Misuse of social media by politicians:

The destruction of democracy?

Over the last four months the Guardian newspaper has published a series of articles that have shown how the UK Vote Leave campaign and Donald Trump have used your social media data to win their respective votes. They used this data to send fake news to you, and made a lot of people go against their better judgement to either not vote, or vote against something that they may have previously voted for. In short, by using all sorts of very personal data about you they manipulated their elections so they would win.

Targeting on social media

During my last County Council election campaign I paid Facebook to send adverts to around 1500 people across South and West Dorset. As you will see in the image above I had all sorts of choices as to whom to approach – Conservative Party voters, Lib Dem voters, people who supported the NHS and schools. I did much as a company would that wants green / left customers to buy their goods. Anyone can do this.

A new profession has emerged over the years called ‘social media managing’. This isn’t just about writing posts designed to get you commenting and liking on a company’s timeline. Much of it is working out quite narrow demographics as to whom should see the posts they write. As an example, BMW in selling its electric i3 car may put up some social media posts that only go out to people who like Tesla. Tesla fans will see an alternative to their dream car and may one day end up buying a BMW instead. This is all well and good, and everyone does it.

Blogging and multimedia

One of my paid jobs is to write controversial feature stories for clients who will post these to social media and get people commenting on them. The idea is that in doing so people will interact with and ultimately buy from the company.

Facebook is awash with 30 second to minute long video clips looking at everything from cats having meltdowns to Theresa May trying to smile without turning people to stone. This is designed to get you onto a site or to do something such as vote for a political party.

Targeting, blogging and social media

The two techniques above can lead to a process where someone like me will write an article that may influence someone from a particular demographic to do something. If I wrote something about cuts to school budgets for Labour, they would post this specifically to parents of all party political persuasions and you may have a debate going on on Facebook and Twitter about the cuts to school budgets affecting your kids’ futures.

Astrophysics

So, we’ve covered the ground of good modern marketing practices that are used in all sorts of businesses around the world. The Guardian however exposed some malpractices that were used by the Trump and Brexit campaigns that have caused political earthquakes to happen through taking these practices to a level where really only people with PhDs in astrophysics can fully understand.

The Guardian showed how a piece of research was done perfectly legally by a group of scholars in Cambridge University that showed that by taking data on the posts you like and comment on, the subjects you follow, the posts you write and share on social media, as well as your age, profession, sexuality and even race and a huge number of other things people casually use there can put you in quite small groups of people. I’m a left leaning 42 year old proud father of a 2 year old who likes sailing and who lives in a leafy suburb of Dorchester. That would put me in a group of maybe 1000 in Dorchester. If I went on about my serious breakdown in my 20’s, that I am mortgage and debt free, and a writer on electric vehicles, sailing and adventure sports would put me in ever smaller groups, perhaps down to 100 or so across the UK.

Getting this data is perfectly legal and is how the likes of Facebook and Twitter make their money. What the astrophysicists did was to run this data through computer systems to accurately describe groups of people and what they would respond to. This is called ‘micro-targeting’. After publishing their research the academics went off to work on this for private companies. The private companies have been exposed by the Guardian as being run by a bunch of very right wing billionaires who support Trump and Brexit.

‘Fake news’

Speak to someone in the UK about disabled people on benefits and you will likely as not hear a story of how they know someone ‘swinging the lead’ and cheating benefits. Disabled people were once considered people who needed support from the state yet are now treated as lepers. More than 7000 people have died after being rejected for welfare claims, yet were bullied and harassed until they drew their last breath by the state. People who don’t have a job were once seen in a reasonably relaxed way – in order for an economy to grow you need people out of work so they can take the jobs created as businesses grow. Now they are being hounded by the state and labelled ‘scroungers’ and ‘lazy’ by a hateful media. Nurses who use food banks ‘aren’t budgeting properly’. Surveys have shown that the public perception of welfare cheating is far removed from the facts – only 0.7% of claims are by cheating scroungers yet surveys show people believe this to be 25% or more. This is due to fake news that has been circulated around the UK since around 2007. Those who may once have had a more egalitarian left wing outlook are now blaming scroungers and disabled people for the financial crash induced government debt that billionaire bankers in fact created.

If you Like the racist far right page Britain First and are on a low income, and perhaps have a disabled family member you may find stories about immigrants stealing your jobs on your timeline. Cambridge Analytica would have narrowed you down to a small group of people and sent you multimedia posts showing how the NHS would get £350 million a week when we left the EU and stories about Poles stealing your job and perhaps how cutting immigration might help you get a better job one day. This heavily contributed to the UK voting to leave the EU.

In the US the Trump campaign sent out stories about how there would be two days of voting – one for the Republicans (on the right polling day) and the next day for Democrats who may then have turned up to the polling station only to see it closed and Trump in power. In the UK we have laughingly sent posts like that for UKIP voters in jest but no one believed them. In the US many people did (and posts like this designed to stop them voting for Clinton), and this contributed to the relatively low voter turnout that swept Trump to power.

Democracy subverted

None of what we have described above is actually illegal. It isn’t illegal to lie in a speech from the soapbox (politicians have done this since the dawn of time) and it isn’t illegal to paint a bus with a lie about the NHS. It also isn’t illegal to tell a biddable young voter that since they are voting Democrat they should vote on Friday as all Republicans vote on Thursday.

There were malpractices alleged by the Guardian showing that a number of Leave campaigns coincidentally paid the same social media companies to do very similar jobs (no smoke without fire) and this was playing havoc with UK electoral law. The US companies paid by the UK campaigns aren’t governed by UK law so could stick 2 fingers up at the police from across the Atlantic. Police investigations are ongoing, but after we have signed Article 50 and are on the way out of the EU.

What has been shown by the Guardian article is that democracy has been subverted in both the US and UK by people who threw hundreds of millions of dollars at a bunch of brain boxes from Cambridge to win their campaigns in a novel way. Much of this stuff is unethical and should be against the law. It would be incredibly difficult to legislate on this, and given that many of the politicians in power today are in because of these dodgy tactics, it is extremely unlikely that they will change the law to stop themselves from doing it again.

In short? We’re pretty screwed due to social and mainstream media manipulation by some pretty rich people paying brainy people to mess with our heads.

Grand Tour of the Great Divide and a grand bike for it…

This blog was originally published on Cycleinjuries.co.uk in 2015. I have reproduced it for my site as an example of some of the adventure sports writing I have done.

 

Fancy taking a month off to ride one of the greatest mountain bike routes in the world? Need a bike for the job? This blog will look at the challenge and at a machine that’s just been developed specially for it…

The Grand Tour of the Great Divide

This is a 2745 mile cross country mountain biking route from Banff, Alberta in Canada to Antelope Wells in on the border between New Mexico and Mexico. In order to get on the leader board you must do the route within 1.5 times of the course record – in other words, just over 25 days for men and 29 days for women. In short, a bloke needs to do over 100 linear miles a day in the saddle, while a woman would do well to do the same.

You will climb over 200,000 feet during this ride, and don’t expect lovely paved roads as you do it – expect gravel, mud and slog. Even so you will see the Great Continental Divide that splits the US and Canada in two, in all its glory.

Navigation is one of the important parts of this – you won’t be in a peloton with 100 other riders, and again unlike the Tour de France it must be entirely self supported. Since on many days you won’t even see a town, you’ll need to carry enough water and food for the days of solitude. Where the riders of the Tour de France have special chefs and specialist maintenance teams, you will only be allowed to refuel and repair your bike using outlets that all other riders have access to. The same applies to accommodation – yes, you’re allowed to sleep in a hotel but not (as with Team Sky) on a bed designed for you and imported into a team house…

Over such a ride, expect to meet nature face to face. This is mountain lion and grizzly bear country and as you enter the southern US, you may see the odd rattlesnake too. This is a chance to see and feel the America of ancient legend in a way that the settlers saw it in all its glory and hardship.

Why isn’t there a media frenzy over it? One of the mountain biking Race Rules forbids spectators unless they’re resident of one of the towns on the route. Don’t expect a 6 figure sponsorship package or to be modelling clothes as so many road tour riders seem to do these days… This is about you, the bike and the road – there isn’t even a prize for coming first!

Looking at the website describing the challenge, honestly I’m ready to pack my partner and child off to her mother and get preparing for the mother of all midlife crisis adventures…

The Cutthroat bike

The GTGD ride has been running for the last seven years. Mountain bike technology has had a couple of major leaps forward in that time, including the advent of the disc brake and the 29 inch wheeled mountain bike (the ‘29er’).

The Cutthroat is one of the first in a series of ‘adventure mountain bikes’ that is coming onto the market. This is a carbon fibre framed 29er with drop handlebars and a number of refinements for comfort, reliability, refinement and efficiency.

Your ideal mountain bike should be light to get it up those hills, be comfortable enough you’re not walking like John Wayne after a decent ride, and be reliable enough that on the GTGD you’re not having to carry it 50 miles to the nearest bike shop. It needs to be efficient too – getting you up those hills and shaving seconds off the ride every hour could translate to hours and even days shaved off the adventure…

The drop handlebars give you more positions to be comfortable. Loaded up with the gear for this epic, you will need to adjust to a variety of positions to help with the pain of pushing so hard for so long. On this machine there’s a vibration reduction system known as the Class 5 VRS, that smoothes those gravel tracks out.

Finally, the front triangle is as large as possible. This is to give space for the in frame bag you will use for the adventure – more space inside means more volume for what you need.

Ready for the mountain bike trip of a lifetime?

The top spec bike sells in the US for USD $4,000, on which you’d need to pay import duties to bring into the UK – unless of course you bought it in the US, rode the route, and took it back used and abused so no duty would apply…

Honestly? Given the wherewithal and ability just to disappear for a month or two, I’d be tempted. Very tempted…

If this writing appeals to you drop Richard a line via his contact form. He is happy to discuss fees and arrangements to work with you 🙂