LONDON (AP) — Britain is proving a lawless landscape for political mudslingers mining cyberspace for votes in an election that could determine the U.K.’s future relationship with the European Union.
Two years after Britain found itself at the epicenter of a global scandal over the misuse of Facebook data by political campaigns and a year after lawmakers called for sweeping reforms to protect democracy in the digital age, the country’s biggest political parties are bombarding voters with misleading social media messages after the government failed to act.
The ruling Conservative Party circulated a doctored video that made it look as if an opposition leader had been stumped when asked about his position on Brexit, then during a leaders’ debate the party’s press office temporarily rebranded its website as a fact-checking service. The Labour Party has also sought to co-opt the roll of independent factchecker, rolling out a website called The Insider, which calls on voters to “trust the facts.”
“It’s the Wild West out there,” said Matt Walsh, who researches digital political communication at the University of Cardiff. “The parties can pretty much do what they want in terms of putting political messages out there and they can do what they want in terms of upsetting social media users.”
Britain’s electoral laws, like those of most countries, were largely written before the dawn of the internet, meaning social media campaigns are mostly unregulated and open to exploitation by a new generation of political strategists who grew up with the technology. While Russia was able to exploit these loopholes in an effort to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the big story of 2019 may be the willingness of Britain’s political parties themselves to push the boundaries of truth, transparency and reality.
The stakes couldn’t be bigger. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seeking a mandate to take Britain out of the EU by Jan. 31. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn promises a second referendum that could block Brexit, along with left wing economic policies including the nationalization of railways, water companies and broadband networks. And tactics applied in the British campaign are but a harbinger of how digital misinformation could affect other coming votes, including next year’s U.S. presidential election.
The U.K. House of Commons’ media committee last year called for widespread changes to electoral laws, which it said weren’t “fit for purpose” in the 21st century. The report followed an 18-month inquiry into fake news and data manipulation by political campaigns, which was triggered by concerns about Russian interference in western elections. The probe helped fuel a scandal about how consultancy Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to target voters during Donald Trump’s 2016 run for the White House.
The government’s failure to act on the committee’s recommendations leaves voters at the mercy of unscrupulous campaign operatives at a time when more and more people are turning to social media for news and information. Since there are no sanctions for misbehavior – other than having your post removed from Twitter, Facebook or Google – the campaigns have realized there’s little downside to posting doctored videos or misleading information.
“You aren’t seeing any blowback from that. It’s almost the opposite,” said Zvika Krieger, head of technology policy at the World Economic Forum. “(Being misleading) gets more attention. There’s a perverse incentive to post as much misleading information as possible. It’s a very worrying trend.”
While misinformation is not new in political campaigns, digital data is improving exponentially political campaigns’ ability to tailor messages to voters based on their behavior online. And this comes at a time when parties are devoting more resources to digital communications.
The Conservatives spent 3.98 million pounds ($5.17 million) on social media and data-driven advertising during the last general election campaign in 2017, up 71% from the previous election in 2015, according to research by Tactical Tech, a Berlin-based group that seeks to mitigate the impact of technology on society. Labour’s digital spending more than tripled to 1.47 million pounds in the same period.
But it is hard to know how to regulate digital campaigning as it is difficult to get a complete picture of how and where parties focus their digital spending.
The campaign that has pushed the limits furthest this year is the Conservatives.
First, they took a TV news interview with Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, and edited it to make it appear that he couldn’t answer a question about the party’s position on leaving the EU. The video has been viewed more than 1.1 million times. Then, during a leaders’ debate last month, the party’s press office temporarily rebranded its Twitter feed “factcheckUK” and used the account to attack Corbyn’s comments.
Will Moy, chief executive of Full Fact, a real fact-checking website, criticized the stunt.
“It was an attempt to mislead voters, and I think it is inappropriate and misleading for a serious political party to behave that way,” he said at the time.
Caught unprepared in 2017, when social media helped Labour to a better-than-expected performance, the Conservative Party this year brought in a New Zealand-based firm called Topham Guerin to sharpen its online message.
Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, both in their 20s, helped Scott Morrison become Australia’s prime minister in 2018 with a strategy to flood online platforms with hundreds of posts with a consistent message. They specialized in memes with tacky messages that would riff off events like the finale of the cult show “Game of Thrones.” People would laugh – and share.
The content wasn’t slick, but it was plentiful.
“You’re going to slap some Calibri font on some … re-used meme and you’re going to publish it and you’re going to get on to the next one,” Guerin told a conference in May in Sydney. “And you know what? Their content is going to do better than the thing your poor graphic designer spent a week on. Sad but true.”
While such posts may draw laughter and wry comments as readers share them, they have serious implications for society.
Even as candidates are lowering the bar on what they are willing to do or say, campaigns are increasing their sophistication in using data from a wide variety of sources to micro-target voters with custom-made messages. At the same time, improvements in technology are making it easier to manipulate audio and video in ways that are invisible to the untrained eye, Krieger said.
“As our lives get more and more connected – smart cities and sensors and movie-watching preferences, smart appliances – campaigns are going to be able to target people with frightening levels of consistency,” he said. You can push voters “in the direction you want them to go. …”
“It’s going to provide a critical threat to democracy.”