They didn't swing Brexit. In fact, most of them seem to be German. But make no mistake: they’re real, they’re over here and they’re spreading poisonby James Ball / January 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
The UK is trying to govern 21st-century election campaigns with 20th-century laws and regulations. Election rules in the UK spell out in excruciating detail how spending should be allocated between national and local campaigns on leaflets, billboards and more. They describe how office space should be allocated as a campaign cost and set precise limits on local campaign spending, at a rate of pennies per voter.
The rules are meticulous. But they belong to a pre-internet era and so fail to properly tackle the most important activity of modern political campaigns—engaging voters on social media. In 2015, the Conservative Party spent £1.2m on highly-targeted Facebook adverts. In 2016’s referendum, Vote Leave directly spent £2.7m on targeted Facebook adverts. A further £800,000 was spent on Facebook adverts via third-party campaigners—donations which are now subject to a formal Electoral Commission investigation.
The regulator has in recent times found itself busy, having probed 30 Tory MPs about 2015 spending, it is currently investigating the Labour sub-group Momentum over its activity in 2017’s elections.
The UK’s political battles have moved on to the web. The reach of any given online advert is impossible to gauge, except for the organisation promoting it. But according to those who worked on Labour’s 2017 online advertising strategy, it reached eight million voters in a day. Its huge online supporter base reached millions more with hyper-partisan pro-Corbyn, anti-Tory messages.
The intended target of social media ads is difficult for outsiders to know, and the message itself will often be invisible to anyone who isn’t targeted. This allows the worst kind of “dog-whistle” campaigning. Defining what counts as an advert, too, can be impossible: if a Facebook page builds up a huge following through paid promotion, then releases (unpaid) political messages during a campaign, that doesn’t count as paid advertising under existing rules. This enables much propaganda to wriggle around the rules.
That is just one of many dozens of legal loopholes. Another is the use of “bots” (a type of software capable of autonomously performing actions such as tweeting, retweeting, liking or direct messaging other accounts) or other fake social media accounts, to amplify messages.
Given how often tweets and other social media comments make…