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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.