Online political campaigning techniques are distorting our democratic political processes. These techniques include the creation of disinformation and divisive content; exploiting digital platforms’ algorithms, and using bots, cyborgs and fake accounts to distribute this content; maximizing influence through harnessing emotional responses such as anger and disgust; and micro-targeting on the basis of collated personal data and sophisticated psychological profiling techniques. Some state authorities distort political debate by restricting, filtering, shutting down or censoring online networks.

Such techniques have outpaced regulatory initiatives and, save in egregious cases such as shutdown of networks, there is no international consensus on how they should be tackled. Digital platforms, driven by their commercial impetus to encourage users to spend as long as possible on them and to attract advertisers, may provide an environment conducive to manipulative techniques.

International human rights law, with its careful calibrations designed to protect individuals from abuse of power by authority, provides a normative framework that should underpin responses to online disinformation and distortion of political debate. Contrary to popular view, it does not entail that there should be no control of the online environment; rather, controls should balance the interests at stake appropriately.

The rights to freedom of thought and opinion are critical to delimiting the appropriate boundary between legitimate influence and illegitimate manipulation. When digital platforms exploit decision-making biases in prioritizing bad news and divisive, emotion-arousing information, they may be breaching these rights. States and digital platforms should consider structural changes to digital platforms to ensure that methods of online political discourse respect personal agency and prevent the use of sophisticated manipulative techniques.

The right to privacy includes a right to choose not to divulge your personal information, and a right to opt out of trading in and profiling on the basis of your personal data. Current practices in collecting, trading and using extensive personal data to ‘micro-target’ voters without their knowledge are not consistent with this right. Significant changes are needed.

Data protection laws should be implemented robustly, and should not legitimate extensive harvesting of personal data on the basis of either notional ‘consent’ or the data handler’s commercial interests. The right to privacy should be embedded in technological design (such as by allowing the user to access all information held on them at the click of a button); and political parties should be transparent in their collection and use of personal data, and in their targeting of messages. Arguably, the value of personal data should be shared with the individuals from whom it derives.

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