With the country on the edge of a snap general election or second referendum, Byline Times asks how equipped our electoral system is for these votes to be free and fair in an age of digital psyops.

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The digital age has changed the electoral landscape forever. Gone are the days of leafleting, door knocking and billboards of ‘Labour isn’t working’ leaving imprints on our minds. Our personal data is the new currency of elections – and it is up for grabs; sought after by those hoping to get inside our minds.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed how the information we share about ourselves on social media platforms such as Facebook is far from safe. In fact, the data is monetised and sold. It has been said often but is true nonetheless: if it’s free, you’re not the customer – you’re the product.

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) fined Facebook £500,000 last October for serious breaches of data protection that enabled the harvesting of data from 87 million people, which was later shared with SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, and used in the EU Referendum. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has brazenly refused to appear before Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee on several occasions.

Big data, social media, and micro-targeting have transformed political campaigning… it has been clear that our laws do not match modern threats to our democracy.

David Lammy MP

A criminal prosecution has been brought against SCL by the ICO, while both the Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaigns in the 2016 Referendum have been referred to the Metropolitan Police for potential breaches of electoral law. The National Crime Agency is also investigating Leave.EU’s co-founder Arron Banks and chief executive Liz Bilney over alleged breaches.

The Met Police and NCA have made little progress on these investigations. Certainly, no findings or potential prosecutions will be brought in time for any snap general election or referendum.

Where’s the Protection?

Even if our personal data is legally acquired in any future campaigns, how should this be used?  How democratic is political campaigning if it is designed to keep us in the dark about its attempts to influence us?

As Theresa May’s Government teeters on the edge, Byline Times believes we can be far from confident that any votes held in the coming months would be free and fair. Instead of delivering a solution to the political impasse gripping Britain, they could add to its many problems.

Shahmir Sanni, who revealed wrongdoing by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s Vote Leave campaign during the EU Referendum last year, said: “If there is a second referendum, we must ensure that the criminality uncovered last year doesn’t repeat itself. We must be vigilant and MPs must give the Electoral Commission more power to not let [law-breakers] take over our democracy (again).”

Labour’s David Lammy, who believes a public inquiry should be held into the 2016 Referendum, told the Byline Times that the Met Police and NCA must “quickly conclude their investigations so we can stop bad actors and learn lessons for any upcoming votes”.

People can only make truly informed choices about who to vote for if they are sure those decisions have not been unduly influenced… How can we make sure that voters are truly in control of the outcome?

Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner

“Big data, social media, and micro-targeting have transformed political campaigning,” the Tottenham MP said. “Ever since we have known about the unprecedented interference of foreign powers in both the 2016 EU Referendum and the US presidential election of the same year, it has been clear that our laws do not match modern threats to our democracy.”

Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson said a Labour Government would introduce “digital democracy guarantees” including measures to ensure that anyone targeting UK citizens with online political adverts must be based in Britain.

“Fake news and the online platforms that allow it to flourish are a threat to our democracy,” Mr Watson said.

“This Government has been far too slow to act and has ignored the DCMS Select Committee’s recommendations on how to tackle fake news and disinformation. We must learn the lessons and take action to protect our public debate and democracy.”

New Codes of Practice – But Too Late

Both the Electoral Commission – which oversees the legality of elections and referendums in the UK – and the ICO – the country’s data protection watchdog – are developing new codes of practice, but the first of these will not be published until June next year.

“Elections are currently run using legislation that, in some parts, has not been properly reviewed since the 19th Century,” the Commission said.

A Fair Vote Project protest outside Parliament with Shahmir Sanni, Kyle Taylor and Chris Wylie in 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One of its proposals to increase transparency about who is seeking to influence voters online and the money spent on this in elections and referendums is that providing ‘imprints’ on online campaign material should become a legal requirement.

The new code of practice being drafted by the ICO, ready for the next scheduled general election in May 2022, will cover the use of personal information as a “legitimate tool” in campaigns and elections.

Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, has said her office is “concerned about invisible processing – the ‘behind the scenes’ algorithms, analysis, data matching and profiling that involves people’s personal information” being used in relation to democratic processes.

“Trust and confidence in the integrity of our democratic processes risks being disrupted because the average person has little idea of what is going on behind the scenes,” she said.

If there is a second referendum, we must ensure that the criminality uncovered last year doesn’t repeat itself. We must be vigilant.

Whistleblower Shahmir Sanni

“This must change. People can only make truly informed choices about who to vote for if they are sure those decisions have not been unduly influenced. What can we do to ensure that we preserve the integrity of future elections? How can we make sure that voters are truly in control of the outcome?”

Cambridge Analytica may have shut up shop, but this is just the beginning, not the end, of the story of dark data in our elections. But, what is Britain going to do about it and when?

For Kyle Taylor, director of the Fair Vote Project, a campaign group set up in the wake of the wrongdoing in the EU Referendum, “there have been no significant regulatory changes to election law, data controls or digital platforms since the massive scale of electoral law-breaking came to light following the 2016 EU Referendum. There is no way – right now – to ensure any election would be truly free and fair”.

The country has no time to spare in ensuring the security of our elections. Its future may just depend on it.

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