Politics has long been a dirty game. Way back in 1828, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson fought in what is considered the dirtiest election ever, where the mudslinging Jackson accused Adams of providing a young virgin for the Tsar of Russia while Adams’ camp questioned Mrs Jackson’s morality.
Beyond feeling sorry for Mrs Jackson, politicians learned a vital lesson from 1828: the truth is flexible. Last year’s US election saw this taken to a new level, lies were not only commonplace, but their telling was targeted at highly specific groups.
It has since emerged that President Donald Trump’s team employed the services of Cambridge Analytica, a little-known company that was also used by the Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum.
Cambridge Analytica claims they use “big data and advanced psychographics to grow audiences, identify key influencers, and move people to action.” In practice, the company identified important and susceptible demographics of US citizens who could be manipulated and their votes swayed via the information they received on social media. Cambridge Analytica then pushed specific information onto those users’ social media feeds, information which often included fake news.
But what’s the big problem? The private sector has been using consumers’ personal data in similar ways for an age. Many of the big internet companies have built vast empires based on monetising personal data. What’s more, entire new industries, such as programmatic advertising, have grown out of a commercial desire to target and then market to people at pace and scale.
Politics must be different. The results of this targeting are more serious, they can decide presidents, swing referendums and shape history. It’s not merely a case of a customer buying some shoes they’ve been looking at, it’s a case of democracy’s foundations being shaken.
The targeting takes place on social media, where we not only find out which of our friends has been climbing Everest or getting pregnant, but also what’s going on in the wider world. While we immerse ourselves in these social networks, we are relying heavily on fewer and fewer channels for news. What’s more, we are less likely to question an article that pop-ups on social media. What happens on these feeds is our norm and our truth.
This means that our understanding of the world can be sculpted and shaped. By using sophisticated algorithms and troves of personal data to target messages at a granular level, campaigns can weave politically driven, often baseless, material into our world-view.
In our political system, which relies on informed citizens making a reasoned choice, the impact of this is huge. Cynical politicians are compromising democracy by carelessly setting a precedent for the manipulation of personal data.
In repressive nations, the consequences could be far worse. Autocratic, authoritarian regimes across the world could easily use these tactics to further oppress, control and divide, without any threat of an opposition media or outspoken public questioning the targeted nonsense.
There is a need for action and, more specifically, regulation – a call echoed by the likes of Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Is there one regulatory tool that will protect democracy? I doubt it. But there are steps that can be taken.
We cannot effectively regulate the purposes for which data is used as this would require excessive micro-regulation. Instead we need to look at increasing transparency and the rights of the individual. The General Data Protection Regulation, a landmark piece of data regulation due for May 25th 2018, is a welcome first step. It will demand that companies, charities and political parties gain explicit consent to use an individual’s data, with the individual able to remove their consent at any time.
There is also a clear need for this regulation to be applied to social media sites. While the likes of Facebook are doing their best to fight fake news, social media sites should be forced to gain users’ explicit consent for the types of data they collect and share, as well as who they intend to share it with and why.
Less tangibly, there needs to be a much higher reputational cost for parties that engage in dirty data practices. The issue needs to be a scandal, not just a troubling long read for Guardianistas. Should a UK party act like Trump’s campaign, they must receive the opprobrium of headlines, hashtags and heckles and they must pay a price at the polls.
Data and fake news are grim, dirty bedfellows but they can be fought. We need effective regulation but, most importantly, a democratic awareness and outrage. The only real way to fight the likes of Cambridge Analytica is to make political data targeting a mass vote loser, rather than a marginal vote winner.