Fear for destruction of our hard-won democracy


In my mind, when I tabulate the sum of all my fears about the election on May 8, is the fear that democracy, those hard-won freedoms, protection and rights that so many people fought so hard to gain, will be dismantled.
It may have started already. There are two concerns that stand out.
One of them may be prevented, then again, it may not…
The one that does seem unstoppable is the way that information technology and artificial intelligence – applied through social media – may pervert the electoral process.
While I am far from being a narrow technology determinist, it is probably too late now to rein in the influence of social media, and the (mal)application and deployment of algorithms and information technology, in general, to corrupt democracy.
The other fear is that the EFF will become powerful enough to destroy the checks and balances on those leaders that are venal, corrupt and incompetent.
Of course, the way to prevent the ascent of Julius Malema is not to vote for the EFF, but my sense is that there is enough hatred of “others” and vengefulness to go around.
He is also making very many promises that he knows would be impossible to keep, just generally, or without the use of violent force.
Barely a week goes by without an EFF member hurling racial abuse and threats of revenge at people.
Just recently I was accused (again) of being of a generation of white people who will pay for colonialism and apartheid.
I have the subsequent apologies in my e-mail.
The EFF leaders, mainly Malema and Floyd Shivambu, have shown evidence of authoritarian, anti-establishment, violent, crass performance activism, insults and fear-mongering.
Over the past week or so (much longer, actually) Malema has applied textbook scapegoating (of whites or Indians) that was applied by fascist, authoritarian and despotic leaders across most of the past 120 years.
In the inter-war period, Adolf Hitler blamed the Jews for all Germany’s problems and in Italy, Benito Mussolini followed suit.
Today, the crypto-fascism of Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Italy’s Matteo Salvini is expressed in their scapegoating of migrants and the Roma people.
The US has a deep history of scapegoating immigrants and welfare; the usual suspects (historically) being communists, anarchists, Jews and, more recently, Muslims.
This has resulted in varying degrees of repression.
The EFF has also quite cleverly adopted typical authoritarian and dictatorial methods of promoting its leader.
Malema’s face adorns all election publicity material.
This personalisation of politics – or the personalistic authoritarianism – has played out well across history (for dictators and despots), and was used as an asset from Hitler to Mussolini, Juan Peron in Argentina, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
In most cases these dictators, crypto-fascists or authoritarian figures rose within democratic systems (Malema and Shivambu were nurtured by the ANC within democratic SA), but were founded by individuals who are powerful orators, and who can whip up sentiments of people who feel disaffected or hard done by.
We should not be surprised, then, if Malema becomes president of SA – but we should be concerned.
What is unstoppable, I’m afraid, is the destruction of democracy wrought by information technology, especially social media.
In a recent interview, philosopher Onora O’Neill raised concerns about the way information was gathered (by the state, by benevolent or benign actors) and shared across platforms.
In this climate of the “free flow” of information, it becomes difficult to protect one’s privacy, or one’s public activities, spending preferences and, indeed, one’s tax or voting records.
“We now have to reckon that any election we have is actually being subverted before it begins…
“I fear for democracy.
“It is being made unworkable,” O’Neill said.
The difficulty of completely securing information lies in the lack of regulation, and in how information and communications technology companies are structured.
The state, which has the power to regulate, also has the power to request data on persons for “security” reasons.
These days political parties employ tech-savvy hipsters whose sole job is to hack into systems, share information.
They can do this directly or indirectly through the application of manipulation algorithms.
These may be regulated, formally, but search engines and social media direct users to information in a variety of ways through amoral (non-human) algorithms.
Your search results, or the statements you make, likes or comments you place on social media can be directed towards a particular political party or individual – like Malema, Cyril Ramaphosa or Mmusi Maimane.
That, dear reader, is absolutely legal.
In the sum of my fears, then, the election of May 8 is influenced by social media (and amoral algorithms), the EFF become powerful enough to shred the constitution and destroy the democracy that had such a difficult birth.
Sadly, there are enough “fallists” around who want to see that everything before the EFF was born comes tumbling down.

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