Democracy and Information

There is no democracy without a source of information in which a strong majority can have confidence. Here are two stories from this week that illustrate the point.


Just hours ago, Emmerson Mnangagwa of the governing Zanu-PF party was declared the winner of Monday’s hotly disputed presidential election in Zimbabwe. Trouble began early in the week when opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, confident the vote was rigged against him, took to Twitter to declare victory. His words triggered street celebrations that were met with force by police.

Social media accounts, many of them fake, have added to the confusion with competing claims about what’s happening. Vote counts for parliamentary elections favored the ruling ZANU-PF, provoking outrage from its critics. But results of Monday’s presidential election were delayed until the very early hours of Friday morning, raising doubts about the credibility of the entire process. African and Western election observers have disagreed about the scale of irregularities and the extent of unfair treatment of the opposition. Chamisa vows to challenge the results in court.

In a situation like this, how can voters have confidence in the information they hear? The ruling party has stolen elections many times before. The opposition claimed victory without hard evidence to back the claim. It’s impossible to separate fact from fiction online, and outsiders can’t agree on what to say.

Meanwhile, Facebook is back in the news this week, with an announcement it discovered 32 false pages and profiles that were created as part of a sophisticated disinformation campaign ahead of US midterm elections in November. Posts and ads centered on topics like race, feminism and fascism. In this case, the content was reportedly created to generate anger toward President Trump.

Facebook says there is already information linking the campaign to the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-backed organization that sowed confusion on its platform before the 2016 US presidential election. The real concern according to Facebook is that those responsible have gotten much better over the past two years at camouflaging themselves.

That raises two big questions: If this is what Facebook has found, what hasn’t it found? And what about Twitter, Google, and others?

The bottom line: Access to reliable information is now a critical issue in democracies of all shapes and sizes.

It was inevitable that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would make India's elections a referendum on Narendra Modi, and now that the vast majority of 600 million votes cast have been counted, it's clear he made the right call.

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Among the 23 men and women now seeking the Democratic Party's nomination to take on Donald Trump in next year's election, the frontrunner, at least for now, has spent half a century in politics. Former Vice President Joe Biden, first elected to the US Senate in 1972, is the very epitome of the American political establishment.

Yet, the dominant political trend in many democracies today is public rejection of traditional candidates and parties of the center-right and center-left in favor of new movements, voices, and messages. Consider the evidence from some recent elections:

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It's Friday, and Signal readers deserve at least one entirely upbeat news story.

José Obdulio Gaviria, a Colombian senator for the rightwing Democratic Center party, is an outspoken opponent of government attempts to make peace with the FARC rebel group after 50 years of conflict.

On his way into a meeting earlier this week, Gaviria collapsed. It was later reported that he had fainted as a result of low blood pressure probably caused by complications following recent open heart surgery.

A political rival, Senator Julian Gallo, quickly came to his rescue and revived him using resuscitation skills he learned as—irony alert—a FARC guerrilla. CPR applied by Gallo helped Gaviria regain consciousness, before another senator, who is also professional doctor, took over. Gaviria was taken to hospital and appears to have recovered.

Because some things will always be more important than politics.