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We’re entering into a golden age of election rigging

The 2016 election was a very small tip on a very large iceberg.

Researchers Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas: “There are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic.”
REUTERS/John Gress

“Counterfeit” democracy. “Deep Fakes.” With another divisive political campaign under way, experts are examining a pair of big trends they say are increasingly threatening representative government as Americans and their Western allies practice it.

Savvy officials have learned how to manipulate political systems in a way that devalues the whole democratic ideal. While following the letter of the law, they find ways to exclude candidates or voters, manipulate media and voting districts, or use vast sums of money to ensure their preferred outcome.

At the same time, information technology is developing so quickly that it soon may be impossible to tell truth from fiction. Americans already have suffered the effects of that, but Russia meddling in the 2016 election was a very small tip on a very large iceberg. Much more is out there, and governments are struggling to keep up.

It is “the greatest political paradox of our time,” researchers Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas say in Foreign Policy. “There are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic.”

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Cheeseman and Klaas traveled the globe and interviewed elites, pulling their research together into their new book, “How to Rig an Election.” What authoritarian rulers have discovered, they say, is that their governments are more stable if they hold elections (even if they are rigged).  “If you have to resort to rigging with armed henchmen and stuffed ballot boxes, you’ve already failed. Today, the most effective autocrats steal elections well before polling day.”

For an example, you might point to Vladimir Putin, a master at controlling media and excluding inconvenient opponents from elections — as he did to Alexei Navalny in winning another six-year term this spring as Russian president. Years ago, Putin dodged term limits by stepping aside, remaining the power behind the scenes for four years during while the election system was revised to allow him to serve two more six-year terms.

But if you’re pointing at Putin, the rest of your fingers should be pointing back at you. “If you want to take a master class in subtle and legal pre-election rigging, you might want to travel to the United States,” say Cheeseman and Klaas. “America is where many of the rigging techniques used today were perfected, and continue to exert a powerful influence.” That’s particularly true of gerrymandering (an issue on which the U.S. Supreme Court will rule this month), and voter suppression.

In other words, we have met the enemy — and he is us.

American attitudes are important for the rest of the world, as well. Global elites watch Washington for a hint of what they can get away with — and when it comes to outright election rigging, the British researchers say, President Trump’s constant harping on “fake news” is a clear signal.

The other big threat

Coming up with fixes for such electoral manipulation is difficult, but it’s at least familiar territory. Not so with the other big threat — the malign use of artificial intelligence.

The problem in a nutshell, according to Brookings Institution scholars Chris Meserole and Alina Polyakova, is that technology is developing far faster than governments can adjust.

Artificial intelligence “promises to democratize the creation of fake print, audio and video stories” at such high quality that it’s virtually impossible to detect. Almost anyone will be able to do it. And AI keeps learning. By comparison, what the Russians did in 2016 is Stone Age stuff.

If you thought blockchain applications were mostly for use in cryptocurrencies, Meserole and Polyakova say you should think again. Their security and decentralization functions will be as much of a benefit for troublemakers as they will be for dissidents and privacy advocates. They will make it difficult to track information to its original source and nearly impossible to take down.

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Henry Kissinger is worried, too. You can take issue with Kissinger for many reasons, but the man knows a thing or two about governance. Kissinger writing in the Atlantic analyzes the role information technology has on leaders’ decision-making, going so far as to question its effect on humanity’s ability to manage its affairs.

“The digital world’s emphasis on speed inhibits reflection; its incentive empowers the radical over the thoughtful; its values are shaped by subgroup consensus, not by introspection,” Kissinger writes. Artificial intelligence that learns more rapidly than humans may make bigger and faster mistakes. It also may use data to come up with new solutions to humanity’s problems, but it might not be able to even explain them to us. If that’s true, is there any point in humans collectively trying to run their own affairs?

To the extent that governments can get a handle on AI, Kissinger says, they are more likely to use it for security and intelligence than study its transformative effect on humanity. That feels like a depressingly accurate observation from a consummate political realist.

It’s easy to dismiss these worries as so much science fiction. We have more immediate concerns — trade wars, immigration, race relations, climate change and nuclear conflict. But then, two years ago, few people were focused on Russian election meddling, and how it would influence our ability to tackle such problems.