“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.
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.
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).
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.
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
- 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.
- 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)
- 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:
- Using DuckDuckGo instead of Google search
- Using Firefox instead of Chrome
- Using Pixelfed instead of Instagram
- Using Mastodon (Wales has its own host, toot.wales) instead of Twitter
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.
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
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