New Scientist letter

I was lucky enough to get the following letter on sortition published in New Scientist, (not quite as I penned it). I’m hoping there will be an exchange of letters, so if anyone wants to comment, there is an opportunity.

Letters should be sent to:


Letters to the Editor, New Scientist,
110 High Holborn, London WC1V6EU

They like them to be short (250-300 words maximum). Be sure to include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. In this case you should include “Campbell Wallace (Letters, 20 May, p53)…” if you comment on my letter; or, if you comment on another letter, the name of the writer and the date of publishing.

As published:

Dave Levitan (22 April, p 24), and Alice Klein (p 25) rightly deplore politicians such as Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull, who disregard scientific evidence in favour of policies chosen for short-term electoral advantage or to further special interests. But the problem is a consequence of the electoral system itself, which repeatedly brings to power people unfit to use it.

Since the 18th century we have assumed that elections are both necessary and sufficient for democracy, and that without them tyranny results. Yet the Greeks of Aristotle’s day knew that elections could lead to oligarchy, not democracy, and that a democratic alternative existed. Athenian democracy selected decision-makers by lot to get a statistically representative sample of the whole community: this is called “sortition“. It is perfectly feasible to design a system with the means to ensure that those chosen are well-informed on each issue that comes before them. Sortition would end the reign of big money, greatly reduce corruption, and would make intelligent decisions, taking into account the interests of all.

It’s high time we abandoned the myth that elections equal democracy.

Manipulation Again

Further to the articles on “Manipulation of Elections by Hacking”  and  “Hacking and Elections” here is some more of the same.

From the BBC’s Emma Jane Kirby (or, if not, from a clever hacker who goes by that name):

The city getting rich from fake news

Goran – not his real name by the way, he’s not confident enough to reveal that – is one of scores, or probably hundreds of Macedonian teenagers who are behind a cottage industry in the small city of Veles which churned out fake pro-Trump news during the US election campaign. Goran began putting up sensationalist stories, usually plagiarised from right-wing American sites, last summer.

After copying and pasting various articles, he packaged them under a catchy new headline, paid Facebook to share it with a target US audience hungry for Trump news and then when those Americans clicked on his stories and began to like and share them, he began earning revenue from advertising on the site. Goran says he worked on the fakery for only a month and earned about 1,800 euros (£1,500) – but his mates, he claims, have been earning thousands of euros a day. When I ask him if he worries that his false news might have unfairly influenced voters in America, he scoffs.

“Teenagers in our city don’t care how Americans vote,” he laughs. “They are only satisfied that they make money and can buy expensive clothes and drinks!”

So is Donald Trump the Macedonian Candidate, or has he been tweeted into the White House by a conspiracy between the Russians, the Chinese, and the Iranians?

And from BBC Trending (or someone else with the same name): The rise and rise of fake news.

Hacking and Elections

An article on Deutsche Welle assures us that all is well in the Land of the Free (Elections):

Why hacking the US elections is extremely difficult

The hacking into the Democratic Party’s server has sparked a debate about the security of the US voting system. But experts are less worried about hackers breaking into election systems than about a political issue.

As if a presidential race unlike any other in recent memory, featuring the two most unpopular candidates ever, needed any additional suspense, it was amply provided by the fear that the election outcome could be altered by hackers.
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A Graphical Illustration of Representation

How accurate will representation be with sortition? To illustrate this I wrote a short program to mimic choosing assemblies at random, and to show how members of a particular group or class are represented. In this example each assembly has 500 members, and the group forms 50% of the population. Typical output looks like this (I have left out twelve pretty boring lines):

Total number of assemblies drawn 400
Population 10 000 000
Assembly size 500
Proportion of class in population 0.500
Expected no of class members in assembly 250.0

251 242 244 251 263 237 257 241 239 232 256 235 244 253 229 241 257 256 250 268
276 241 222 267 270 256 247 …
… 238 244 243 259 263 245 216 260 235 250 240 241 245
227 271 249 263 224 237 251 238 249 263 260 238 247 255 239 243 255 254 237 249
242 246
265 232 252 249 241 259 239 268 252 247 242 227 246 240 237 245 240 241
263 250 241 247 257 278 248 257 257 244 236 256 233 257 243 260 263 250 238 235
251 246 260 267 257 250 258 254 247 242 250 255 250 235 273 255 247 252 260 240
261 235 250 248 247 252 233 266 252 252 257 261 253 258 272 252 249 234 261 235
270 249 251 244 247 256 253 248 239 258 256 250 245 273 253 246 253 247 259 234

Greatest deviation from the expected number of class members = 34.0 or 6.8% of assembly.
Standard Deviation (sigma) = 10.7.
Mean no of class members for all assemblies = 249.60.
2 × sigma = 21.4 or 4.3% of assembly. 95.5% of deviations will be less than this.
3 × sigma = 32.1 or 6.4% of assembly. 99.7% of deviations will be less than this.
Number of over-representations = 182.
Number of under-representations = 198.
Greatest number of consecutive over- or under-representations = 9 (in 400 assemblies).

Some explanations are necessary here. For simplicity, the results in the table above are presented as if all members were drawn at the same time, but there is no such assumption in the program code, and we might regard the results above as a series of snapshots of the assembly composition taken every time its membership is completely renewed. In this case I have taken the proportion of the class in the total population as 0.5.
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Manipulation of Elections by Hacking

As if we needed more proof that elections are hopelessly vulnerable to manipulation, here are some excerpts from an article in Bloomberg Business Week on how a gifted hacker made use of social media to rig elections in Latin America. The article is well worth reading in full. We can expect much more of this in the future.

For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns. … He led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices…

On the question of whether the U.S. presidential campaign is being tampered with, he is unequivocal. “I’m 100 percent sure it is,” he says.(…)

For decades, Latin American elections were rigged, not won, and the methods were pretty straightforward. Local fixers would hand out everything from small appliances to cash in exchange for votes. But in the 1990s, electoral reforms swept the region. Voters were issued tamper-proof ID cards, and nonpartisan institutes ran the elections in several countries.(…)  [so other methods became necessary]
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Robert Epstein: The New Mind Control

An interesting, and worrying, article by Robert Epstein on what he calls the “Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME)” appeared the other day on the site Aeon.

We already knew that the order of results on web search engines, particularly Google, can influence consumers’ choices. It’s not surprising that it also has an effect on political choices. What is surprising is the degree. Epstein and his team conducted experiments which show a very large effect indeed. In one case the proportion of people favouring the search engine’s top-ranked candidate increased by 48.4 per cent, in another by an average of 37.1 percent, and by as much as 80 per cent in some groups.

We also learned in this series of experiments that by reducing the bias just slightly on the first page of search results – specifically, by including one search item that favoured the other candidate in the third or fourth position of the results – we could mask our manipulation so that few or even no people were aware that they were seeing biased rankings. We could still produce dramatic shifts in voting preferences, but we could do so invisibly.
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Down With Elections!, the book

My book “DOWN WITH ELECTIONS!” will be available as an e-book on Amazon and Smashwords from 1st September for the princely sum of 99c US or equivalent. It’s a revised and corrected version of the articles published earlier on this forum.

The links are:
Smashwords (epub, most ebook readers), Amazon (mobi – Kindle).

Readers of this forum can have it free from my Dropbox account. It would be nice if you post a comment on Amazon or Smashwords. (Thanks)

Dropbox links:
epub, mobi, HTML, PDF, ODT, DOC.