Will internet help end democracy?

Published 5:23 pm Tuesday, October 8, 2019

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It would be one of history’s great tragedies if modern technology proved to be the dagger to the heart of democracy. And it would be doubly ironic, since the world’s greatest democracy has been responsible for many of the technological breakthroughs that have created the environment that could now destroy it.

Regardless of political loyalties, every American who values our independence and our position as history’s greatest experiment in self-government, should be horrified that nations wishing us ill can tap into our prejudices and our over-stimulated partisan divide, and even attempt to undermine the very underpinning of the republic — our electoral system.

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And yet, that is unquestionably what happened in 2016. Vladimir Putin did not succeed in electing the current president. He just tried his best to help. America’s intelligence agencies concluded that it wasn’t so much a love for Trump as it was Putin’s desire to hurt America that drove his interference in that presidential contest.

In furtherance of that goal, the bare-chested horseman of the Kremlin appears to have enlisted Russian hackers to tap into state election systems, to plant salacious material designed to reinforce an already unhealthy degree of paranoia over multiple conspiracy theories and otherwise heighten the political division that was already becoming the mark of our elections.

Let’s suppose that a century ago, an enemy of America had thought they would like to interfere with this emerging world power’s electoral system. What could they have done? Sent letters to disgruntled Americans? Drop fliers from a blimp?

Since those days, however, computerization has changed the world, and much of that technology was developed by scientists in this country. Ironically, many of the biggest leaps in computer science came in research aimed at helping to develop modern military weapons and weapons systems aimed at protecting ourselves democracy and our mostly democratic allies. The internet was itself developed in large measure with U.S. government grants to universities.

Today, thanks to the interconnectivity that the internet has provided, those who would do our democracy harm don’t have to drop leaflets from the sky. They just bombard us with material designed to make angry voters even angrier and drive them in a particular direction.

It’s unlikely that Australia, one of our firmest long-term allies, will take the bait and try to disrupt the 2020 election. It’s quite possible, though, that Putin will play with us again and the president of Ukraine may be desperate enough to help in the disruption.

That’s not to say we don’t have our own home-grown political sleaze-bags. Of course we do, and they work for both Republican and Democratic candidates alike. Their mantra is, show me the money and I’ll write and distribute your garbage.

But foreign interference is an entirely different matter. It opens the door to politicians being bought and sold to a foreign ally or enemy — whoever can help in an election. It may even have already happened in the instance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At this stage in our history, political parties be damned. This is serious. It’s our republic that’s at risk here, and every member of Congress has taken an oath to protect it. Americans should demand that Republicans and Democrats alike work to ensure that no foreign country, be it an economic rival like China, a rogue and powerful nation like Russia, or a kindred spirit like Great Britain, ever attempts to mess with our political underpinnings.

Every American has a stake in this, for the electoral system that we pass to future generations will determine whether the United States survives as a nation of laws or not. The internet is an amazing tool, but it can be used for good or evil, and few evils would be greater than the destruction of our trust in our own electoral system.