Snap election leaves no chance to address concerns about voter manipulation
The EU referendum proved that the Electoral Commission’s obsolete tools for monitoring cyber manipulation will ensure a free ride to those wishing to exploit it at the election, writes Labour MP Paul Flynn.
Not since the 1880 reforms have our systems for election and referendums been in greater peril. The single thunderous lesson from the EU Referendum is that new technology trumps long-established democratic safeguards. Clandestine artificial intelligence, algorithms, and invisible money sources can overwhelm surface democratic rules.
PACAC’s report Lessons learned from the EU referendum gained considerable attention for highlighting the possibility that foreign governments interfered with the referendum.
The voter registration website crashed last June threatening disenfranchisement of thousands, forcing the government to extend the registration deadline. The committee reported that the crash had indications of a botnet attack on the voter registration website.
The crash may well have been the result of an attack designed to influence political outcome. Worryingly there is no chance to address these concerns before Theresa May’s opportunistic snap election.
As we enter this election campaign period an alarming narrative is emerging of online voter targeting, calculated to cause mass interference and influence. An elite group is shaping world politics to suit their private beliefs, their behaviour having untold and unquantifiable effects. Whilst the plot reads like that of a comic book this cyber manipulation is no fiction and played a role in both the EU referendum and President Trump’s election.
Exceptional investigation work by journalist Carole Cadwalladr has exposed the wide reaching implications of the issue including the probity of June's General Election.
Billionaire Robert Mercer is Donald Trump’s biggest donor. He is also reported to be an owner of Cambridge Analytica, a company specialising in election strategies and involved in both the Trump and Brexit campaigns.
The company proved to be instrumental to Leave.EU and taught the campaign how to build profiles, target people and gain data from Facebook profiles.
When interviewed by Cadwalladr, Leave.EU’s communications director, admitted, “Facebook was the key to the entire campaign. A Facebook ‘like’ was their most “potent weapon”. Using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”
So worrying is Cambridge Analytica’s actions that the Information Commissioners Office has launched an investigation into their reported use of personal data.
There is contempt for the electoral process they are manipulating. Leave.EU have not declared Cambridge Analytica’s work as services in kind to the electoral commission. Arron Banks of Leave.EU has since declared “I don’t give a monkey’s about the Electoral Commission.”
In June the Electoral Commission is expected to deal with tomorrow’s problems. The referendum proved their outdated tools will ensure a free ride to those wishing to exploit it.
Broadcast advertising is subject to controls. Recent shifts have proved unfair advantages are now to be gained from online activity which lacks regulation.
Sir Tim Berners Lee has condemned the disgusting practice of selling private citizens online data. He summed up the problem best: “We’ve lost control of our personal data…it’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web” and “Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding.”
Lobbyists and Billionaires are manipulating media and public opinion in defiance of transparency regulations.
We are in the disturbing era where lobbyists can weaponise fake news for the highest bidder. They can track voters’ personal data and manipulate public opinion. All of this they can do under cover of anonymity and without regulation or oversight.
The EU Referendum was a battle of dishonesty. It was won by the side with the means to distribute the most plausible lies.
Paul Flynn is Labour MP for Newport West