The ongoing debate over polling results in the run up to elections, decisions, referendums and policy debates is a feature of our 24 hour news cycle. Gone are the days when voters would consider a weekly or monthly opinion poll conducted by global publication Time Magazine (US Presidential hopefuls), the Bulletin (Australian political party gallup polls), the Washington Post (NAFTA or a contentious bill before the Senate) or even the more regional Led Journal de Montreal (the vicious world of ice hockey teams and their star celebrities).
Toxic, social media driven conversations that undermine the social fabrice, political will and national cohesion of liberal democracies abound due to the ease of access, widespread publication opportunities and cynical post 911 conspiracy theory era that we inhabit. That debates over police powers, intelligence protocols, hostage swapping (as recent as the Iran handover) and aid to Ukraine should be bantered about by poorly informed and often antagonistic commentators is bad enough. But the core problem is not what is debated or how. It is about whose agenda is being pursued in this fake news, distorted commentary, disinformation heavy environment where fortunes can be made by pushing zero quality analysis in the face of institutional and national interest experts. The war on experts (that was given free rein during the pandemic) has a price: a dissolution of the collaboration between generations, classes, regions and interests in any liberal pluralist society.
A key feature of the post war pre 1990s liberal state was the competition between alternate but responsible choices: old school Dems versus Republicans, traditional Liberals versus Progressive Conservatives, social democrats versus mainstream centre right anti populists. It was spirited, it was tough, it was a focus on policy and personality without dropping to insanely conspiratorial concepts of a deep state. This was electoral politics that relied on balance, stability and certainty of national interests. No NATO country was ever overcome by extremists and no right wing military government that was anti-communist survived the end of the Cold War.
Today’s narrative is tik tok entertainment, Facebook solemnity and Snapchat vitality. It is not the politics of endeavour, investment or caution. It is the politics of sound bites, spin, image before substance. It is also a security danger. We have electoral cycles at the mercy of hostile states. We have electoral systems that have become susceptible to electronic and media manipulation. We have debates (the Voice or the Channel Boats) that are simplified and yet also weaponized against our own societies. The rulebook is win at all costs. The rules are there to be thwarted.
Voters are less inclined to believe institutions and less inclined to deal with the realities. We have a land war in Europe. The last time we had that was 1945. We have a world superpower flexing their muscles in an irresponsible way in the Taiwan Straits (think Imperial Germany and the Moroccan crisis). We have technological harm that is eroding our communications, distribution network and social relations. No different than the rise of the railways, steam power and wireless. Rather than Marconi creating a chance to make a killing on the stock market or line some politician’s pocket, the social media conglomerates are more powerful than nation states and have their own interests to pursue.
Those entrusted with defending us and securing our future are playing catch up. No James Bond wizardry for MI5 and no George Clooney ending for the CIA. It is a hard road for those preparing for the next day’s cyber attacks (reported by some to be over 4000 a day just in the UK) let alone a NATO wide rearmament program worthy of 1938. We are in hard times. We need to recognise it.
Big data, quantitative measures, AI and the pure math of voter opinion is a huge casino level gamble. We need to beat the House each time to just stay in the same spot. We need to start the conversations that require a mobilisation of peoples as much as capital, tech and narrative.
Noel Hadjimichael is a London based public policy consultant in the security, defence and civil society space with relevant experience working in politics, the civil service, industry and the charitable sectors, www.linkedin.com/in/noel-hadjimichael-4948a351/.