Menu

Category: Brexit

Sept 20/ The digital threat to Wales’ democracy

“our data are our stories. When our data are manipulated, distorted, stolen, exploited, or misused, our communities are stifled, obstructed, or repressed, and our ability to self-determine and prosper is systematically controlled” (1)

The UK story

The story of the 2010s can – to a significant extent – be told by the exploitation of private data, unwittingly harvested from individuals, to allow falsehoods to be directly targeted at those most susceptible. 

From the perspective of the citizens of Wales, the biggest systemic impact of the decade was Brexit. It will likely be the biggest impact, potentially eclipsing even the extraordinary social impact of coronavirus, for decades to come.

One of a series of adverts displaying a false dilemma during the campaign on voting to change the electoral system for elections to the UK Parliament.

Although the deliberate false dilemma (2) has been used numerous times in election campaigns prior to the Brexit vote (notably by those responsible for running the Vote Leave campaign), it was hitherto not possible to target such advertising to the individual. It generally appeared in the traditional press, on billboards and in other public places.

Techniques became available through the 2010s which allowed advertising to be targeted to an astonishing level of detail; never before was so much falsehood directed with such accuracy. Animal-lovers were targeted with images of bullfighting and encouraged to sign up to the vote leave campaign. People hostile to immigration were targeted with (false) images of Turkey joining the EU. The EU was even falsely accused of wanting to ‘kill our cuppa’ – whatever that means.


A false dilemma advert for the Brexit campaign, presumably targeted geographically or by origin of the individual viewing it. Note the £350 million figure again, presumably ‘spent’ in hundreds of different ways during the campaign depending on the advert recipient.

In presenting issues of extraordinary complexity, in such a simplistic, binary and dishonest way, the leave campaign was able to provide strong messaging in a way that caused people to act; to sign up, to part with their personal data, and often to become activists. This messaging contrasted with a more nuanced, and highly flawed, attempt to persuade people that their interests were better served by remaining in the EU – something that will almost certainly be borne out by the reality of the consequences of the vote to leave.

One of the most astonishingly brazen acts of data collection was with the launch of a £50m competition – statistically almost impossible to win – which was free to enter, and which was promoted by household names, including Ian Botham (3).

Ian Botham was happy to become the face of the project to harvest – effectively for free – the contact details of hundreds of thousands of competition participants

In order to qualify for the competition, the user had to submit personal information, including contact details. It was the perfect, albeit ethically dubious, way for a campaign to move from a database of zero to potentially hundreds of thousands within a very short timeframe.

While we have yet to know in what way the impacts of Brexit will play out for our families and communities, we do know that the methods of campaigning deployed with such devastating impact during the Brexit referendum are likely to be refined and re-deployed in future elections and referendum campaigns.

So what does that mean for us here in Wales?

The threat to Wales

At the moment any existential threat to Wales’ democracy seems fanciful. The increasing powers of the Senedd (4) have been endorsed in consecutive referenda. Public levels of confidence in our legislative body are extremely high compared with attitudes towards Westminster (5), an attitude which has been bolstered by a visible difference in how the rules governing behaviour during the coronavirus outbreak were implemented in Wales compared to England.

However, those of us who are strong supporters of a powerful and independent Senedd would do well to consider what could happen if and when the attention of the masters of manipulation social media turn their attention to elections in Wales. Should they wish to create or support a campaign to dismantle the Senedd, can any of us assert with confidence that our institutions are invulnerable? Could a package of misinformation, targeted to trigger the innermost hopes or fears of millions of users of social media in Wales, result in the activating of large swathes of our hitherto non-voting population agreeing with messages such as:

  • “Better funding Welsh schools or an expensive talking shop (referring to the Senedd)”
  • “More nurses in Wales’ hospitals or an expensive talking shop”
  • “A strong Welsh culture and language or an expensive talking shop”
  • “A new transport system or an expensive talking shop”

(It will be interesting to see how the Conservative party’s Welsh branch, supported with digital marketing expertise from party headquarters performs in the 2021 Senedd elections. My hunch is that they will considerably overperform against current polling, and that the change will happen in the month or two prior to the vote, concomitant with a digital campaign.)

Unfortunately the threat to a well-financed digital media campaign informed by huge troves of data obtained from the citizens of Wales is not easy to mitigate. The Electoral Commission has shown itself to be toothless in the face of law-breaking with regard to referendums and elections (6). Fines of tens of thousands of pounds are meaningless in the context of shifts of power between political parties, or on matters of great constitutional significance. With the UK Government profoundly unconcerned by reports of Russian interference in the last General Election (7), we now hear that the Electoral Commission itself is on the list of organisations threatened with extinction (8)

What of digital protection? Outside the EU we are no longer covered by the GDPR. Whilst the UK is almost certain to legislate in some form to protect the interests of the individual, I believe it unlikely that the Government will strengthen protection for our citizens over and above the privileges that we enjoyed as EU citizens.

In other words, the conditions are potentially ripe for individuals or organisations wishing to turn back the devolutionary clock in Wales.

The solution?

A threat this complex, well-resourced and intangible is not easy to manage. With little prospect of protection for our elections – and the way that campaigns are managed – from a UK Government which is demonstrably dismissive of devolved institutions (9), the answer will lie within Wales itself, and will require a strategic and long-term approach, coincidentally the approach mandated by the Act for the Well-being of Future Generations. 

Very briefly, some elements of defence against the current social media dominance would include

  1. Education; this needs to start early – ideally before children have become comfortable with the idea of ‘sharing’ their personal data without an understanding of the value of that data, and of the potential consequences from so doing. However the education needs to go for beyond schools, and into civil society. Agents of education will be needed in many different spheres of public life.
  2. Promotion of platforms which provide similar functionality but which respect privacy and data, and do not allow advertising or the sale of user data. There is an ethical, open source alternative to many existing social media platforms, and good resources describing how to subscribe to them (such as switching.software)
  3. The adoption of ethical alternative platforms by the institutions of Welsh Government and governance, in order to demonstrate their understanding of the issues surrounding existing structures, and to visibly support the fledgling open source platforms with the gravitas of their institutions

Unless the users of corporate social media platforms vote with their feet and start really ‘taking back control’, we will end up feeding the digital corporations with the revenue and data which enables them to exert almost unrestricted power and influence over our democratic processes.

And, ultimately, over our democratic institutions themselves.

Some first practical steps

The process of moving towards a privacy and democracy-respecting digital workflow does not have to be overly complicated. It can start with steps as simple as the following:

David Clubb, a Partner at Afallen, is a moderator on the toot.wales instance of Mastodon (an open source version of Twitter), and is able to provide training and support for organisations starting on their journey to a more sustainable and democracy-supporting use of digital technology and social media.

Bibliography

1.     Lewis T, Gangadharan S, Saba M, Petty T. Digital defense playbook: Community power tools for reclaiming data. Detroit: Our Data Bodies;

2.     False dilemma. In: Wikipedia [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Sep 3]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=False_dilemma&oldid=968609618

3.     correspondent ASP. Vote Leave launches £50m football prediction competition. The Guardian [Internet]. 2016 May 27 [cited 2020 Sep 3]; Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/27/vote-leave-launches-50m-football-prediction-competition-euro-2016

4.     Referendum 2011 [Internet]. Welsh Parliament. [cited 2020 Sep 3]. Available from: https://senedd.wales/en/gethome/elections-referenda/Pages/referendum-2011.aspx

5.     Over twice as many trust Welsh Parliament as trust Westminster to look after the interests of Wales [Internet]. Nation.Cymru. 2020 [cited 2020 Sep 3]. Available from: https://nation.cymru/news/over-twice-as-many-trust-welsh-parliament-as-trust-westminster-to-look-after-the-interests-of-wales/

6.     Vote Leave fined and referred to the police for breaking electoral law [Internet]. [cited 2020 Sep 3]. Available from: https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/media-centre/vote-leave-fined-and-referred-police-breaking-electoral-law

7.     Sabbagh D, Harding L, Roth  and A. Russia report reveals UK government failed to investigate Kremlin interference. The Guardian [Internet]. 2020 Jul 21 [cited 2020 Sep 3]; Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/21/russia-report-reveals-uk-government-failed-to-address-kremlin-interference-scottish-referendum-brexit

8.     correspondent PWP. Tory plan to scrap election watchdog ‘undermines democracy’. The Guardian [Internet]. 2020 Aug 31 [cited 2020 Sep 3]; Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/aug/31/tory-plans-to-scrap-election-watchdog-undermines-democracy

9.     Written Statement: Welsh Government’s analysis of the UK Government’s negotiating mandate for the Future Relationship with the EU [Internet]. GOV.WALES. [cited 2020 Sep 3]. Available from: https://gov.wales/written-statement-welsh-governments-analysis-uk-governments-negotiating-mandate-future-relationship

June 20 / A long road: 2021 targets for CO2 emissions in the EU

The European Environment Agency (EEA), my former employer, has published the latest in the series of reports about CO2 emissions for new vans and cars.

As shown in the graph below, there is a big mismatch between the trendline and the 2021 target which requires a very substantial drop in average emissions. Perhaps the manufacturers are banking on the continuing ‘march’ of the low-emission vehicle?

A recent upturn in the average values reflects an increasing predilection for SUVs for EU citizens. This is a shame from the perspective of climate policy; they are generally heavier and less efficient.

The shockwaves of #Dieselgate continue to reverberate, with another fall in diesel registrations – 9% decrease in the last year to 36% of the total market – bringing the total decline to 19% since the peak year of 2011.

The glimmer of hope is that the market share for hybrid and Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) has increased from 1% to 2% from 2016 to 2018. Continued exponential growth may yet bring transport emissions on track.

Real-world testing

The wheels of regulation turn slowly. Although it was common knowledge that the manufacturers ‘gamed’ the energy efficiency tests, nothing could be done about it due to the power of the manufacturer lobby in Brussels.

Dieselgate finally tipped the power balance in favour of the regulators, and ‘real world’ conditions will be required from 2021.

The UK’s place

With the UK having left the EU, and looking as though it will ‘crash out’ with no deal, it seems likely that this will be the last time that ‘our’ statistics are included as part of the EEA’s work.

Whether this leads to a reduction in CO2 requirements in the UK is unclear. The UK Government appears paralysed between wanting to ‘act’ on CO2, and grimly understanding that there will be horrific economic consequences from leaving the EU without a deal at the end of the year. Maybe they will want to toss regulations out of the window in order to ‘cut costs’ (which in reality will just shift the burden to the population at large and reduce costs to the polluter)? Or maybe Michael Gove was telling the truth when he challenged the EU to an environmental race.

Words are cheap. Action has meaning. This Government has so far shown a distinct preference for the former.

Wales’ place?

As usual, Wales has very little say in what happens to this line of regulation in future, which is a UK matter. If the UK Government decide that they want to (indirectly) reward polluters by weakening the environmental requirements for new vehicles, there is nothing that the Welsh Government can do to stop it, despite there being a direct inherent contradiction with both the Act for the Well-being of Future Generations, and the constitutional obligation to sustainability.

So, as usual, we’ll just have to cross our fingers and suck up whatever’s decided the other end of the M4.

Jan 20 / A love letter to the European Union

Dear European Union,

My relationship with you began on the day I was born, in the mid 1970s. As with all relationships, ours has evolved as we have grown together.

I was unaware of you, even as I travelled with my family to visit other Member States during my childhood, and into my teens. We went camping in France, took a bus to Italy (what an adventure that was!), and enjoyed an exchange visit to the north of Spain with our local outdoor education centre in Merthyr.

Through my early academic career I worked with fellow EU citizens in two of the UK’s finest academic institutions – I refer of course to Lancaster and Nottingham Universities – and I took cycling holidays through Norway, Sweden and Denmark one summer, and through Portugal, Spain and France the next.

It never occurred to me then to think about visa-free travel, or visa-free work, or the right to live and love in different countries. Why would it? I was merely exercising a right I had held my whole life. In the words of Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

I left academia to enter the world of renewable energy – starting with a job in the south of Spain, and continuing with work in Machynlleth, Bristol, Newcastle, and Copenhagen. In each of these jobs I worked on or with European projects – in Machynlleth I was a partner in four projects simultaneously – and in Denmark I had the privilege of working for a European Agency, the European Environment Agency.

I learnt hugely from my colleagues from the sisterhood of European countries. Yes, from colleagues within the UK, but also from every country in the European Union and beyond.

In 2012 I left Denmark to return to Wales, where I still live today. Wales – you will know this – was a huge recipient of structural funds from the European Union. I suspect that we will come to regret placing our trust in the campaign to leave the European Union. Replete with impossible promises, sweet poison and lies, we will now turn to Westminster, in its wisdom, to ensure that our farmers are able to maintain their custodianship of land and language; that our environment maintains its safeguards so we may fulfill our obligations to the ecology on which we depend. Although Wales maintains a measure of agency due to our Senedd, I fear that the promises of ‘not a penny lost’ will prove to be as empty as the plans for the manner of our exit on the morning after – that terrible morning – the referendum.

I will regret the barriers that will – almost inevitably – be erected to trade in agriculture and fisheries, which will impact so heavily on our small, family-owned farms and fishing businesses. I will also regret the impediments to travel and live within our continent, and particularly the increased challenges faced by families in living with their loved ones. It saddens me that we now require our fellow (ex-fellow) citizens to apply for certification to live in our country – at their expense, of course.

But most of all I grieve for the young people who will face financial and administrative barriers to enjoy living and working amidst the many pleasures of our wonderful continent. Of course, many will still find a way to do so. But doubtless many will be put off by the change in our relationship, and the UK will be the poorer for that.

In finishing this letter, I want you to know that I wish I had done more to demonstrate your value to my fellow citizens. In some tiny way, I am also to blame for this break-up. My promise to you is that I will do everything in my power to help bring the UK back to the family of countries that is the European Union. If that path is one based on the United Kingdom joining as a state of four constituent countries, I would be delighted. If a different path seems more likely – a path that includes these four UK countries going their separate ways – then I will do what I can to ensure that Wales plays its part as an enthusiastic and responsible member of the European Union.

I love EU. One day we will be reunited.