In the hyper-caffeinated weeks before a general election, it’s easy to dismiss all political interventions as sloganeering, as nothing more than grabs for votes. Not so in the case of Dominic Grieve and his remarks this week.
Britain’s former attorney general, now the chair of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, has been pressing the government to clear the publication of a report into Russian interference in recent elections. It’s a cause that surely won’t win Grieve many votes in the upended constituency of Beaconsfield. But it’s a cause that nonetheless matters for those constituents and for the rest of us – not least because it concerns how much power we’ll actually wield at the ballot boxes on 12 December.
The argument over this report has been telling. It was written by Grieve’s committee, after months of interviews with various experts, including intelligence operatives, and then handed over for security clearance earlier this year. That clearance was given in the middle of October, but the report has been stuck in the airless departure lounge of No.10 ever since, waiting for final release. Grieve says that this would normally happen within ten days. Others suggest that the Conservative leadership is stalling in order to cover up its own connections with Russia. The government claims they’re all liars. And still we wait.
And wait. Thanks to the requirements of purdah, the report will now be published after the election. We embark on this campaign knowing that Russia almost certainly set its “disinformation juggernaut” – as Giles Whittell described it in his recent Tortoise essay on Putin’s rule – loose on both of our previous national votes, the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the general election in 2017. Yet the official knowledge contained within that report would have helped to clarify the facts and render them urgent. We’re facing an election, folks! And Russia has hacked those things before!
Instead, the prevailing lack of urgency is typical of how politicians have dealt with various digital affronts to our democracy. It should be remembered that Russia isn’t the only culprit. Anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can post a lie to social media and see it disseminated in seconds. With a little more know-how, they can fabricate a deepfake video that makes a candidate appear drunk. Or establish a closed network of the type that Tortoise discovered in Merthyr Tydfil, where online enthusiasm (or hatreds) can be converted into on-the-ground results.
And that’s before we consider the other meddling power in the 2016 and 2017 votes – the politicians themselves. Far more potent than all the troll farms in Moscow was the mix of money, political advertising and social media that emerged during those campaigns, and that persists now. Even after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke last year, data is still traded in wholesale volumes. Online political advertising is still rife and relatively unregulated.
1. Break up the big tech companies. Facebook, with its acquisitions such as WhatsApp and Instagram, has become too large and too pervasive to be adequately controlled.
2. Public standards for platforms. Regulators should think broadly. Rather than trying to appraise every scrap of content that goes online, they can set general standards and demand outcomes. As a start, social media platforms should be held to be accurate, fair, transparent, accountable and safe.
3. A Department for Data and Digital. There are too many regulators confronting an immense problem with too few powers. They should be supplanted by a full government department that, as part of its role, enforces public standards for social media platforms.
It’s true that some defences have been erected. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that was written in 2016 and implemented last year – under, it should be said, the direction of the European Union – is a historic attempt to recognise and guard the data rights of citizens. Under its provisions, “political opinions” and other forms of political data are considered “sensitive” and are afforded “specific protection”. In general, this means that these sorts of data can only be handled if people have provided consent.
But different European countries have applied GDPR in different ways. The UK’s Data Protection Act, which enshrines GDPR in national law, includes a special provision for political parties, meaning that they can process “personal data revealing political opinions” without consent, so long as it is necessary for activities that include “campaigning, fund-raising, political surveys and case-work” – which is to say, everything a political party would want to use that data for.
The upshot is a form of campaigning that’s almost Cambridge Analytica without the legal ramifications. Political parties can use the data they already have to target specific adverts at specific people on, say, Facebook, and then receive more data in return. Then keep on honing and keep on targeting, right down to individual marginal constituencies.
In a close and unpredictable election, as this one is expected to be, the effects of a single well-placed advert could be monumental. No wonder political parties are pouring money into social media ads – according to Facebook’s own “Ad Library”, the Conservatives have spent £270,637 on the platform since last October; Labour, £259,533; the Liberal Democrats, £383,147; and the Brexit Party, £224,575.
The parties will not stop unless somebody stops them. But who will? Last week, Twitter did: the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, tweeted (natch) that “We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising… We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.”
But Facebook, the largest social network of them all, has struck a different course. “Ads can be an important part of voice,” insisted Mark Zuckerberg during a recent earnings call. So political ads will remain not just on Facebook itself (with its 2.5 billion monthly active users), but also on the other platforms that Facebook owns, including WhatsApp (1.6 billion) and Instagram (1 billion).
So what about the regulators? The body that checks whether the rules are being followed in the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), has certainly produced a lot of reading material for politicians to digest. They’ve published reports on data and campaigning. They’ve released a code of conduct (or at least the draft of one (for consultation)). Yesterday, they even sent out a letter to, as the press release put it, “remind political parties they must comply with the law”. And yet, despite this sheriffship, the Wild West remains wild.
On a charitable interpretation, the ICO is a small, underfunded organisation that doesn’t have the legislative backing to confront these great and terrible forces. The same might be said of another body, the Electoral Commission, that is struggling to keep up with all the semi-official, digitally energised spin-offs from traditional political campaigns – and where their funding comes from.
Less charitably, the ICO and the Electoral Commission bite only after the fact and, even then, barely. Last year, they separately found Vote Leave guilty of various infringements of the law. The total punishment? £101,000 in fines and a referral to the police. In the world of online campaigning, the potential rewards – a referendum result, say, or a general election – often outweigh the risks.
A similarly symbolic outcome was reached last week, just hours after parliament voted to hold a general election, so it was lost amid the ayes and the noes. The ICO announced an “agreement” with Facebook, such that the tech giant would pay a £500,000 fine for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The equivalent fine in America, issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), was $5,000,000,000 – and many observers still argued that Facebook had got off lightly, for the FTC didn’t move to split the company apart, nor prevent its data-gathering in general.
As it happens, Tortoise was one of the observers making that argument. We called for the breakup of the big tech companies back in May, along with a set of enforceable public standards for social media platforms. Our box of prescriptions (see above) shows that we’re still calling for those measures to be introduced.
But, as the election campaign starts, we now add a third measure: a new architecture of government that accounts for the immense and often subversive power of the internet. A Department of Data and Digital may not be able to prevent every anonymous message from every anonymous corner of Saint Petersburg, nor separate Facebook from its acquisitions, but it could promote an agenda that is currently locked away somewhere in the basement of No.10, next to the Russia report.
The sad truth is that, even with the unreleased documents, we know more about the problem than we did two years ago – but so little has been done about it. Thanks to a mix of general complacency, political complicity and institutional inadequacy, the forthcoming election is unlikely to help us take back control. Instead, in a digital world, we’re poised to surrender it.
For & against
“We’re well aware we’re a small part of a much larger political advertising ecosystem. Some might argue our actions today could favor incumbents. But we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising. I trust this will only grow…. In addition, we need more forward-looking political ad regulation (very difficult to do). Ad transparency requirements are progress, but not enough. The internet provides entirely new capabilities, and regulators need to think past the present day to ensure a level playing field.”
Part of Jack Dorsey’s thread explaining why Twitter has decided to ban political advertising
“The word targeted is another euphemism. It evokes notions of precision, efficiency, and competence. Who would guess that targeting conceals a new political equation in which Google’s concentrations of computational power brush aside users’ decision rights as easily as King Kong might shoo away an ant, all accomplished offstage where no one can see?”
From Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
“One of our central ideas was that the campaign had to do things in the field of data that have never been done before. This included a) integrating data from social media, online advertising, websites, apps, canvassing, direct mail, polls, online fundraising, activist feedback, and some new things we tried such as a new way to do polling, and b) having experts in physics and machine learning do proper data science in the way only they can – i.e. far beyond the normal skills applied in political campaigns.”
In one of the many long posts on his blog, Dominic Cummings explains Vote Leave’s approach to data
The view from Tortoise members
“Our political establishment is giving the impression that it thinks it’s 1992 and is oblivious to all the ways in which the internet has changed everything. This blindness has given a clear run to players who do understand all this but, unfortunately, do not have our best interests at heart. The scandal at Cambridge Analytica has been ignored or deflected by the same political establishment which it threatens. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to fast-forward five years and visualise all the kinds of disruption that will be possible by malevolent and/or ruthless actors through artificial intelligence and deep-fakery (and other stuff not yet even thought of). My concern is that the red flags that have been waved so far have been largely ignored.” Keith Ruttle
“Related to Keith’s points about Cambridge Analytica, we all now have the ability to set up our own digital echo chambers by choosing what we look at and then, knowingly or not, allowing platforms like Google and Facebook to present us with streams of content that the algorithms think we will like. But I would be really interested to explore whether digital echo chambers in the late 2010s are really that different to printed echo chambers of, say, the late 1990s. People chose to read papers because they filter and present content that the editors think they want to read. When Murdoch backed Blair, did that have a different sort of effect in the pre-digital age? Maybe the main thing digital has done to political discourse is dilute it.” Geoff Underwood
“The digital age has come – this is not going to be reversed. The challenge is to make the most of what it offers while containing the damage. We had a very useful discussion at Tortoise in June. Two points I recall from that: 1) The law as it applies to print media is that any message designed to promote the cause of a political candidate must identify itself as such and disclose the identity of the publisher. This should apply to digital. 2) Digital opens the way for anonymous abuse and threats, which are anti-democratic when used against elected representatives. We cannot run a democracy in conditions where the people we elect are routinely subject to death threats – this is called ‘terrorism’. But the big thing is this: we need to digitise democracy. The way the Commons votes is immensely entertaining but a disgrace in a digital era.” Paul Lusk
Keith, Geoff and Paul are all part of our members’ panel on The Rules, our case file looking at how we might go about creating a written constitution. To join the panel, email email@example.com