An opinion piece by Rahul Watson Govindan.


“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect…”  Jonathan Swift

Truth is what you [can’t] choose to believe

There is much good to be said about democracy. As a graduate of political science, it does amuse me then that the most commonly quoted statement about it remains one famously attributed to Winston Churchill

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”

He was quoting another person in the House of Commons when he said it, but Churchill is so ripe with eloquent quotes on democracy and its importance that he might as well have said it. Central to our concept of democracy is the capability for those of voting age to make judgements on what and who they wish represent them for the greater good. The ability for the everyday NZer to walk into a booth, with a common marker pen, make a little cross on a little bit of paper showing the candidate or idea she wishes to be elected to parliament or law. This is the foundation of democracy. No amount of rhetoric or hyperbole can diminish the importance of this point – the path humanity has taken to this point is (and continues to be in many parts of the world) dripped in blood. However this capability rests on fundamental attributes which arguably are *more* important than the act of voting itself. Front of these is access to information – truthful and reliable information. The ability to access it, assess it, understand it, debate it, contribute towards the formulation of it, the time and capability to use it for your benefit. We have come to realise that our systems of power and it’s manifestation are not as inclusive nor democratic as we exalt them in text to be. It is 2019 and I put it to you that ‘Informed consent’ is manufactured: It is not informed and consent is not asked. Technology and software (and by extension: we in the industry) are to blame.

There’s a tsunami on the way, are we ready?

Disinformation is a new word in our vernacular. It has become one of the defining issues of our time thanks largely to the spread of social media, widespread unhappiness with ‘status quo’ amongst the global middle class,  local and global politics that creates and validates the demand for these self-gratifying ‘alternative narratives’, and massive spread and influence of digital technology.

Thus the disinformation ‘problem’ is watered by wider socio-economic structural failings in our political system, so it makes sense that the solution, too, must be partly structural.

The European Commission has been working since 2015 on an action plan to meet what it perceived as an urgent need to preserve the integrity of member states’ electoral systems and infrastructure ahead of the elections. The Commission put forward a European approach for tackling online disinformation in its Communication of April 2018, seeking to promote a more transparent, trustworthy and accountable online environment. The Communication proposed measures to tackle disinformation online, including a self-regulatory EU-wide Code of Practice on Disinformation, signed by large online platforms and the advertising industry, as well as support for an independent network of fact-checkers.
New Zealand, perhaps in cooperation with Australia, needs to prepare something similar.

This regulation aside, there must be a shift in commercial practices to disrupt the business models driving disinformation, and reduce the pressure on revenue starved media outlets to compete for clicks. That means that we tech stakeholders carry a certain degree of responsibility in the fight against disinformation

As a tech industry we need to own the world we are creating: the unmet need is not just limited to ‘the customer’ – I put it to you fellow technonauts, that in *this* century perhaps more than ever before, we are the masters of our democracy. What we create is not limited to our customers: but our fellow citizens. How many of us stop to think about the ethical component of innovation? 14 years ago I was working at an international NGO where I wrote an internal strategy paper that asked that same question in the context of international aid post the massive Asian Tsunamis and widespread…let’s call it “inaccuracies and inefficiencies”…in how aid was spent: “what are the ethics of our humanitarian interventions?” It led to widespread changes in internal processes and decision making – especially around ‘go/no go’ of intervention.

The tech community needs to do the same:  Much like Volvo installing seatbelts in off the *chance* the car might crash, how might we build software and deploy services knowing that they *could* be misused?  What’s our seatbelt? What are our safety features? The car industry was eventually regulated and forced to make safety changes.  This is starting to happen in the tech world now.

Meanwhile, the 2020 electioneering is well underway in New Zealand.  Political parties are trialing call and response tactics online.  Undoubtedly, foreign actors will see NZ as a testing bed for future tactics in bigger global elections.

The time has come to prepare for our tsunami.

Disinformation and democracy was originally published in the Spring edition of the NZRise newsletter.

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This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of NZRise. Questions and comments can be directed to [email protected]

Rahul is a global entrepreneur, investor and business executive who has lived and worked in 8 different countries and has had a 20 year career in business, technology, public sector and international development. He has founded a number of companies, consulted to Nokia, Microsoft, Amazon, UNICEF and Oxfam globally and most recently was the Group CEO of a SaaS start-up in Wellington. Currently is an investor, board member and advisor on strategy, operations and performance to numerous software companies in NZ and abroad, and his current main focus is on building an exciting digital charity platform in the conservation sector to be launched in 2019. Rahul is the Board Chair of Belong Aotearoa, a Trustee of United Nations Youth NZ,  and a member of the New Zealand Institute of Directors.  Rahul has studied at Victoria University, University of Amsterdam, Oslo University and has been awarded an University Blue from Victoria University for services to sports management (Hockey).

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