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TV review: Dispatches: Can IT Steal Your Vote? and Suranne Jones: Investigating witch trials

05 July 2024

Yau Ming Low iStock

Dispatches: Can IT Steal Your Vote? (Channel 4, Thursday of last week) examined whether technology could influence people’s votes

Dispatches: Can IT Steal Your Vote? (Channel 4, Thursday of last week) examined whether technology could influence people’s votes

FREE choice — humankind’s apparently defining moral characteristic — seems to me more a relative rather than an absolute virtue: our wealth, upbringing, education, etc. surely conspires to make some of us freer than others. But does not our glorious democracy, celebrated at this time in a General Election, represent the triumph of national free choice? Dispatches: Can IT Steal Your Vote? (Channel 4, Thursday of last week) reinforced all my cynicism, exposing how easily our decisions can be manipulated.

Technology is now so sophisticated, and its number-crunching so humungous, that every swipe we make on our smartphones, every online purchase, builds up our secret personal profile; never mind God knowing us behind and before, it’s all analysed in digital file, updated moment by moment, available to any organisation willing to pay. And manipulating this data becomes far easier, far cheaper; so that a political party could produce a manifesto fed into our devices different for every single one of us, specifically tailored to reinforce our prejudices.

Deepfakes apparently showing politicians’ making promises they never uttered are now virtually indistinguishable from genuine clips. This practice is entirely negative, based on belittling your opponents rather than promoting your own side, thereby stoking division and contempt. The programme set up an experiment with undecided voters’ receiving a diet of such clips, then conducted a mock vote. The deepfakes pushed the subjects absolutely into one side or the other. Most alarmingly, even once the deception was unveiled, much of the opinion remained. Even when you realise such material is false, it retains a malign afterlife, lodged eternally in, what? The mind, the heart? Perhaps far worse than that — corroding the soul.

Online manipulation is a contemporary dark art. Part two of Suranne Jones: Investigating witch trials (Channel 4, Sunday) sought to link past and present, relating the vile history of witch-hunts to the contemporary shaming, condemning, and constraining of women. I would have liked far more meat in her examination of exactly why the craze flourished in 16th- and 17th-century Germany, Scotland, England, then New England; and far more depth in dissecting the phenomenon of mass hysteria, especially young girls’ accusing older women of imaginary crimes, condemning them to the gallows or the stake.

Jones’s linking of anti-witch campaigns to the online shaming and exposing that blights the lives of our youths and schools was effective; but less so when throwing in her lot with contemporary self-styled “witches”, embracing otherness as deep feminism, confounding ineradicable male dominion. And less, please, of her striding around blasted heaths, long coat flapping in the mist. Emotional manipulation, I call it.

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