Propagandists have the electronic tools to undermine democracy

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University of Johannesburg vice chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala. Picture: Jan Potgieter
University of Johannesburg vice chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala. Picture: Jan Potgieter

The scandal of Cambridge Analytica, which harvested data from Facebook, Twitter and Google to help Donald Trump win the US presidential election, brings to the fore the fragility of democracy in an era when personal data can be used to influence the outcome of an election.

Democracy, as explained by former US president Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Lincoln went on to proclaim that such a democratic government “shall not perish from the earth”.

Democratic countries derive their legitimacy from the will of the people. Any process that undermines democracy breaks the bond between the government and the people, and causes instability in the country. There are various ways to undermine democracy, one of which is to rig an election.

Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin once said that “it is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” Therefore, a tactic to rig an election is to influence those who count the votes. These vote counters can be bought or they can be threatened to arrive at a particular outcome.

Another way to undermine democracy is to keep the population uneducated and uninformed, or to confuse them with all sorts of irrelevant information. This used to be called propaganda; today, it is called “alternative facts”. The aim of this is to make people think about anything else so that they don’t hold their governments accountable.

In this era of the fourth industrial revolution, voting is often done electronically, so elections are vulnerable to hacking, which can be used to influence the outcome of the polls. This is the reason cybersecurity is so central in our present. Those nations that do not have the means to protect themselves from cyberwarfare risk having their democracies and their societies undermined.

As South Africa, do we have the necessary skill sets and infrastructure to protect our government and companies from cyberattacks? Are our universities geared towards producing world-class cybersoldiers who can protect us from cyberwarfare?

Another way to undermine democracy is to create “alternative facts” and spread them on the internet using software robots (bots) using social media platforms. This is almost akin to what Nazi criminal and Reich minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels did with the German population during World War 2.

The fourth industrial revolution offers modern propagandists the electronic tools to influence, confuse and misinform the public to undermine democracy. To have a society that is vigilant in its defence of our democracy, people need to be economically active or be in the employment service.

However, this industrial revolution is changing the world of work. Tasks that were traditionally performed by human beings are now performed by artificially intelligent machines. The consequence of this change is that the world of work is shrinking. In this post-work era, permanent jobs will disappear as the demand for human-based labour decreases. Those with adequate capital to buy industrial robots will produce more with less resources and will become very wealthy, while the rest will be relegated to irrelevance and to the margins of society.

The consequence of this post-work era is that inequality will increase, which will result in social instability, which, in turn, will undermine democracy. This will result in market-based economies facing a serious crisis as there will be no one to buy these produced goods and services because people will not have jobs and thus will not have an income.

The market capitalist economic system is based on the laws of demand and supply. While the robots will mainly take care of the supply side, who will take care of the demand side if a large number of people are unemployed and therefore have no means to buy? The entire consumer economy will collapse and, on the demand side, only robots requiring replacement parts will remain.

One of the ideas proposed to deal with the demand side of the equation is to introduce a universal basic income. This is a socialist solution to a capitalist problem, which means capitalism as we know it shall fundamentally change. Will the universal basic income be enough to sustain a market-based capitalism?

The universal basic income relies heavily on adequate collected taxes, but if many people who used to pay taxes are unemployed, who will fill this tax hole? One suggested solution is to tax intelligent robots. However, intelligent robots are so ubiquitous that it is difficult to decouple them from a normal machine or process.

For example, Microsoft Word is partly an intelligent robot because it is able to identify and correct spelling and grammar errors, which used to be done by humans. In fact, taxing robots is just a sophisticated way of increasing corporate taxes.

The question that this article seeks to address is whether state capitalism or market capitalism will be able to survive the fourth industrial revolution.

One of the principal functions of any nation in the post-work era is its ability to redistribute wealth. In market capitalism, the majority of wealth resides in private hands; in state capitalism, the majority of the wealth resides in government. In a market economy, as inequality widens, private citizens who hold the majority of the wealth will seek tax havens so that they can avoid distributive policies, which will make market capitalism unstable. In state capitalism, where governments hold much of the wealth, the state will have a distributive leverage making these societies more stable. So nations such as China will be more stable than nations such as the US.

What lessons should we draw from this analysis as South Africa?

  • Firstly, that countries that have a stronger hand in the economy shall be more stable in the fourth industrial revolution.
  • Secondly, that we should increase technical competence in the state to be able to participate in the economy.
  • Thirdly, that we should seriously tackle the problem of corruption in the state and private sector to increase the capacity of the state to distribute resources. The alternative path shall be dire for all of us.
  • Fourthly, that, to protect our democracy, education is crucial. As Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University in the US, put it: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

In conclusion, without distributive leverage, democracy will not survive the fourth industrial revolution.

Marwala is a vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg, and co-author of Handbook of Machine Learning

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