Democracy for Sale

Democracy for Sale

By David Runciman and Catherine Carr

We talk to Peter Geoghegan of openDemocracy and Jennifer Cobbe of the Trust and Technology Initiative about Cambridge Analytica, money, power and what is and isn't corrupting our democracy. How easy is it to buy influence in British politics? Did Cambridge Analytica break the rules or show just how little difference the rules make anyway? Who has the power to take on Facebook? Plus we discuss why the British government's failure to handle the pandemic tells us a lot about the corrosive effects of cronyism.

Talking Points:

The ICO report on Cambridge Analytica largely concluded that their tactics were not unusual.

Of course, we can take issue with the fact these practices are so widespread. One of the reasons Cambridge Analytica was such a scandal was that people didn’t realise they could be targeted in this way.Cambridge Analytica and organizations like it can do is seed misinformation into a wider ecosystem. They take advantage of the lack of regulation.Sowing misinformation doesn’t require sophisticated skills; it’s easy.

The conversation about micro-targeting often centers on Cambridge Analytica, but we need to look at the structures that make these practices so easy and so potent.

Facebook makes all of this really easy to do. Why were we so complacent? When we think about the influence of money in politics, it’s easy to imagine nefarious people throwing around big sums, but at least in the UK a small amount can go a long way when people have the right connections. This is cronyism.

The pandemic has made the tech giants unthinkably wealthy.

At the same time, they’ve changed the way that money affects politics.Could Trump have won without Facebook and Twitter?The tech companies do not need to lobby politicians in the traditional sense because they are simply that powerful.

Governments are dependent on these technologies, as we all are.

Can we think about the tech companies as the technical infrastructure of society?Right now, these companies have a huge amount of discretion. 

Cronyism has been a prominent feature of the UK Government’s COVID response.

There is a strain in a certain school of political thought that the state isn’t good for much. When politicians who believe that are in charge, it can be self-fulfilling.A hollowed out state creates space for more cronyism.The civil service has become a punching bag. This could have a long tail. 

Does the system that needs reform have the capacity to generate the necessary reforms?

When it comes to tech, the biggest problem is ideological.It’s hard to get politicians to agree that changing micro-targeting is necessary because they all use it.Politicians do not want to change a system that has benefitted them even if they can recognize its flaws. Can you build a coalition that would force them to do so? 

Mentioned in this Episode:

The UK Information Commissioner's Office report on Cambridge AnalyticaPeter’s book, Democracy for SaleJennifer’s recent piece in the Guardian<a...
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