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BusinessDay: Engineering consent and digital-age democracy

By Johan Steyn, 14 September 2021

It was a great idea. At a recent cabinet meeting, the president approved an ingenious plan to influence the outcome of the upcoming election of an adversarial state. We agreed that a number of factors had to fall in place for our plan to work.

First, we had to find a populist leader with great wealth and influence. It would be a bonus if he was a celebrity and a household brand. On our shortlist were a number of people we had a great deal of dirt on. During their visits to our country, we easily engineered opportunities with the oldest trick in the book: sexual temptation. All these little adventures were filmed and stored for a rainy day.

The second part of our plan was to gain access to our adversary’s electoral technology. They largely used electronic voting machines and it was easier than we anticipated to gain access to their secure networks.

Third — and this was the keystone of our whole endeavour — we plan to employ a number of algorithmic weapons to spread misinformation and manipulate public opinion. The proliferation of smartphone technology and social media platforms enable the opportunity to deliver customised news stories direct to households, underpinned by behavioural psychology and mass indoctrination.

Thankfully this is just a little story I chose to write. Imagine this was possible? Or is it — did we not see something somewhat similar in recent years? Many have opinions about the previous US president and alleged foreign government influence on his election and administration.

In 1947 Edward Bernays published an essay The Engineering of Consent. He argued that the US constitution guaranteed freedom for constituent groups to influence public opinion. Political groups use modern communications and mass media to increase the public’s familiarity with leaders and can therefore mould perception.

Of importance here is the idea that governments use these ideas to remain in power. If the public's opinions are to control the government, the government must not control the public’s opinions. In The Consent of the Governed, John C Livingston & Robert G Thompson wrote: “Consent that is thus engineered is difficult to distinguish in any fundamental way from the consent that supports modern totalitarian governments.”

The smart technology era is revolutionising the way voters receive information and make their will known. Some believe that digital democracy will result in better transparency and accountability from politicians to the public. Because of this, it is more likely that public policies will more closely represent the desires of the majority of the population. Citizens can now present petitions to their government, start projects online, vote electronically, and even replace their legislature, thanks to the internet.

Some pessimists say that unlike the traditional process of representatives meeting in person to get to know one another and to discuss and settle issues, cheaper and faster communication can lead to more unpredictable and poorly considered policy choices.

\voters mark their cross on a sheet of paper behind a curtain at a polling station during elections. Electronic voting, it is feared, may not safeguard the privacy of each individual’s choice. Voters have no way of knowing how computerised voting machines work because they are shielded from public view. Election observers who empty ballot boxes in the presence of election monitors are absent in electronic voting.

Propaganda has entered the age of social media, making it easier to engineer consent on a huge scale. One is left to wonder if the foundations of democracy will remain standing.

• Steyn is the chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.


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