Anonymous Mole: What the British Left have in common with the Taliban? A firm grasp of digital campaigning

10 Sep

As Preston Byrne, a legal fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, pointed out a few weeks ago, the Taliban had been quietly preparing the citizens of Afghanistan for their takeover via WhatsApp for a good while before it actually happened.

But they’re not the only radical forces who make proficient use of technology to organise – our own home-grown loonies are doing the same thing over on this side of the world too, albeit in quite a different way.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) has a comprehensive network of people in place to ‘support’ their members who are arrested – for behaving disgracefully, generally-speaking – which is all co-ordinated over WhatsApp and with the aid of a ‘back office’.

Using a map of local police stations and a veritable patchwork of WhatsApp groups around the country (all wide open), they have a vast operation in place to ensure maximum peace of mind for anyone who gets arrested. There’s even an hour’s worth of online training on all this for people to familiarise themselves with!

After all, you’ll feel a lot more confident chaining yourself to the nearest available railing if you know that dozens or even hundreds of people have got your back, won’t you?

Why worry about causing considerable criminal damage to someone else’s property, like smashing their windows in, if you know that ‘Police Station Support’ will be coming to your aid?

And forming part of a human chain that’s blocking an ambulance from getting to an innocent person in desperate need is far more of a breeze when you can be sure there’ll be someone to provide ‘emotional support’ and find you somewhere to stay after your outrageous ordeal of being held to account by the state for your own iniquitous behaviour, isn’t it?

Nor are Extinction Rebellion the only people on the Left who make some very effective use of online tools to maintain their movement’s integrity. Two years ago, Momentum had a tool called My Campaign Map (pretty blank nowadays), which performed much the same function as XR’s one. During the last General Election campaign, you could type in your postcode and it would show you your nearest marginal seat to go and campaign in.

There were also plenty of WhatsApp groups to join to help organise the activism, and there was the ‘Labour Legends’ initiative, whereby activists would be matched up with hosts in a marginal seat to put them up for a couple of weeks while they went out on the streets every day to campaign.

(Shame none of that came to much… all of that annual leave might have been put to better use not being a nuisance to ordinary folk who’d rather not see a terrorist-sympathiser in Number 10!)

But of course, there’s plenty more mischief you can get up to that’s co-ordinated online too – such as planning a mass betting initiative in a bid to swing the election result, or getting all your activists to distribute illegal leaflets… and none of it with a shred of conscience.

All of these kinds of tactics probably feel pretty justifiable if you believe you’re part of a mass movement to ‘save the world’ – the notion that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions doesn’t seem to have caught on with this lot.

Then again, as we can see from a recent XR event, the kinds of people who genuinely seem to believe that ‘celebrating global art, music, food, dance and stories in the UK’ is somehow going to do anything at all to ‘take action against climate breakdown’, while leaving behind another 120 tons of rubbish, were probably never going to have all that much going on upstairs.

Hippies always did think they could change the world with their music, though – it’s just that we used to pay a lot less attention to them, back when the world was a good deal less crazy.

 

In fairness, it’s not as though you can blame these people – or anyone else – for using any tools they can get their hands on to co-ordinate their movement’s activities. Indeed, the planning and effort that goes into it is quite extraordinary. But it does seem striking how it’s pretty much only the one side of politics that does this, and hardly ever the other.

Perhaps if the ordinary folk with some common sense who just want to get on with their lives could do much the same kind of thing to counter it, the online battlefield between Left and Right would be a lot more level. At the moment, there is no answer to the Left’s considerable organisational capacity from the other side.

I happen to know the MoD believes that whichever side can make the best use of digital technology will win the next war. Let’s hope that doesn’t play out on the political battlefield too.

John Moss: Digital campaigning must be constant. Not just for a few weeks before an election.

25 May

John Moss is a Councillor in Waltham Forest and works as a Campaign Manager at the College Green Group in Westminster. He was Sir Iain Duncan Smith’s Constituency Chairman at the last General Election.

Henry Hill makes valid points in his piece about how easy it is for council and parliamentary seats to slip away if they are not given constant attention. However, I think his appeal to CCHQ for action may be misplaced.

My experience as Sir Iain Duncan Smith’s Chairman after the 2017 election was of a CCHQ that was extremely supportive of our efforts to retain the seat, and whilst sometimes that involved the constituency doing what CCHQ wanted, there was reciprocity.

Working with the CCHQ team, I was able to secure support for targeted surveys, and as a result we considerably strengthened the digital arsenal available for IDS’s re-election campaign. This style of “incumbency campaigning” is now the norm, and the opportunities for it are many. For example, I am currently promoting a campaign to MPs to help them show public support where councils in their seats are making Levelling Up Fund applications. Not only does this highlight a popular Conservative policy to the voters, it also captures data which can be used in future election campaigns.

Next year, 147 Councils in England will hold elections. Many of these would usually hold elections every year – the delay to the 2020 elections has meant that it was the first time these councils did not hold a vote. The downside of this cycle is the perpetuation of a pattern; immediately after an election, teams are too exhausted to campaign and may be preoccupied with settling into new council roles. Then it’s summer and the holidays, then conference, then it becomes too cold to canvass. Christmas comes and goes, and suddenly it’s a mad panic, with thousands of leaflets to deliver and doors to knock in a short space of time. This can mean that by Polling Day, everyone is exhausted once again…

This is clearly an over-simplification, but consistent motivation is an inherent challenge of being a voluntary movement. Teams have lives outside of politics, we work, we have families and friends. We like to ski or lie on beaches. There is a danger that in the seats and councils thought to be ‘safe’, incumbents slip into a complacent mindset, only to be usurped by a better organised and motivated opposition. These are the cracks Henry highlights, which can quickly widen into chasms and result in parliamentary seats being lost.

In this digital age, constituents expect their elected representatives to be regularly available and in constant contact with them. They are not the loyal Tory, Labour, or Lib-Dem voters they might once have been. They are fickle, and may change allegiance if they feel ignored or taken for granted.

Maintaining a high level of contact with electors is proven to deliver results at council level, and where turnout is low, this can mean the difference between winning and losing. Historically this took the form of leafleting and canvassing, door-to-door or by phone, but increasingly leaflets go straight in the recycling and fewer people are willing to engage with canvassers. This is where digital tools become game changers.

I recently ran an online petition across two wards about an unpopular housing development, securing over 600 responses and gathering more than 400 voting intentions. The vast majority of people also gave us emails, phone numbers, and permission to contact them. To gather that kind of data from door-to-door or phone canvassing could take upwards of 50 hours, with what I suspect would be very few contact details obtained.

The data gathered was all GDPR/TPS compliant. Together with other data gathered from similar campaigns, this enabled us to send almost 10,000 GOTV emails in support of a by-election candidate and our GLA candidate up to and on Polling Day. We also had a solid bank of over 600 telephone numbers to call in the by-election ward, which we held with a swing to us, compared with the 2018 elections.

Looking to next year, councils can easily see their message lost behind that of the government. A dedicated council group website with supporting social media platforms is an investment. It can host online surveys and petitions, while also being the platform on which to showcase your policies and your candidates all year long, not just during the election period. Making that investment now will allow the cost to be spread over a longer period, meaning minimal impact on your legal expenses limit, and is a sensible part of planning for those elections next year.

So, however tired you are after this month’s elections, I urge you to think now about preparation for next year’s elections. It is never too early to prepare to win.

Esther McVey: We should honour our manifesto commitment to close the digital divide. Especially during this time of Covid.

3 Dec

Esther McVey is a former Work and Pensions Secretary, and is MP for Tatton.

The country has just entered what is essentially a third lockdown. Ninety-nine per cent of the population is now in the highly restrictive Tier Two or Three until early February, along with all the huge damage that will continue to bring to people’s mental health and livelihoods. So it is desperately important that everyone is able to connect online.

Covid has speeded up the digital revolution that would have evolved over a longer period of time. GP appointments, business meetings and education have rapidly moved to online, and millions of us have stayed in touch by using video services for the first time. It is becoming more and more essential for people to be able to get online with a reliable online connection for vital day-to-day services like banking and shopping. Yet many are being left behind.

According to research by the Good Things Foundation, nine million people who struggle to use the internet independently have been locked out of this digital economy and are being left behind. Nearly 200,000 children in the UK have almost no connectivity at home, and had no hope of getting an education whilst schools were shut, and 23 per cent of children from the poorest families do not have access to broadband at home.

This digital poverty is hitting society’s most vulnerable the hardest. Millions of people have become completely disconnected from 2020 society, and if we want to kickstart our economy, and start digging our way out of the enormous economic difficulties we’re in, we need every part of our country and economy able to make the most of these enormous opportunities online, rather than leaving millions of people on the other side of the digital divide without internet access or training.

The Conservative Party pledged during the last general election to bring world class gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025. Despite the widespread availability of the so-called “super fast” broadband, many parts of country are experiencing quite the opposite: unreliable connectivity and slow speeds, especially in rural areas.

Many of my constituents in Tatton and across Cheshire have been told that their properties do not qualify for commercial rollout of broadband. Across my constituency, broadband accessibility varies from street to street, and in Tatton, only six per cent of my constituents’ homes and businesses currently have access to full fibre broadband. This postcode lottery is only reinforcing the digital divide and exacerbating digital poverty.

So it was particularly concerning to me that the Chancellor’s Spending Review quietly ditched the commitment for 100 per cent gigabit capability by 2025 and slashed the financial support for it by three quarters from £5 billion to £1.2 billion. Whilst the new £4 billion “levelling up fund” is welcome, rolling out broadband would itself facilitate social mobility, so this seems a wasted opportunity.

So I am calling on the government to do two things, which I will be raising in the House of Commons today as part of the Blue Collar Conservative campaign on fixing the digital divide.

First, we must honour our manifesto commitments to the millions of people across this country who put their trust in our Party, and commit once again to delivering full fibre by 2025. NHS Test and Trace relies on dependable broadband, as do the 1.62 million people (and rising) unemployed who have to use the Universal Credit benefit system, and my constituents’ quality of life is dependent on this internet access.

Second, if we’re going to lock people down again for the next two months, and ask people to work from home and isolate from family and friends, they must get the tools and the training so that they can stay both socially and economically active. We have suggested investment in a new “digital catch up scheme” which is ready to be implemented immediately and could allow everyone, whatever their background, the opportunity to make the most of their potential whilst life has to be spent online.

We were elected last year to “level up” opportunity throughout the country. Blue Collar Conservatives all over the Britain know that there’s as much genius and talent in the north as anywhere else, and our Party’s task is to ensure everyone has the opportunity to break free and make the most of those talents, and not be held back by their background, and not have to move south to fulfil their ambitions.

The levelling up agenda depends upon nation-wide digital inclusivity. If we give up on this manifesto commitment, fail to invest in our digital infrastructure, and refuse to take the urgent action necessary to level up and fix the digital divide, we will be trying to deliver the levelling up agenda with one hand held behind our back.

The Department for Digital, Housing, Communities and Local Government itself said that digital equality “can help mitigate some of the deep social inequalities derived from low incomes, poor health, limited skills or disabilities”.

These repeated lockdowns in 2020 will leave a lasting legacy. But as painful as the year has been, we have seen an unprecedented mass movement online, which has brought with it many innovations which will shape our lives and the way we work forever.

So it is more important than ever that we turn our attention to the number one infrastructure project as we move forward: digital connectivity and digital inclusivity. We must redouble our efforts to roll out full fibre broadband, whilst at the same time fixing the digital divide. Not doing so would betray the very communities this government was elected to deliver for.

Kate Dommett and Sam Power: We must act now to protect our elections from foreign interference

25 Sep

Dr Kate Dommett (University of Sheffield), and Dr Sam Power (University of Sussex) are the authors of Democracy in the Dark: Digital Campaigning in the 2019 General Election and Beyond.

Only now are we beginning to get the real picture of what campaign spending looked like in the 2019 election. Our new analysis shows that the £19.5 million the Conservatives raised in this period is greater than the sum total of reported donations to all political parties in 2017 during the same pre-poll period (that stood at nearly £18.7 million).

Where did it go? The official spending returns aren’t yet out. But we can catch glimpses through social media giants’ ad archives.

Digital campaigning is a big business. We estimate that spending on social media platforms increased by over 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2017. Of this, the three main UK-wide parties spent around £6 million on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google.

While Facebook was used by all three national parties to a relatively equal extent, the Conservatives invested dramatically more in Google (which includes YouTube). The advertising archives suggest the party spent £1,765,500, dwarfing the combined spend of £873,300 made by Labour and the Liberal Democrat accounts on this platform.

Yet despite these large numbers, online spend by parties made up only a fraction of the total political ad spend overall. Why? Because we are seeing the rise of the ‘outrider’. These so-called ‘non-party campaigns’ often spring up in and around elections – with the public in the dark about how they are funded, and by who. In 2010 there were 18 of these bodies registered with the Electoral Commission; by 2015 that number had nearly doubled to 30, and last year the figure had doubled again to 64.

While digital campaigning has huge, positive potential to reach out to voters, there is much we don’t know about who is behind online content. This has led to urgent calls for change.

Many of you will be familiar with the practice of putting ‘imprints’ on printed campaign materials. Bizarrely, 15 years after the launch of Facebook in the UK, there’s still no such rule for online material meaning the provenance of these ‘outriders’ is often not widely known.

In this transparency vacuum, social media giants’ have set up their own online ad archives, allowing us a glimpse of the scale of campaigning. But anyone who has used them will know they are insufficient, error-riddled, and often too vague to be useful. Often, we just don’t know who’s targeting us online.

Analysis presented in the report coded data from Facebook to identify 88 UK organisations as non-party campaign groups active during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at a calculated cost of £2,711,452. Facebook knows who they targeted and why, but they provide only limited information about this in the archive. This makes it impossible to know what exactly is happening, and suggests a need for more transparency.

Whilst the government has rightly pledged to implement online imprints, this remains out for consultation. Whatever the result, it only scratches the surface. We have revisited the many inquiries that have been explored the issue of digital campaigning to highlight a number of simple and proportionate recommendations to protect a free and transparent debate, around which there is broad and cross-party consensus.

The need for online imprints – and soon – is clear. However, currently donations under £500 are not classed as such, meaning foreign actors could split up donations into smaller amounts to shift our political debate. Companies funding political interventions only have to generate a nominal amount of income in the UK. A simple change in law could clarify that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Given concerns about Russian interference, this kind of enshrined principle is vital.

Many of the recommendations in this report echo existing calls to modernise electoral law to help rebuild trust in our democratic system. It’s why the report has been backed by Cheryl Gillan. As she notes, we need honest conversations about the need for “more transparency in the money spent on campaigning in the electoral process, particularly in the light of the rapidly developing digital world”. Despite the huge growth of online ads, what was spent on digital campaigning is far from clear.

“We must continue to examine how we can ensure we have free and fair elections and what changes are necessary to our laws as technology continues to advance,” Dame Cheryl writes.

We cannot leave our electoral integrity in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley giants. Unfortunately, recent years have seen parties and campaigners become even more cautious about disclosing information about their campaign activities online.

Maintaining transparency needs an independent regulator, which is why we are concerned by threats to abolish the Electoral Commission if it cannot be ‘radically overhauled’. The ICO has major clout to investigate alleged wrongdoing when it comes to our data. We must give the same – if not more – gravity to our free elections.

With elections due to take place across the UK in May 2021, we cannot let the urgent task of ensuring our electoral integrity be kicked into the long grass once more, or set-backwards through the rash dismantling of our watchdog.

At present, it is exceedingly difficult if not impossible to uphold the fundamental principles of our democracy: of openness, transparency, and public trust. Digital campaigning has the potential to be hugely positive – provided we don’t let secrecy rule the day.