We must use this moment to think not only about what needs to be done to rectify wrongs of the past but to prepare for the democratic future we needby Kyle Taylor / August 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
For a group of people who ran an entire campaign on sovereignty and belief in our country and its institutions, the irony of recent Vote Leave revelations doesn’t seem to be lost on the die-hard Brexiteers. Make no mistake, however, this is a dangerous game they’re playing—and one that speaks to a new level of desperation as their Brexit dreams begin to slip away in the face of cold, hard truth.
Of specific interest in the DCMS report, investigating allegations of “disinformation and ‘fake news’”, were images of the actual Facebook ads served by Vote Leave.
These ranged from the patently untrue—Turkey is imminently joining the EU—to the utterly bizarre: we can’t help polar bears because we’re in the EU?
The revelation of these ads made national headlines by offering the public the chance to properly scrutinise Vote Leave’s claims. In response, Dominic Cummings and the rest of the Vote Leave side closed ranks, with Cummings pre-publishing portions of the report.
The fact is, Vote Leave never intended for these ads to ever be part of a “public” discussion. They were published online only to segmented pools of people specifically targeted based on online profiling, mostly on Facebook.
While people were quick with outrage, both at the content of the ads and how they were used, few had a real understanding of how these ads are deployed and how—at present—there is likely nothing illegal at all about their use.
This is despite the fact that, as early as 2003, the Electoral Commission specifically recommended a requirement for imprints on digital ads—the same way that every election leaflet put through a letterbox must display who it’s from, who paid for it, and where you can find their offices.
The risk of micro-targeting
Further regulation is required on how ads are targeted. At the moment, micro-targeting works by selecting a group of traits about you from the basic like age or gender to the far more specific, like whether you’ve liked a political party or said you’re interested in a particular issue, and the deeply personal—like your sexual orientation and relationship status.
That information is then used to put you in a small pool of people to send adds to.
What’s so undermining about this is that nobody else on earth sees your personal facebook feed, which means there is never a possibility of a shared public discussion about the information—because you might be the only person on your street, or even in your town or city, that has seen that specific ad.
It has led to a total breakdown of shared experience of information and it’s deeply damaging to democratic societies.
It’s not too late to change things
This crisis moment has finally brought this issue to the forefront of our consciousness. But will that lead to actual change?
With both the Electoral Commission’s report and the DCMS report recommending changes, including regulating social media platforms and enforcing greater transparency in political advertising, the government needs to act swiftly. Yet there still remains a serious lack of political will for action.
What we need is a speedy, formal public inquiry—something which the Fair Voteproject are now pushing the government to do through legal channels.
Yes, as a society we’re late to the mark on this one. But we’re not too late.
Like it or not, digital advertising is here to stay and while it offers opportunities in a democracy—reaching and engaging people who may not otherwise participate—it also poses serious risks.
What happened in the referendum has raised serious concerns about the integrity of our elections. We have seen the sort of effect online advertising can have and we now have the power to change it: we must not waste this chance.
We must use this moment to think not only about what needs to be done to rectify wrongs of the past but to prepare for the democratic future we need.
This will require us to think beyond our now institutionalised Brexit boxes and acknowledge that some things are bigger than Brexit—like safeguarding our democracy. Whether or not that’s even possible, however, perhaps remains an even bigger threat to our democratic future.