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.

Linden Kemkaran: Our pop-up Summer Academy has been a roaring success. Let’s hope others can follow.

30 Jul

Linden Kemkaran is a writer, broadcaster and was the Conservative candidate for Bradford East in 2019.

In just three short weeks, a group of parents and teachers from Kent has achieved what most schools struggled to do in four months of lockdown: create from scratch, a free, daily, online, live, fully interactive tuition service for children aged six to 16, accessible via laptop, phone or tablet.

It’s not designed to get children ahead, its purpose is simply to plug the gaps in the core subjects and go over work that our children would have been doing, had they been at school.

Our aim is to use the next five weeks to get them ready and confident for September. It’s called the pop-up Invicta Summer Academy and we’ve tried our darndest to reach those children who need it the most. On our first day, Monday of this week, we educated 1199 children and on day two, 1250 joined our live lessons.

We did it without any help from government, local or national, and we built everything from scratch including our website and social media presence.

During the 21-day planning phase we’ve been meeting regularly via WhatsApp and Zoom while simultaneously working our day jobs either full or part-time, and juggling childcare; some of the team have used up precious annual leave. The level of hard graft and commitment from the founders and team members has been nothing short of extraordinary.

We raised funds, recruited a team of volunteers that included Zoom and tech experts, project managers, barristers, teachers, journalists and community champions, and set about organising timetables, and writing press releases.

We began with a simple idea and now, at the start of the first week of live lessons, we are totally over-subscribed – our scheduled 20,000 spaces went within days of our booking page going live – and are turning away desperate parents on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Wanting to educate hearts as well as minds, we are also running a weekly Wednesday “aim high” live showcase session featuring stars such as Lizzy Yarnold, the double Olympic champion, and, Mark Sargeant, the Michelin-starred chef, to encourage kids to ask questions and never give up on their dreams.

Even after extending our lesson capacity to 25,000, 600 parents are currently on our Zoom waiting list. The fact that a very ordinary, if hardworking, bunch of local people has pulled this off from a standing start, begs the question, why wasn’t this level of interactivity and learning happening anyway?

It all started in mid-June with a simple conversation over a socially-distanced cuppa in my friend Anna Firth’s garden. She told me how every weekday morning during lockdown, her privately-educated son had been up, dressed and at his desk at 8.20am for registration, followed by Zoom assembly, and a stringent timetable of live, interactive lessons in all his key subjects.

My jaw dropped as she described how his PE teachers even held competitive sports sessions against other schools using Zoom. Anna had naturally assumed, until she observed my gaping mouth, that all other children had been doing much the same.

I then saw on Facebook an end-of-term post from a teacher friend of mine, about how her fee-paying school had successfully completed its final Zoom lesson of a full timetable including end of term exams, and a parents’ evening, and how teachers and students alike were now anticipating a well-earned rest over the holidays.

All this was worlds apart from the lockdown experience of my grammar school daughter, and many of her state-educated peers, almost all of whom had been without a rigorous daily school structure and had had little or no live interaction with teaching staff.

I realised that since schools shut in March, I had been watching my daughter slowly lose all motivation and it was clear that she was finding it harder and harder to just get up every morning due to the complete lack of interactivity with her school and such low expectations that had been set.

A Year nine student, she would typically receive an email on a Monday morning, containing a list of tasks to be done, some with no deadlines, and others to be emailed back but which were frustratingly, hardly ever marked.

For the first two-and-a-half-months of lockdown there were no live lessons at all and when some were introduced, it was a one-way street in terms of visual interaction due to a bizarre “safeguarding” policy that I still fail to understand; on screen the child may see the teacher, but the teacher is not permitted to see the child, and the children can’t see each other.

I know that child safeguarding is really, really important and to that end we have put in place strict guidelines in our pop-up academy to pre-empt any issues. However, I still cannot get my head around the fact that from the age of four, my daughter has been physically present at a school, five days a week, 40 weeks a year, in the sole care of teachers.

These teachers, of which there have been many over the years, have been competently and cheerfully in loco parentis while I have sometimes been geographically miles, if not continents away from my daughter due to work commitments.

I simply don’t get how it is suddenly a safeguarding issue for the same trusted teachers to interact with her via a webcam for the duration of a virtual school lesson – with her parents physically in the next door room.

I poured all my frustration out to Anna Firth who shared it via a Zoom chat, with a formidable primary school teacher called Stephen James. Between the two of them they said, “we can do something about this”, and so they did and our little team was duly formed.

Our pop-up summer academy is now being rolled out in four other locations: Oxford, London, Lancashire and Surrey and I’ve just taken a call from a friend in Hampshire who wants to set up there.

The feedback so far from re-engaged pupils has been that “the lessons are fun” and parents are genuinely scratching their heads and asking why on earth their own schools, with a team of paid teachers and a ready-made register of pupils, haven’t been doing this all along.

I personally suspect that politics has played a much bigger part in this sorry episode than it should have done and there have been a number of powerful hands working the levers of the various teaching unions, attempting to disrupt Downing Street’s plans as much as possible. If state-schooled children lost out during the process, it doesn’t seem to have bothered them in the slightest.

Education is the surest way to lift children out of poverty and it seems grossly unfair that those who need the most help, have received the least during the Covid crisis. Our attempt in Kent to put this right is a start, and we hope that others will follow our lead and try to close the gap where they live too.

Shockingly, the Department of Education warns that the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to the pandemic and a poll by YouGov found that 51 per cent of teachers had pupils who had “dropped out of education altogether” during lockdown.

What’s the betting that these are the kids for whom a decent education is their one shot at a chance of a better life?

Facebook, Liz Truss and future challenges with the internet giants

3 Jul

In recent weeks, Facebook has been up against huge pressure to control hate speech and groups on its site. Much of this increased after President Donald Trump posted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, in response to protests in Minneapolis, on both Twitter and Facebook. The aftermath exemplified, among many things, that the two dominant social media sites had taken very different strategies to tackling inflammatory content.

Twitter went for the cautious approach. It added a warning label for the post to say that it had glorified violence, and hid the content unless it was clicked on. Facebook, on the other hand, kept Trump’s post up, on the basis that it was not an incitement of violence, but an announcement of state use of force.

Facebook’s “hands-off” approach to Trump only changed when a number of powerful companies pulled out of advertising with the site, such as Coca-Cola, Verizon and Ford, in a campaign co-ordinated by Stop Hate for Profit. Some have called these organisations opportunistic – Covid-19 has eaten into advertising budgets, and surely any company will jump on the chance to look socially righteous – but it’s still an expensive wobble that Facebook no doubt wants to avoid.

As a result, the social media has said that it will add a label to tell people that content may violate its policies; it’s a watered down version of what Twitter is offering. Even so, Zuckerberg has been fairly resilient in dealing with Stop Hate for Profit, which has set out a list of content it wants gone from Facebook and other sites. Zuckerberg said that he would not change Facebook’s policies; that he thinks advertisers will be back “soon enough”, and that he remains committed to democracy and free speech.

In spite of this, one strange area Facebook has increasingly delved into is political affairs, especially in anticipation of the upcoming US election. Some of this is to right the wrongs of 2016, in which there was foreign interference, with Russia attempting to “undermine the voting power of left-leaning African-American citizens, by spreading misinformation about the electoral process”, among other activitiesFacebook has since spent “billions of dollars in technology” and hired “tens of thousands of people” to fix this. (Incidentally, the UK is still waiting for its report on the alleged Russian interference in politics to understand the extent of it here.)

But more strikingly, Facebook has ventured into interventionist territory, with the new aim to “help 4 million people register to vote”. In doing this, Zuckerberg is taking the organisation much further away from its initial design. Many users, like myself (aged 17 when it first came out), will think of it predominantly as a tool for making friends online and posting photographs; a type of social peacocking, in many ways.

Zuckerberg, however, clearly has more profound visions. He says he wants to boost “authoritative information” for voting that he expects “160 million people in the US to see”. The goal sounds altruistic on the face of it, but it also poses big questions, like, who gets to categories “authoritative”? And should social media giants be involved in democracy at all?

Increasingly there’s been accusations from conservatives that in delving into the political realm, social media sites tend to show biases in favour of liberals, most notably Trump, who said “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH” after it fact-checked one of his Tweets. 

One writer suggests that out of “22 prominent, politically active individuals who are known to have been suspended since 2005 and who expressed a preference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, 21 supported Donald Trump”. In UnHerd, the author and commentator Douglas Murray goes further, revealing his own suspicions that Twitter is penalising right-leaning writers, such as hiding “likes” (a way of showing support for posts) from their posts.

Some say that there is no evidence of social media biases, with Kevin Roose, a tech journalist, noting yesterday that the best performing accounts on Facebook are all conservative. A tech expert tells me that the “exact opposite viewpoint (of social media bias) is shared in various countries, where the view is that the anti-capitalist left is censored by American tech giants”.

None of this has reassured Trump, however, who is proposing a bill to make social media giants take legal liability for material that their users post. But this could crush free speech, to a certain extent, making companies more likely to remove content to protect against litigation.

Even if there is not algorithmic censorship, many people were concerned last week after Google UK launched into Liz Truss, the Conservative MP, on social media. On June 18 it posted a petition trying to lobby her on the Gender Recognition Act.

This event should have rung serious alarm bells; a tech giant coming for a Conservative politician is seriously bad news, although – tellingly – there was a dearth of news stories about it. One suspects if Google UK had attacked a Remainer politician on refusing to leave the EU, it would have received the proportion response. This was, after all, perhaps the world’s biggest holder of personal information interfering in UK democracy.

One concern that has been pointed out repeatedly about Silicon Valley, and its companies, is that the demographic make-up of its tech talent could influence the ways in which content is censored. Even Zuckerberg has called it “an extremely left-leaning place”, and many will wonder how this affects their role in deciding the terms of “offence” on social media sites, and otherwise. 

In the UK, perhaps the most significant issue is that we are just so removed from these authors of our (online) reality, even if they have domestic offices. We know little about the algorithms they use – and it suits tech companies this way, limiting others’ abilities to get into the sector.

Here brings us to the biggest question: how should UK politicians deal with Facebook and other tech giants? Much of the focus on these companies has been on their involvement in elections, but they also have an impact on Joe Bloggs’ income, too, as one report by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) elucidates on.

It points out that Google has “more than a 90 per cent share of £7.3 billion search advertising market in UK, while Facebook has over 50% of the £5.5 billion display advertising market”. The report suggests that by dominating the market, these organisations control the default prices for advertising, which are arguably higher than they need to be – and in turn effect the consumer, as advertisers keep their product costs high.

CMA sets out numerous ways in which the Government can start to break up these giants and encourage competition. It is quite alarming in the ways in which it highlights tech giants’ control over many things – from prices, to regulation. And all of this has to change.

Ultimately, along with the current 5G issues the Government is dwelling on, they are going to increasingly need the knowledge, and foresight, to intercept some of these tech powers before they become so dominant as to make their powers irreversible.

Already the Government has found that Apple stifled the approach it wanted to take to contact tracing, and this is just a taste of what’s to come – as the tech giants, sometimes working in conjunction, block out competition. There is a mammoth amount of information to take on board, changing all the time. Along with Brexit and Coronavirus, Tories will have their work cut out.

Luke Evans: What social media says about the Government and the virus. And what my constituents actually said when I asked them.

24 Jun

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

Like any other Member of Parliament Fridays are, for me – at least when the House is sitting – constituency day.

Most MPs will tell you it’s the best part of the job. Arguably, it is the bit that counts most. You get to hear about the lives of people in your hometown, the issues that matter to them and, hopefully, you are able to make a difference both in the casework that you do on their behalf and raising important causes in parliament.

Last Friday was my first constituency day since lockdown started – the first time I have been able to go out and speak with ‘real’ people face to face. It’s an experience which never fails to surprise.

I’ve written before about the difficulties facing Twycross Zoo in my constituency and, since it had opened its gates to the public for the first time last Monday, it seemed somehow fitting that my first visit should be to the same place that was one of my last before the Coronavirus crisis started.

What struck me? It was amazing to hear of staff returning, see families enjoying a day out, and witness first hand how many of the primates are enjoying human interaction once more (a serious point, the keepers were surprised that some seemed “depressed” by the lack of interaction – does that sound familiar too? Perhaps I digress).

My afternoon was allocated to a tour of recently reopened shops in Hinckley, the largest town in my constituency. During the week, I had raised the issue of supporting Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) as a potential vehicle to help increase footfall and reduce shop vacancies on the high street, to which I was pleased to hear the Government agree.

It seemed a perfect opportunity, then, to join the Hinckley BID, which arranges visits to shops and local businesses, to see how they are faring.

I thought that they would be inclined to paint a fair picture, especially when it transpired I would be being joined by a local Liberal Democrat borough councillor. The reason for this? I could avoid my own team hand-picking businesses which by their very nature might have been more supportive of the government: in other words, I wanted to hear how things on the ground really were rather than how I might hope them to be.

I’ve long subscribed to the concept that ‘the map is not the territory’ – there are always filters, some conscious and others less so, that affect our perceptions of reality.

It’s very easy to look at social media and see the distortion and anti-Government rage, and easily misinterpret that as the territory. I’ll be honest: I was more than a little worried about what I would hear when I spoke with independent retailers, whose entire livelihoods had been placed at real risk as a result of virus that is – at the end of the day – no one’s fault.

Of course, as I should know only too well by now, social media isn’t the real world, and the comments I met with were in no way representative of what Twitter or Facebook tell me that it is like.

I heard shopkeepers telling me of brisk trade; again and again independent retailers talked about cautious optimism for the sector – “shop local” seems to be resonating clearly.

And above all? A real gratitude that a Government, which by no means has been perfect, has supported them through the darkest of times; a Government responding to the greatest threat of our generation had given them the hope that they can return. The Chancellor’s promise to do whatever it takes had stuck with them, and had really meant something.

At a time when hope could have very easily been lost, that’s a really powerful thing to have done and won’t be forgotten any time soon.

Members of the public stopped me on the high street to talk about support they had and wanted to give to the local economy, a true sense of coming together to make the best of an international crisis.

I was taken aback. Of course, I fully appreciate that those comments are just a differently interpreted map of the same territory.

The only way we can make that map more accurate, of course, is by adding data and it seems to me that, in the bubble, we’ve become fixated on only adding the datasets that we can see on our mobile phones, and not talking to people.

As MPs we need to make sure that we place equally as much value on a conversation with our constituents as we do on 280 characters. Sometimes we all lose sight of that fact.