Russia, the internet and "political technologists" - is this the future of democracy?

As more revelations emerge about Russian interference in Western democracies, Nick Inman reviews a BBC broadcast that asks if Russia is merely where 21st century ideas of democracy died first.

Nick Inman
5 October 2018
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Image: Jaap Arriens/PA Images, all rights reserved

Democracy used to be defined as a system in which a society debates the issues that confront it. Two or more teams compete with each other to persuade a majority of voters that they have the most workable and cogent solutions to the problems. They put forward evidence and reasons as to why they should be trusted. A vote is held. And then the winning team implements its policies over the following few years with the full and conscious consent of the electorate.

This description may be more fantasy and nostalgia than reality in today’s democracies, according to Peter Pomerantsev of the London School of Economics, as he explains in a recent radio broadcast, British Politics: A Russian View. The programme is public broadcasting at its best. It should be required listening for anyone trying to make sense of the last presidential election in the US, the Brexit referendum result, the collapse of traditional political parties in France and the success of populists everywhere.

As the title suggests, the programme begins by looking at British politics through Russian eyes; but Peter Pomerantsev has something much more important to offer us. “Russia could well be the country where the future arrived first,” he says in his introduction, “where 21st century ideas died earliest; and another type of political logic emerged.”

Democracy as described above is hard work. All that campaigning and rallying, debating, interviewing and sound-biting, posturing and questioning of candidates consumes a lot of time and energy. It is far too hit and miss for today’s political aspirants, reared on the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast, break things.” In all western democracies our worried eyes should not be on the candidates but the invisible people working on their behalf who go under a new job title, “political technologists”.

The tools and materials of the technologist are not speeches, rosettes, walkabouts and mass meetings but big data and social media. He/she (usually the former) goes for the jugular of democracy. Who cares which policy is right or wrong, better or worse; the object of an election or referendum is to win and nothing else. The political technologist’s only concern is to deliver a majority for the candidate or cause that is paying for his services. Every election is just another gig. Success requires a hyper-rationalist, asset-stripping, technological approach to the mechanics of democracy.

To win an election, it is not necessary to build a majority in the sense of a mass of like-thinking people who share common interest and a vision for the future. The technologist seeks a majority in number only: 50.01% or more. It’s maths, not politics.

“The electorate, unlike well-defined social groups, is a very plastic thing,” says one contributor to the BBC programme. “You just draw up a map of the electorate and gather a majority on the side you need.”

This flash majority doesn’t need to endure into the morning after the election. Like a furtive subatomic particle, it only needs to exist at the moment the count is taken. After that it can happily dissipate. The technologist’s client has by then assumed power.

The creation of ephemeral majorities is possible because our addiction to social media delivers vast amounts of data into the technologist’s hands and allows precisely targeted communications.

The first step of a contemporary electoral campaign is to establish a narrative or “fairy story” to be used in all its communications. This needs to be emotive rather than rational. It must be summed up in merely a memorable slogan. It must not suggest an uncertain future or difficult choices, let alone the need for nuance and compromise. A phrase like “take back control” can mean whatever the hearer wants to believe it means.

It is far easier for the technologist to mobilise the voter against some clearly identifiable demon rather than the uninspiring but functioning status quo. To get the voter’s attention, the technologist must promise radical action from a baggage-free outsider who will eject elites and corrupt incumbents from office and sweep the Augean stables clean. Fear and anger have to be harnessed and directed towards a nominated bogeyman. According to one estimate, made by a participant in the programme, identifying a villain can immediately add 20% of votes to a campaign.

Terminology is carefully controlled because words propagate rapidly online. “The people”, “the few”, “the have nots” and even “us” all make the voter feel part of a just cause.

The technologist borrows tactics from the world of marketing. His or her real task is to segment the “market” using the data that social media users willingly feed into the system. The electorate is seen as different “communities” built around single interests or obsessions. Each of these needs to be fed a particular message, preferably one that can be taken to heart and shared promiscuously. If this sounds to you as if the election of politicians and the direction of international relations is being treated with the same level of seriousness as the “liking” of videos showing the antics of talented cats, you are getting the right idea.

In fact, animals provide a good example of what the technologist can achieve. Convince a critical mass of animal-lovers that the EU is more cruel in its farming regulations than a future re-sovereignised UK government will be and you have viral videos of calves crowded into lorries doing the rounds of kind-hearted people, generating emotional support for the Leave campaign.

Hold on, though, because it gets more alarming. If the political technologist can target “communities” using the tools of social media why shouldn’t he target each individual in the way in which he will be most susceptible to instruction? As another contributor to the programme puts it: “I can shout into one person’s ear one message and shout into another person’s ear – who is right beside them – another message and neither of them understands that I am shouting different messages to different people”.

Each person in the ephemeral majority that flickers across election night may have voted for an entirely personal reason, like passengers sitting next to each other on a cut price airline who have paid different ticket prices for the same service. You really can fool all the people all of the time as long as you fool each person in a customised way.

There are many useful conclusions to draw from this abuse of democracy by technology. One is that no one who claims to speak for the “will of the people” should be taken seriously. That should be “the wills of people.”

Another lesson is that we should stop looking the wrong way. All those commentators who talk about seismic shifts in society may be talking nonsense to justify their jobs. What we are seeing may not be anything to do with how the people do or do not think and feel. It might all be dictated by the choices they are fed by unscrupulous operators.

What is certain is that post-post-modern elections and referendums have nothing to do with informed debate and rational, independent decisions taken by marginal voters. One speaker on the programme illustrated this with an image: “If there were a monument to the democratic citizen it should be a person who is ready to change his position on the basis of an argument. We’re living in a democracy in which this person doesn’t exist anymore because nobody is trying to change his mind, everyone is playing on his feelings”.

British Politics: A Russian View Analysis BBC Radio 4. 30 minutes. Presented by Peter Pomerantsev, senior visiting fellow at the LSE, produced by Ant Adeane. First broadcast on 9 July 2018. To listen or download go to: 

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