disagreement but on disagreeableness.

Foreign actors can and do exploit not only shortcomings in our individual psychology but existing tensions and weaknesses in our democratic institutions and political culture. Their hacking efforts are only emboldened by lies from bad-faith actors, and overconfidence and self-delusion that can creep into our decision-making. They exploit deep and outrage-inducing social inequalities.

The media, an important institution that relies on a trust that foreign actors seek to break, can damage that vital confidence themselves with potential factual errors, real or perceived bias, and by delivering complicated and high-volume information in overly simplistic ways or at breakneck speed. And poisoned decision-making leads to poorer outcomes that are more difficult to explain and justify to others, which are vital practices that keep a democracy strong.

The solutions to those challenges, then, must include personal practices of resilience and collective resistance, and a defence of our core decision-making process around voting, but also around policies, laws and political opinions. If the political judgments we render and the choices we make must be rational and autonomous, they need to be based on information about the world that is accurate and coherent, and they should be supported by true, self-aware reasons that we can share with one another.

So to keep the process intact, we - as individuals and governments, as caretakers of the will of the electorate - have to deliberately set out to collect accurate information, to understand it in good faith, to develop reasons for our preferences and to share those reasons with others. If that sounds onerous, that's because it is and it should be - at least compared to what we've come to ask and expect of one another and the state. And yet, a little effort will go a long way.

Most folks can improve - though not perfect - their political process through small changes. We can become aware of the role of emotion in political decision-making, accepting that rational reasons will often be supported by emotional content, such as like or dislike, even disgust. We can understand a few cognitive biases, such as our tendency to think that things we hear about more are more important than they may be, or our tendency to give people or groups we like the benefit of the doubt while withholding that same privilege for others. We can surround ourselves with people who think differently from us. And we can find reliable heuristics - or mental shortcuts - and consciously think about thinking while practising some of the tactics mentioned here. But individuals can't improve collective political decision-making on their own.

Governments, too, must bring citizens deeper into political life and public-policy making. We have to be engaged in politics outside of election campaigns or other moments of particularly sensitive decisions. To take aim at populism, we should be doublingdown on, rather than retreating from, popular self-government by building participatory democracy into our politics and redistributing power, and the resources necessary to understand how to wield it, back to the people.

Citizens' assemblies and participatory budgeting are two effective ways to enhance democracy. They increase trust. They set agendas in ways that help ensure that the public gets what it wants.

They build civic capacity for those who take part in them. And they turn participants into people who can inspire, guide and inform others, supporting democracy and in turn building better citizens.

Technology isn't going to slow down, and neither will our politics, any time soon. Nefarious actors won't stop being nefarious and hijacking elections will always be a desirable way to undermine democracies. But rather than merely worry about the issue, we ought to build a bulwark against democratic recession, domestic troublemaking and foreign interference that includes the person staring back at us in the mirror each morning.

Associated Graphic

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: BRYAN GEE. SOURCE IMAGES: ISTOCK


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