Editorial: Stop the digital dark arts

What really stands out from the Cambridge Analytica revelations is not the fact that a shadowy British consultancy has been using dirty tricks to influence elections and democracy, including in Africa. This must be condemned, of course, but it is also nothing especially new. On this continent, we are all too familiar with the long and shameful history of Western companies and countries meddling in our politics, often with disastrous results.

But given this track record, we thought we were familiar with all those dirty tricks. We knew how politicians were bought; we knew the mechanics of vote rigging. And, more importantly, we knew how to combat these tactics, starting with a vibrant civil society, a free media and a commitment to transparency. But the dirty tricks employed by Cambridge Analytica, as exposed in the United Kingdom by Channel 4 and The Guardian, represent an entirely new threat. Of particular concern is how the firm uses data profiling — a still little-understood science — to sway popular opinion. This distorts public debates beyond any recognition. These are 21st-century subterfuges for digital-era democracy — and democracy’s defenders cannot risk being left behind.

Not all is lost, however. In South Africa, we already have one example of how concerted civil society action can foil the digital dark arts. Bell Pottinger wanted to provoke racial tensions to deflect attention from its clients, the Guptas. But after its involvement was uncovered by South African journalists and thanks to strong advocacy from civil society both here and in the UK, Bell Pottinger is now bankrupt.

Bell Pottinger, Cambridge Analytica and their ilk can and must be stopped. Luckily, we know how to do it — starting with a vibrant civil society, a free media and a relentless commitment to transparency and basic rights.

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

OPINION| South African audiences want more authentic and accurate diversity...

The media has the power to shape perceptions, so television shows and movies can help shape a positive view of people who feel stereotyped

Interdict threat over new Tendele coal mine in KwaZulu-Natal

Tendele Coal plans to open a new mine despite a court ruling that the licence was unlawfully granted

SAA sale is above board, says Gordhan

The public enterprises minister has said there have been deliberate attempts to undermine the transaction, which is aimed at rehabilitating the airline

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…