Michael Clifford: Another hit for democracy – plain old deception

At another time in history, the fake polling revelations might be not such a big deal, but right now liberal democracy is not in a good place and any erosion of trust takes on far great significance than might otherwise have been the case
Michael Clifford: Another hit for democracy – plain old deception

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. The only physical evidence of the practice of fake polling is the Sinn Féin user manual. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Democracy took another hit during the week. This time, it was plain old deception that dealt a blow to the system by which we choose to be governed.

At another time in history, this might be not such a big deal, but right now liberal democracy is not in a good place and any erosion of trust takes on far great significance than might otherwise have been the case.

On Wednesday, the Irish Independent broke the story about the fake polling company set up by Sinn Féin. 

Before the day was out, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both admitted they had got up to something similar in the past also. Then the Greens threw their name into the pot, admitting they had faked it in some “isolated incidents”.

Notably, all of the parties claim they ceased this carry on before 2016, which was when data protection under GDPR came under the radar. 

The inference here is that deceiving the public on their doorstep was completely kosher until the EU adopted the new data protection regulations.

Sinn Féin user manual

The only physical evidence of the practice of fake polling is the Sinn Féin user manual.

Party members were instructed to present themselves as independent pollsters on the doorstep and to process the deception on the following basis: “You are carrying out an opinion survey on behalf of Irish Market Research Agency. 

"You are casually employed for one day. IMRA is based in Dublin. You will not be recording any information that can be ‘personalised’ back to a named individual.” 

IMRA, of course, doesn’t exist. One wag during the week suggested that the acronym may have been a little in-house joke in which the M was included for camouflage purposes. 

These are pretty specific instructions, a detailed level of deception. While no manual has emerged for the other parties, Fine Gael and the Green party have admitted they also used a fake company as cover for some polling.

The official reaction across the board has been official regret, which is really no regret at all. 

In reality, some, if not many, in politics, and particularly the larger entities, tell themselves  the deception was serving a higher goal – the advancement of their vision for society – and is therefore justified. 

This is the ethic that is also behind the retention of as much data as possible about voters in order to figure out which elements require massaging, a system that undermines the secrecy of the ballot box, a key tenet of democracy. 

Once this stuff can be justified within the bubble of politics, it is dismissed with the wink of an eye.

That attitude also prevailed 20 years ago when the civil war parties were exposed for being engaged in fraud in pursuit of democratic ideals. 

'Pick me up' political funding

For years, if not decades, up until the establishment of two major tribunals in the late 90s, they both engaged in a system of political funding that was known as ‘pick me up’.

This involved approaching donors or companies for major sums of money and then arranging for the donation to be recorded as a business expense for which the donor could claim tax relief. 

The system thus hid the provenance of the donation and defrauded the Revenue. 

So if and when the donor ever managed to exercise influence over Government policy, the public were unaware of the donation or the deception, which rendered both donor and receiver as thick as thieves. 

Just as the fake polling was apparently stopped when impending GDPR threatened to expose it, so too the ‘pick me up’ ended when tribunal lights were shone on party funding.

The revelations at the time had little or no impact on the respective standings of the parties. 

It was as if the public expected nothing less, but below the surface, hard evidence of deception contributed to the low thrum of cynicism about politics and politicians. 

Following the economic collapse in 2008 and the widespread disillusionment with the kind of politics that precipitated the disaster, all the deception down through the decades fed into the prevailing mood.

Today, the public is no longer deceived on the doorstep or backrooms, where suitcases of cash change hands. 

Today, public is deceived online

Political advertising online has already dealt blows to liberal democracy through the Brexit vote and the tenure of Donald Trump. File picture: AP/Jacquelyn Martin, File
Political advertising online has already dealt blows to liberal democracy through the Brexit vote and the tenure of Donald Trump. File picture: AP/Jacquelyn Martin, File

Instead, it is online, particularly on platforms such as Facebook. 

Political advertising online has already dealt blows to liberal democracy through the Brexit vote and the tenure of Donald Trump. 

In both instances, large groups were conditioned to believe propaganda, had their prejudices confirmed and inflamed, and adapted the worldview relentlessly fed to them through the platform’s algorithm.

The crucial aspect to this system of canvassing is that it involves a personal relationship between the advertiser and the voter. 

There is no outside influence, nobody to question the content of the ads, nobody to intrude on the worldview being propagated. 

The algorithm which identifies subsets in society, their wants, needs and fears, their interests and socio-economic standing, is a virtual doorstep made in heaven for the canvasser. 

The political message is repeated relentlessly until such time as it is elevated in the mind of the voter from a political slogan to the status of unimpeachable truth.

This is the tactic that has radicalised thousands all over the world to extremist right-wing views, often over a period as short as six weeks. 

Change the message from hate to bog-standard political issues and the process is the same, facts can be massaged into factoids, exaggerations go unchecked and downright lies insulated from any kind of scrutiny.

Facebook recognised the extreme dangers of this kind of thing last year when it banned political advertising in the USA in November as passions were inflamed around the presidential election and its aftermath. 

In March of this year, the platform lifted the ban in order to resume pulling in a lucrative form of income. 

At the time, a statement was issued, explaining. 

“We put a temporary ban in place after the November 2020 election to avoid confusion or abuse following Election Day. We’ve heard a lot of feedback about this and learned more about political and electoral ads during this election cycle.” 

So Facebook now may not tolerate advertising inciting violence but that doesn’t mean that it will fact-check anything or refuse money if advertising is patently full of falsehoods. 

In such a milieu, there is a huge responsibility on political parties to be honest and measured in their advertising. 

And, no doubt, in the interests of their allegiance to lofty ideals, they all voluntarily and assiduously ensure that everything they flog is based on reasonable assumptions and facts. Surely, insulated from scrutiny, they wouldn’t deliberately deceive voters at a time when liberal democracy is under such pressure. Surely not.

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