IS stealing our next general election possible? The answer could be yes if there is truth in what is being said about role of governments, internet, data sharing and fake news in US elections, Brexit vote or upcoming elections in Netherlands, France and Germany. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of worldwide web has raised three concerns: data sharing, fake news and targeted political advertising. The political campaigns can create personalized ads for individuals- as many as 50,000 variations each day were used on social media during the 2016 US election. The targeted advertising allows a campaign to stay completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups.
Let’s assume a person in remote area of Pakistan searches word water or electricity. A political party uses ‘targeted advertisement’ algorithm to send an automated election campaign message to that individual promising to provide water and electricity which are not part of its manifesto. It is a false promise, disseminated through internet and sent by software. How our law (Judiciary, Election Commission) is going to address this challenge and how our media is going to report it. Experts are of the view that interference of internet and politicians in elections is exaggerated. Countries like Brazil, France and Taiwan have successfully used new technologies to protect elections but it is only possible if governments and political parties are ready to protect democracy. They are also calling for the UN role to control international companies including Google and Facebook.
The recent media reports about hacking tools used for snooping on ordinary citizens thorough TVs, mobile devices, personal computers, vehicle number plates, internet use, social media (likes and dislikes) have fueled concerns about legalization of such acts. It is clear that governments collude with others to steal elections because it brings them to power. And it leads us to our fundamental question: Can Pakistan’s 2018 election be saved from being stolen? If yes, how and who will do it.
We are familiar with use of big money in shaping our political systems. But most of us don’t know how election campaigns are influenced through astroturf campaigning (employing people disguising as grassroots movements), botswarming (creating fake online accounts to give impression that large number of people support a political position) or using dark money networks (a web of lobby groups, funded by billionaires that disguise themselves as thinktanks).
Even the election authorities in UK including Electoral Commission have failed to control these abuses, or even, in most cases, to acknowledge them. Our judiciary, establishment (civil and military both), election commission, IT ministry and even media lack technical background, training and sufficient knowledge about misuse of internet, fake news and data in elections. And there is no existing foolproof mechanisms and legislation that will block such challenges that are most likely to be used in Pakistan’s next general election by our political parties, local and foreign stakeholders.
In the absence of any plans to deal with these dark challenges, it is clear that our politicians are least interested in having free, fair and transparent elections. It makes sense. The political parties would use every possible loophole in the system to win the elections. But it is responsibility of state and its institutions to ensure that all concerned take necessary steps to ensure credible general election.
The lawmakers need to present a realistic policy in next 90 days to block illegal use of information technology in the elections. All stakeholders should be involved to improve such frameworks, policies and required infrastructure. The Election Commission should ensure that they are effective. The judiciary should keep a strong vigil because ultimately all such cases will be referred to the courts. The election regulations have to be updated just like virus definitions to identify tricks, scams and new technologies deployed by people seeking illegitimate power through elections. It is the responsibility of state, judiciary, media and public to protect democracy from black money and undemocratic powers.
Public, media, democracy watchdogs, and professionals including legal and IT experts should play their role in helping to improve legislation to prevent use of illegal means including IT to improve transparency and accountability in our political process leading to election and the election itself. The restoration of 1973 Constitution is equally important to have free and fair elections. A credible election is one part of democracy. Under the 18th Amendment, the political parties are not obliged to hold intra-party elections. They are held hostage by party leadership, dynastic politics and nepotism.
The laws have been skewed so much that vote of no confidence exists only in theory. The system of in-house change, like UK where unelected May is a PM, has left our parliamentary form of democracy redundant. Our politicians have also dismantled our 3-check Constitution. A free, fair and transparent election is not a priority for our politicians, political parties or even Election Commission which is already hostage of the political parties. It is therefore hoped that state institutions (judiciary and establishment), public and media uphold their moral and legal responsibilities to protect the election and democracy in the country.
—The writer is senior political analyst based in Islamabad.