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The Online Arms Race Benefits the Conservatives at the Expense of Democracy

Former Labour MP Ian Lucas explores how politics is being warped by online surveillance, data harvesting and ruthless social media campaigning – and why opposition parties need to take action to tackle this

Dominic Cummings. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

The Online Arms Race Benefits the Conservatives at the Expense of Democracy

Former Labour MP Ian Lucas explores how politics is being warped by online surveillance, data harvesting and ruthless social media campaigning – and why opposition parties need to take action to tackle this

The Labour Party appears to be waking up to online campaigning.

When the Paymaster General, Michael Ellis, drew the short straw and was forced to defend Boris Johnson in the House of Commons over the “bring your own booze!” lockdown party in Downing Street, Labour dispatched a Facebook advert targeted at Ellis’s constituents – asking why he was spending his time defending the Prime Minister’s antics.

Labour has, according to Facebook, spent £1,435,070 on Facebook adverts since November 2018. With individual candidates itemised separately, the overall figure for spending by the party will be much higher.

This technique was used effectively by the Conservatives in the same period, not least during the 2019 General Election campaign. Johnson decided that he would forgo as many television interviews as possible – including being grilled by Andrew Neil – and instead disseminated a video via Facebook to his target audiences, showing him driving a JCB (incidentally, a firm owned by Conservative donors) through a polystyrene road block signed ‘Get Brexit Done’.

Of course, save for the party political broadcasts, no such advert could ever be shown on television during a general election campaign. But online, the same rules do not apply. Much like social events in Downing Street, online campaigns are – largely – an un-policed world.

Guess which individual political candidates have spent the most on Facebook advertising in the past two years? You may not have heard of Andy Street or Ben Houchen, the Conservative Mayors for the West Midlands and Teesside, but they have spent £104,248 and £69,824 respectively on Facebook promotions since November 2018, which includes their successful re-election campaign periods.

This information is published on Facebook’s transparency pages, introduced after political pressure from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, of which I was a member. Prior to the introduction of these transparency pages, it was virtually impossible to see how much had been spent by political candidates on Facebook adverts, and the messages they were disseminating.

Preserving the Status Quo

The Conservatives know the effectiveness of online campaigns. For these adverts are not just targeted geographically, they are now targeted individually, based on data about the online habits of voters – with advertisers and parties inferring which issues are most likely to influence a person’s vote from what they have gathered and observed.

Historically, the law in the UK always distinguished between political advertising and other advertising. So, in the UK, it was decided that we didn’t want political adverts on TV and the self-regulating Advertising Standards Authority also decided that it would not include political advertising in its remit.

However, online advertising has fallen between large gaps and, today, anything goes on social media.

You may therefore think that when an Elections Bill and a draft Online Safety Bill are before Parliament, MPs would be addressing this anomaly and updating electoral law for the online world. But they are not.

The Government understands how much it owes to online political advertising. I discovered this from 2018 when, as a member of the DCMS Committee, I learned of its importance in elections and referendums after 2015.

In 2018, Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave campaign director in 2016, wrote to the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, saying:

“It is clear that the entire regulatory structure around national elections including data is really bad.

“There are so many contradictions, gaps, logical lacunae that it is wide open to abuse… There has been no proper audit by anybody of how the rules could be exploited by an internal or foreign force to swing close elections. These problems were not fixed for the 2017 election and I doubt they will be imminently.

“The system cannot cope with the fast changing technology.”

Cummings understood the importance of online campaigning to the Brexit referendum. It was so important that he risked breaking electoral law to win. Less than two weeks before the election, he wrote to a Vote Leave donor saying: “We’ve now got all the money we can spend legally. You should NOT send us your £100k… Would you be willing to send your £100k to some social media ninjas who could spend it usefully on behalf of this organisation? I am very confident it would be spent well in the final crucial five days.”

The Electoral Commission found that such collusion was unlawful.

Cummings also explained what Vote Leave did with its money: “We spent a lot of money on Facebook. We derived from our polling an idea about crucial people to target. We then used Facebook’s advertising platform to run experimental ads at targeted audiences. We measured what worked. We then put as much money as we could behind the most effective ones over the last two to three weeks.”

I wanted to cross-examine Cummings on his use of Facebook and his sources of data for Vote Leave when he was appointed as a chief advisor to Boris Johnson, when he became Prime Minister, in July 2019. But Cummings did not want to talk.

He had been found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to give evidence in 2018. The cover-up continued and Johnson blocked the committee from questioning Cummings on his 2018 correspondence with the Electoral Commission, refusing to direct Cummings to co-operate with a parliamentary committee. Despite his prolixity on other matters, Cummings now remains conspicuously silent on election law and the use of online political advertising.

Perhaps he knows that the Conservatives benefit from the status quo. In the arms race of online advertising spending, the Tories will always win. Moreover, political campaigns are now constant, not just limited to traditional campaign periods. The cost of them is, however, unregulated at present for the period outside elections.

We have also never asked voters if they want information gleaned from surveillance of their online activities to be used for political purposes. The result is that, in a political world where online campaigns take precedence, those campaigns are, unlike television campaigns, barely regulated.

The space for open debate has shrunk and silos of opinion are created and reinforced through these adverts, which play on our emotions, leading to increased polarisation in our politics and society.

We need to discuss these issues and how they are affecting democratic debate. The longer we wait, the less likely it is that confidence in our politics can be rebuilt. This is an aim that all political parties in a liberal democracy should share.

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