Deception, Data, and Democracy: An Infringement on our Democratic Process

After a dissatisfying television debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson on the 19th of November, many wanted to filter the truth from the trickery delivered to the British public. Luckily, many fact-checking services sprung to our aid. We heard from FactCheck, attributed to Channel 4, Full Fact, an established charity independently separating the full-fat reality from the semi-skimmed, and factcheckUK, a Twitter-based fact-checker; its platform immediately indicates a reliable source. FactcheckUK enthusiastically poked at Mr Corbyn’s arguments, with its services attributed to… the Conservative Party? Trick or tweet! After ripping the poorly made, ghost-resembling bedsheet costume off the @factcheckUK handle, the naughty child who thought they got away with pocketing a few extra sweets was revealed. FactcheckUK was exposed as the Conservative Party press office’s twitter, who renamed themselves to pose as a fact-checking service in order to poke holes in Mr Corbyn’s side of the debate. Of course, much outrage and disgust, (quite justly), followed.

Social media has become the unregulated, ugly frontline of political warfare in today’s world. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal last year acting as one of the most terrifying revelations of the extent to which we are manipulated online, targetting the very cores of our personalities, there has been a rude awakening to the power of the internet and data in our democratic processes. In 2017, two-fifths of all ad spending took shape online; this year, it is more than likely that this figure exceeds well over half. However, although Conservative spending online exceeded that of Labour in the last election, their yield was poor, receiving half the Facebook engagements of Labour at an unfortunate three-fold cost. This probably explains the creation of their snotty, whining child that was factcheckUK, desperate to achieve the engagements necessary to swing votes.

Political campaigns in the offline world are strictly regulated to ensure proper democratic proceedings, but it seems online, the regulations have not quite caught up. In particular, targetting is one of the largest concerns found in the sphere of online campaigning. Again, as demonstrated by Cambridge Analytica, the personalised ads, ‘Crooked Hillary’, in the US elections and personalised pro-Brexit ads in the 2016 referendum through the incredibly wrong use of people’s Facebook profiles allowed for hundreds of variations of the same campaigns, with one of these variations specifically chosen and advertised to you in order to yield the best chance of persuading you. Cambridge Analytica’s social media communication tactics were so powerful that the government considered them weapons-grade, meaning the British government had to be alerted if these communication tactics were “going to be deployed in another country outside the United Kingdom”, described by Brittany Kaiser, (former business development director for Cambridge Analytica), in her testimony against the company. However, she also stated that she understood this designation was removed in 2015, allowing this targetting to operate with much more ease.

Online targetting is highly appealing to politicians, as it has been demonstrated to be incredibly effective in election processes. The infringement on the democratic process through Cambridge Analytica’s improper and criminal data usage is something that demonstrates the potential immorality of this campaign style, but it seems to have not stopped anyone. Although the government has not taken many actions, tech companies themselves, after accusations of undermining democracy, have tried to implement some rules. Facebook now labels political advertisements with target and source, whilst also taking down some governmental adverts targeting marginal constituencies that were not labeled as political. Furthermore, it also has a library of all its advertisements, allowing anyone to access the spending on a particular ad and who has seen it.

Twitter’s attempt to enforce political regulation has been the ban on political advertising altogether. This filter did not catch the factcheckUK tweets for one reason: they were not paid advertisements. However, Twitter has stated that “any further attempts to mislead people by editing verified profile information—in a manner seen during the UK election debate—will result in decisive corrective action.”

In our post-truth world, it seems the onus has been put on us to be our own fact-checkers. Although it is encouraging to see large online companies taking steps to ensure online politics is kept clean, we must not let our democratic proceedings be encroached on by tech giants, and recognise the incredibly powerful hand that seems to constantly be fiddling with the rules of our democracy.