Tom Baldwin: Social media has become weapon in war on truth

WILLIAM Hague might have been justified in bearing a grudge against me: when he was Tory leader and I was still a journalist, I made a bit of habit of ridiculing him for his baseball caps, his prodigious real ale-consumption and sometimes his policies too.

Should social media platforms like Facebook be subject of stricter controls when it comes to elections?
Should social media platforms like Facebook be subject of stricter controls when it comes to elections?

In turn, when I later worked for the Labour Party in 2015, he might have slightly exaggerated the existential dangers Ed Miliband presented to the future of English freedoms. Either way, the former MP for Richmond wrote last week that to agree with me – someone “who has campaigned for almost everything I disagree with” – he had “to overcome my own predisposition to be opposed to whatever he supports”.

But Lord Hague was nonetheless generous enough support an idea I have set out in my new book, Ctrl Alt Delete, that could offer at least some protection for our ever-more fragile democracy. I suggested that we ban political campaigns from using social media advertising, a communications weapon that is fast becoming the most lethal in history.

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President Donald Trump exploited social media to win the 2016 election in the United States.

We have a long tradition in this country, dating back to the 1950s, of preventing campaigns buying advertising on TV and radio. Most people would agree our politics is better for not having the kind of attack ads that have done so much to stain American elections in the past few decades.

But social media ads, particularly on Facebook, are now exerting a real influence not only on US politics, but in Britain too, where elections may be won by the campaigns with the deepest pockets and the lowest standards. These ads were used to most devastating effect in 2016 with the populist disinformation campaigns of Brexit, and Donald Trump, triumph over more rational or fact-based opponents.

Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign, poured 98 per cent of his advertising budget into digital communication, including vast spending on data collection and a billion micro-targeted Facebook ads. Many of these were so-called “dark posts”, unseen by the media or regulators until last month. They included ludicrous claims that the EU was banning kettles, supporting whale-hunting and killing polar bears, as well as more famous lies about Brexit providing extra money for the NHS or preventing the arrival of millions of non-existent Turkish immigrants.

Vote Leave has subsequently been found to have broken electoral law by funnelling hundreds of thousands of pounds into a front organisation so it could pay for even more of these social media adverts.

To what extent did social media influence the Brexit vote in 2016?

There are also big question marks about how it used data to target these ads. Cummings has denied doing anything wrong but acknowledges “the law/regulatory agencies are such a joke the reality is that anybody who wanted to cheat the law could do it easily without people realising”.

In the American presidential election, Hillary Clinton ran 66,000 variations of Facebook ads, which sounds like a lot until it is compared to Trump’s total of 5.9m highly targeted ads that were significantly more effective than those of his Democratic rival. For instance, Trump’s “dark posts” were used to suppress turnout among African-American voters by highlighting remarks Clinton had made 20 years earlier about young gang members being “super-predators”. The idea was not to get them to vote for Trump but merely to stop them voting at all.

The use of social media advertising, coupled with data metrics that give campaigns access to thousands of pieces of information about all of us, is loosening the screws of democracy. It means these ads can be minutely varied in their design or message by machine-learning algorithms until one is found that appeals best to the desires and fears of a particular slice of the electorate, or even an individual voter.

This technology is moving at the speed of electrons. Politics is not going to catch up when it moves only at the speed of elections.

I am now working on the campaign for a People’s Vote on Brexit and, even though I’ve proposed banning social media ads in politics, I will certainly try to use this weapon – legally – to fight back against opponents whose sights have been targeted on us for long enough. In the old days, they used to tell investigative reporters to “follow the money,” now they should follow the data.

But measures like a ban on political ads, better verification of social media accounts, or spot checks on the use of data by campaigns are only going to slow the pace of the crisis in our democracy. What is needed is a more profound settlement in our relationship with technology that enables it to do public good rather than merely unpick truth and undermine trust.

As my book explains, Brexit, Trump and a host of other dangerously populist movements around the world are the product of a 30 year-long abusive relationship conducted by politics and media with the information age. And, yes, that included silly journalists like me who thought we were clever to make fun of William Hague’s baseball caps when, in truth, there were – and are – far bigger challenges in politics for all of us.

Tom Baldwin is the author of Ctrl Alt Delete: How Politics and the Media Crashed Our Democracy, published by Hurst, price £20.