When you pick up your ballot papers to vote in the upcoming state and federal elections, how many candidates’ names will you know? How many key policies will be familiar to you?
How can you be confident you’re using your vote the best way you can, to contribute to the kind of society you want to live in?
This year’s elections are about more than who wins, and how their policies will affect us. They’re about the health of Australian democracy.
The state election takes place this month, while a federal election is expected as early as May. Expect the usual hand-wringing about why many of us are disengaged from politics, and how this poses a dire threat to our democracy.
Of course, democracy works better when voters make informed choices on their ballot papers. When people don’t vote, can’t vote, or don’t make informed decisions about how they vote, the consequences can be unpredictable.
But disengaged voters are not the only or biggest threat to our democracy. There are greater challenges ahead for democratic governance, and we need robust public debate about whether we’re doing enough to prepare for them.
We also need greater scrutiny of the rising influence of social media, and the implications of its use for democracy. Between them, Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have billions of regular users, and hence billions of opportunities each day to influence the decisions of a huge swathe of humanity.
At the same time, these companies make money by capturing and directing our attention.
No one intends to let tech companies distract us from things that are important to us, but they’re incredibly good at it, partly because they use very powerful algorithms to keep us glued to their content.
If we keep allowing our attention to be diverted to whatever suits Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we risk being distracted from important issues that affect us every day.
If we keep allowing our attention to be diverted to whatever suits Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we risk being distracted from important issues that affect us.
The rise of social media has created a second issue with the potential to disrupt democracy as we know it – highlighted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where personal data was collected from millions of unwitting US Facebook users for political gain. Political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica used sophisticated algorithms to profile individual internet users’ fears and prejudices.
Next, they pushed highly emotive advertising at millions of those users, targeting their personal fears and biases to influence the way they voted in the US presidential elections.
There’s strong evidence to suggest these activities affected the outcome of the elections, and there’s very little to prevent election outcomes being manipulated in similar ways in any democracy anywhere in the world, including ours.
New Australian laws requiring online political advertisements to disclose who is paying for them have been introduced, but not widely tested, and probably don’t go far enough.
Voters’ ability to exercise free will is a fundamental part of our democracy. If companies like Cambridge Analytica can covertly influence the will of millions of voters, how can we be confident our elections are free and fair, or that election results reflect the will of the people, and not vested interests?
We are much less likely to trust governments elected in unfair elections.
For many of us, the demands of daily life, might make risks to democratic governance seem like something best left to governance academics, elected representatives and senior bureaucrats.
But I urge you to take just one simple action to promote healthy democracy in our digital age.
When a candidate knocks on your door, or greets you in the street, ask them what they’re doing to make sure our democracy is fit for the 21st Century.
Information and communications technologies are advancing at a pace that was unimaginable when the founders of Australia’s Federation brought it to life.
Ask candidates what they’re doing to make sure our governance systems keep working for us more than 100 years later.
The health of our democratic system is too important to leave to academics, politicians and bureaucrats.
These people play an incredibly important role in our society and our democracy.
But so do you.