In computing, “swarm” designates a process carried out by a large number of decentralized small computing units each working on a tiny piece of a much larger problem. For example, the Folding@Home project uses the idle computational power of thousands of desktop computers to run computationally intensive simulations of protein folding.
More recently, the concept of swarm has expanded to describe any decentralized action enabled by peer-to-peer communications such as the Internet. For example, in swarm-journalism large numbers of people independently decide to investigate the same event and independently publish their findings.
Recent revelations that the Obama campaign did not take elementary precautions to prevent illegal campaign donations over the internet raise the real possibility of a “corruption swarm” in which a large number of people independently carry out the same corrupt act.
The beauty of swarm-corruption lies in its deniability. The Obama campaign did not have to launch a centrally coordinated effort to break the law, they needed to merely remove the standard safeguards that normally prevent such illegal acts. Obama could then just sit back and let corrupt donors figure out for themselves that they could break the law.
Swarm-corruption could be much more powerful than traditional corruption. A thousand donors, from all over the world, each donating $2,000, would raise $2,000,000. That’s a significant chunk of change even for an American presidential campaign. Further, unlike traditional corrupt donations that come in big and obvious chunks from specific individuals, the money from swarm-corruption comes from a vast number of sources, each of which requires independent investigation, and even if they do get caught, the small sums that each individual donated make the crime a minor one. It is easy to see that swarm-corruption could go to a much higher level — i.e., comprise a more significant percentage of a politician’s war chest — than traditional corruption.
This greater scale of corruption raises an interesting question: At what point do corrupt campaign donations invalidate an election? No campaign can guarantee that 100% of its donations are legal. A certain amount of error and fraud creeps into any system that collects from millions of sources. So, we have to tolerate low-single-digit percentages of a politician’s funding coming from illegal donations. On the opposite extreme it seems obvious that if 100% of a politician’s campaign donations came from corrupt sources then that level of corruption would invalidate the politician’s mandate to hold office. Somewhere between the two extremes lies a level of corruption that would invalidate a politician’s claim to office.
Where does that point lie? If 10% of Obama’s donations came from illegal sources would most Americas believe that invalidates his claim to office? Probably not. 20%? Unlikely. 30%? Maybe. 50%? Probably.
Even if the level of corruption falls below the threshold that triggers the outright rejection of the legitimacy of the election, high levels of swarm-corruption could seriously undermine a politician’s mandate.
Obama may find that he won the election battle but lost the political war. In any case, we must update our laws and procedures to prevent swarm-corruption from becoming a significant problem in the future.