Dear Boris, where’s my democracy? — Facebook allows us to construct our lives online, but its dark side enables tech syndicates to back shady politicians all in an effort to hijack democracy.
Joseph Douglas was scrolling through his phone, tackling a blistery Waterloo Bridge towards his university, when a Facebook ad made him pause: “We need an immigration system that ensures British young people more jobs.” Astonishment, he recalled himself feeling as he relayed his experience to me. As the date of the Brexit referendum drew closer, he received increasingly more Vote Leave adverts as though his identity was deliberately exploited and targeted.
Many people, like Joseph, have felt their phone can read their mind and deliver information directly into the palm of their hands. And they are spot-on. Tech platforms are where our lives are digitally constructed. Through online activity – scrolling, clicking, watching – we have created a data profile of ourselves. An autobiography up for grabs for anyone who wants it. Notably, political parties have taken advantage of our ‘data-selves’ for their own political gain. Joseph, a young student from the north, has never left England nor owns a passport, received numerous anti-immigration ads ridden with subvert xenophobia. Here, political microtargeting is to blame. But are we okay with it?
In whichever way you understand ‘data’, it is obvious there is an increasing volume of it. Unknowingly, tech companies have curated the perfect marketing tool for government and private sectors to exploit our interests. And that’s exactly what they are doing. “The danger associated to Facebook is more insidious because [it’s] tied to redefining the social experience” Paul-Olivier Dehaye, founder of PersonalData.IO comments. With the number of people active on social media on the rise, tech companies have developed a ‘microtargeting’ algorithm to;
- Calculate what content will keep you scrolling, clicking and watching and;
- Target the adverts scattered throughout that content which you are more likely to engage with.
This has now created the risk of democracy being digitally undermined.
Technological practices in public office has resulted in increasing pressure on government transparency under the aegis of the ‘open data movement’. The Electoral Commission discovered Brexit campaigns violated multiple counts of electoral law. The Vote Leave campaign headed by PM Boris Johnson, exceeded spending limit by £500,000 of tax-payer money. Vote Leave’s carefully worded denial claims the reports are “wholly inaccurate” while Scotland Yard confirmed a possible crime under section 123(4) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is being investigated.
The BeLeave campaign spent over £675,000 with the digital data company Aggregate.IQ to capitalise on your data. The campaigns’ involvement with microtargeting has “brought psychological propaganda and technology together in this new powerful way”, say Barrister and election expert Adam Wagner. A Labour employee commented on condition of anonymity that this “technocratic approach” of the right has, “destabilised the nation”. So what does this all mean? Psychological warfare.
Microtargeting is an algorithm created and used by data analysists to construct comprehensive behavioural tracking profiles. Chances are various profiles of you exist in data bases of multiple tech companies. Data Analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, became involved with British Military through SCL group and later associated with Brexit campaigns, Vote Leave, and Leave.Eu. Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate.IQ are then effectively part of British military yet exist outside British jurisdiction. Their main goal was to capture every tiny aspect of every voter’s information environment. This political microtargeting is understood in terms of exercising military strategies on a citizen populace. This was done through exploiting Facebook’s ad targeting algorithm, allowing Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate.IQ to obtain users’ ‘personality data’, bequeathing no objection from the public.
The unethically acquired material thus enabled analysts to categorise UK citizens as either ‘persuadable’ or ‘non-persuadable’ voters during the referendum. For Joseph Douglas, a young person not necessarily politically active, was to be considered a vulnerable target. Individually crafted messaged would appear on a voter’s Facebook feed customised to exploit interests and project individualised emotional triggers to tip an election. So why do political campaigns choose this strategy? To bypass public scrutiny.
We are now in the midst of an information war. 2019 is a time where governments and private companies vie for individuals’ data. The 2016 US Presidential election saw further questionable ties to Cambridge Analytica including past employees working in the elected Trump Administration. This large interconnected web traces the narrative of political malfeasance; billionaires buying companies to then ‘work’ in the heart of the government.
Though a question still remains, are we to blame? “The user is Facebooks most biased curator” says Taina Bucher, Communications and IT Professor at the University of Copenhagen. Users matter, you matter because it is your data, your online behaviour, networks, interests, and communication which feeds the data desired for algorithms and data analysts to commandeer. Facebook thus became the foundation for psychological examination, enabling Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave to target individuals. “Seems like good marketing to me”, one citizen commented.
Thus, the innocent citizen fell victim to the immense influence imposed by mainstream media. Brexit propaganda in itself greatly shaped politicians and campaigners, as factions devoted substantial effort to tailor the press agenda in their favour. Consequencially, direct digital communication is where campaigns devoted most of their resources. Vote Leave put out ‘nearly a billion targeted digital adverts’, wrote the campaign’s director Dominic Cummings, and spent around 98% of their budget on what is essentially marketing. In Vote Leave’s defence, the anonymous Labour employee commented, “I agree politics always has an element of marketing. But good policy should often stand above that”. Cummings took this technocratic idea of politics further and advised others to “hire physicists, not communications people”.
Yet, technology is not to blame. It should be made clear this misconduct lies with those in power. These algorithms are neither good nor bad but used as a catalyst by political figures to optimise their own power. Facebook is no enemy either. The social media platform adopts the ethic of continuous change where its business plan is to constantly develop and improve algorithms. Instead, data transparency of private companies and government should be encouraged.
A system of public surveillance has now been established. Data science has been twisted into a tool to manipulate masses by exploiting targeted phenomena such as nationalism, animal rights enthusiasts, climate activists and even ‘tea-culture’. This has all been the product of billionaires erecting cash rich entities to unaccountably exploit British citizens all for political gain. No objection sanctioned from those whose data has been manipulated and twisted against them, despite the same peoples’ whose lives who are undeniably affected by this catastrophe.
Britain now faces the consequences of such a manipulative and devious campaign will shape British politics for years to come. We don’t have the time or energy to critically think about what we view or how we exist online on a daily basis. But what we can do is understand the media system’s contextual nature in order to seize back public control and effectively, democracy.