3 October 2017

Does the New Zealand general election mean much in the international scheme of things?

A litmus test may be the extent to which the Great Powers have interfered in the electoral process.  Research published in the International Studies Quarterly in June 2016 indicates that there is a long history of governments attempting to help or hinder candidates or parties in other countries’ elections.  The United States and the USSR/Russia have intervened in one of every nine national executive elections between 1946 and 2000.

These 117 PEIGs (Partisan Electoral Interventions by the Great Powers) don’t include more intrusive and covert regime-changing operations.  The research was published before recent problematic elections, but shows that in the 12 years preceding the 2016 US Presidential election, known PEIGs occurred in Moldova, Ukraine, Lebanon, Kenya and Afghanistan – and no doubt others remain undisclosed.

It is apparent now that Russian interests exploited Facebook accounts and paid for at least $100,000 of related advertising in the lead up to the last US  Presidential election. Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook has acknowledged that taking down only 470 accounts – which were “liked” to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm – may have been insufficient.  Measures were then introduced to avoid a recurrence elsewhere, and to ensure the integrity of the German elections  (the same weekend as the New Zealand general election).   Facebook reported taking down “tens of thousands” of fake accounts in Germany. It also acknowledged that it had removed 30,000 accounts before the French election. (The New Zealand election didn’t get a mention.)

Facebook reported that it didn’t entirely quash fake accounts and false news.  Its actions “… did not eliminate misinformation entirely in this (German) election — but they did make it harder to spread, and less likely to appear in people’s News Feeds.”  Facebook now accepts that there had been widespread political misinformation on its platform, that it learned a lot, and will continue to apply those lessons in other national elections. Zuckerberg said that Facebook will hire more staff to work on election security, collaborate with election commissions world-wide, and share threat intelligence with other social media companies. He indicated that “We’re going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency.” … “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That’s not what we stand for.”

The potential of social media in the New Zealand general election appears not to have interested the Great Powers.  According to Bryce Edwards social media hasn’t even been exploited by the New Zealand contestants “… but instead it’s become largely about stunts and sanitised PR”.  The potential of Facebook may show when special votes are counted and if social media-generated spontaneous registrations on Election Day impact on the tally of those who followed standard enrollment procedures.

If this turns out to be the case, we may well question whether Facebook is concerned with the integrity of the democratic process. It will confirm the intended purpose of Facebook – to connect, to gather market information, and to sell.  But it may also confirm that Facebook must be regarded as a Great Power.  It has more than 2 billion active users. It is growing “exponentially”. It is predicted to number 30% of the global population next year… which would be speedier if China allowed its people to take part. It is bigger than any Power, great and small.

Facebook’s broadcast of fake news about the Las Vegas mass killing overnight, attributing the maniacal shooting to an incorrectly named, Trump-hating liberal, must seriously undermine the value of Zuckerberg’s assurance of transparency and integrity.

It may be that even our democracy needs to protect itself against a PEIG by Facebook.