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What can we do about election meddling?

Election meddling is serious. Whatever your politics or your view of Donald Trump in the US, there can be no doubt that perceptions of him have been affected by allegations of interference from Russia. Likewise in the UK there has been concern that the EU referendum was unduly influenced by outsiders, analytics firms and illegal collusion over data resources.

Election meddling in this way can affect outcomes, futures of countries and even presidencies. There is no doubt that it’s undesirable, so it’s laudable that information commissioner Elizabeth Denham has launched an investigation into the role of data in politics, specifically its misuse. According to a BBC report she is looking for extra powers to do something about the impact of interference in elections.

International meddling

The killer sentence, however, is this one: “Given the transnational nature of data the investigation will involve exploring how companies operating internationally deploy such practices with impact or handling of data in the UK.” This is self-evidently right and nobody would dispute it.

What’s less clear is exactly what the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) or even the British government could do to stop any interference that comes from other countries. Ask them to stop? Complain to another government, which will either already have outlawed the activity or be complicit in it? Neither of those options looks terribly effective.

Even assuming a government were to make a successful intervention, it’s by no means clear what happens next. In the UK, let’s suppose for a moment that there were to be solid evidence – proof, indeed – that whether because of collusion or interference from outside or both, the Brexit campaign had acted illegally. Article 50 has already been enacted and as our parent publication the New Statesman has pointed out, the prevailing mood appears to be to get on with Brexit. Overturning the idea, even if its premise were proven to be flawed, may not reassure the public in the way that might have been hoped.

Electoral meddling is an issue that needs to be addressed. Detecting it is one thing; addressing it when it is from a region over which the detector has no jurisdiction, and working out what to do after the event, are where it gets complex.