IT reads like the plotline of a hackneyed political thriller. A fresh-faced TV actor plays a downtrodden everyman who rides a wave of popular anger to become his country’s leader. Then he repeats the trick in real-life.

But this is the drama unfolding in Ukraine. A few years ago, Volodymyr Zelensky became famous for playing a teacher who becomes president after his anti-corruption rant went viral on social media. Now he is running second in some polls ahead of March’s presidential election.

Television did not just make Zelensky’s name – it created his political campaign. His party, “Servant of the People” – named after the TV show – was initially registered by his television station as a fictional gimmick. On Instagram, Zelensky’s campaign posts clips lifted directly from the show: their candidate winning debates, becoming president, even working out in the gym in putatively unguarded “behind-the-scenes” moments. You want to know what a President Zelensky would look like? Just watch.

It’s not hard to think of a precedent for Zelensky’s unlikely rise. The creators of the US version of The Apprentice took a serial bankrupt with a reputation for underhand dealing and turned him into a model of glittering financial success, fit, apparently, for the White House.

The National:

Volodymyr Zelensky work as an actor has been repurposed as campaign material

“We made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king,” one of The Apprentice’s former producers told the New Yorker recently.

We are all guilty of turning politics into a form of entertainment. We talk of Nicola and Theresa, Boris and Jeremy. I’m as guilty as anyone of spending endless hours speculating about the machinations of competing personalities in the great political drama unfolding in front of us.

The lure of the strong personality is timeless. But we are not just living through the latest iteration of the Great Man of History thesis. Now politicians – even those, like Zelensky, who begin as fictional characters – can use digital communication to manipulate voters in far subtler and more powerful ways than ever before.

Take Brexit. We now know that the Leave campaign spent millions on mendacious online adverts claiming Turkey was joining the EU and that the country was being flooded by Syrian immigrants. These messages were highly targeted, appealing to the most effective political emotion: fear.

The rap sheet from the Brexit referendum is almost as long as the Withdrawal Agreement. Vote Leave and Arron Banks’s Leave.EU were both found guilty of breaking electoral law, fined and reported to the Met Police. There were breaches of data protection law. Even, in the case of Banks, a referral to the National Crime Agency on suspicion of illegally spending foreign money in a campaign.

READ MORE: Ireland's peace may well be sacrificed on the altar of Brexit ignorance

And yet there has been no proper investigation into the circumstances around the Brexit vote. Where the United States has Robert Mueller, we have only the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee. Dogged though it has been, the DCMS committee has no power to subpoena witnesses. Vote Leave boss Dominic Cummings blithely refused to give evidence.

This is not just “remoaning” about a two-and-a-half-year-old referendum. The widespread refusal to ask tough questions about how our political system is being compromised leaves it wide open to even greater abuses.

This week it emerged that former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson received £39,000 worth of global travel. But we have no idea who paid for any of it, because the costs went through his personal think tank. Labour has called for an investigation. I won’t be holding my breath.

The threat to our democracy is far more severe than just dark-money-funded think tanks subverting the rules and buying access to the political process. As Brexit, Trump and numerous other elections have shown, disinformation spread online is warping our politics in ways we have not even begun to understand.

In May, every EU member state – which may or may not include us – will elect representatives to the European Parliament. Steve Bannon – the eminence grise behind Trump’s improbable victory – has offered his services to anti-EU populists across the continent.

Many of these battles will be fought online based on rules of engagement that pre-date the digital age. Most countries, including the UK, do not require parties to publish details of their digital advertising. Only the vaguest details of online spending are returned: in 2016, Vote Leave listed millions and millions of pounds on online adverts merely as “digital media spend”.

Such anonymity benefits those pushing the politics of fear. Far-right groups across Europe effectively tap into primal concerns using often sophisticated online advertising suffused with disinformation. False narratives and images spread with gay abandon. The lie goes around the world long before the truth even knows it exists.

Where the money comes from for these campaigns is far from clear: Facebook only publishes details of political advertising spending in the UK, the US and Brazil.

The tech giant has said that it will only allow activists to buy adverts in their home country, but these rules are not difficult to circumvent, as myself and my colleagues at openDemocracy showed when we were able to buy Facebook ads from outside of Ireland in the run up to last year’s abortion referendum.

We all like to believe we are immune from political adverts, but there’s a reason it is a multimillion-dollar industry. It works. Meanwhile, the established political order has so far been woefully unprepared for the power of disinformation.

This week world leaders meet in Davos. The globe’s plutocrats have shown themselves, at best, ambivalent to insurgent right-wing populists. Apple head honcho Tim Cook looked decidedly uncomfortable sat at the same table as Jair Bolsonaro this week, but he still had dinner with Brazil’s new climate-change-denying, torture-endorsing president. Bolsonaro, bankrolled by rich Brazilian business interests, was widely accused of spreading false news through WhatsApp before winning last year’s election.

READ MORE: Jair Bolsonaro's first moves live up to 'Brazil's Trump' label

Bolsonaro personifies the supreme irony of the rising right-wing populist wave: often those who shout loudest about the nefarious “establishment” voices work hand-in-glove with business and social elites. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Jacob Rees-Mogg, the solution to the searing injustice that sees people sleeping rough on our streets is not higher welfare spending, it is lower taxes, less regulation and to hell with the consequences.

Populist sirens profit from the sustained failure of political leaders to address the issues facing our society. This week, Oxfam reported that the world’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest half of the planet. In 2018, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer.

Critics will counter that, as Harold Macmillan unfortunately put it, we “have never had it so good”. People living in Scotland today, overwhelmingly, live far more affluent lives than their parents, even in the most deprived areas.

The numbers hide a deeper truth. Many of us work in insecure employment. We do not know what our job will look like in five years’ time, never mind 25. Average house prices far outstrip wages.

This is the fear of the future that populists tap into, aided by disinformation campaigns. Conservative MP Damian Collins, chair of Westminster’s fake news inquiry, has warned of “a crisis in our democracy – based on the systematic manipulation of data to support the relentless targeting of citizens, without their consent, by campaigns of disinformation and messages of hate”.

Our archaic laws offer scant protection from such threats. As long as the maximum fine for breaking electoral law is, as in Britain, £20,000, we will continue to see our democratic system abused. Wholesale reform of the electoral system is badly needed.

We cannot outsource our democracy to Facebook and Google, but until our politicians start to take seriously the spread of online disinformation, we will be left hoping technology will save us. Spoiler alert: it won’t.