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News & Views

Digital skills in politics are essential

 

Entrepreneur and digital champion Martha Lane Fox has made an impassioned case for digital literacy in politics, especially with regards to the issues surrounding online security. In an op-ed for The Guardian, she writes: “the lack of sophisticated discussion around the internet and security in the media, and the knee-jerk reactions to the policy changes from many parliamentarians, is an extremely serious problem.”

Fox notes that the problems facing contemporary digital culture are much more complex and dangerous than those she dealt with twenty years ago as co-founder of LastMinute.com. And the magnitude of issues such as online extremism, fake news, ransomware attacks, doxxing and revenge porn can be overwhelming — to the extent that these problems tend to get “lumped in” together: “It’s hard to blame those who sometimes get the impression that we would all be safe if only we could just switch it off.”

What we need is open debate, informed by a true understanding of the technology — something Fox feels is all too lacking in recent bids to blanket ban end-to-end encryption in messaging apps. “The fact that our leading politicians could make such a call demonstrates the vast gap between the reality of the way the internet functions and their perception of it,” she says.

But, while the public sector continues to grapple with online security, the private sector is busy actually implementing solutions, essentially creating a blueprint for government bodies to follow. “Corporate boards now make digital security in all its forms a top priority,” says Fox. “It would be as unacceptable for a contemporary CEO to claim she did not understand its seriousness as to say she did not understand the balance sheet.”

Fox’s words echo those of former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In her live Recode interview last month, Clinton alluded to the DNC’s deficit of digital skills and data tools prior to the 2016 election, and suggested that capability in targeting and delivering digital content securely will be pivotal in winning votes come 2020.

Clinton also stated that tech companies like Facebook need to be cognisant of the role their platforms play in people’s lives, and how that sway can be gamed to affect political discourse: “They’ve got to help prevent fake news from creating a new reality that influences how people see themselves and the world, and the decisions they make.”

Across the advertising industry, bridging the digital skills gap has been mission-critical for the last couple of years. Now, in politics, it is a non-negotiable necessity. “Clearly there is an urgent need to increase tech skills generally, but this is not enough,” says Fox. “We must be relentless in encouraging digital understanding from the highest levels of policymaking down.”

We had the good fortune to interview Martha at the last Intelligence Squared Summit in London:

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