The GE campaign will be bloody but will be fought in secret, and the ‘winners’ look to be Labour and Momentum. Looking back on the 2017 campaign, Fraser Nelson, writing in the DT under the title “Do the Conservatives have any real answer to Labour’s digital dirty war?” (paywalled link), starts with an example:
“There weren’t many decent adverts in the last general election campaign, but one video does stick in my mind. It’s set in “Tory Britain 2030” where a father is showing old photos to his young daughter. Why are there so few pupils in his class, she asks. “Things are different now,” he replies. “Schools can’t afford to pay teachers.” Or provide free meals. The discussion moves on to universities, similarly afflicted. She asks why. “Because I voted for Theresa May,” he explains, with a malicious smile. Then the punchline. “Dad, do you hate me?” “Obviously,” he replies. Herewith the message: Tories hate kids. Even their own. It was a bit much, even by Labour’s standards, but this wasn’t a Labour film. It was from Momentum, an independent socialist campaign group. The video was quite the hit, viewed seven million times. Given that Momentum claims to have raised £100,000 this week alone, we can expect more such ads. The Labour Party could never get away with such below-the-belt attacks but it would have no need to make any. There are no end of campaigners now, ready to strike the low blows on Jeremy Corbyn’s behalf.” (paywalled link)
And therein lies the problem. The Times’ leading article today also looks at this phenomenon, with an up-to-date example:
“For some people Britain is about to have an election in which the main issue is foxhunting. Last week on Facebook the Labour Party pushed adverts to a few thousand voters suggesting that the Conservatives wished to bring it back. Beneath the public election campaign, which all of us can see, runs another, which most of us will not.” (link, paywalled)
Fraser Nelson explains further:
“The idea of a general election as a battle between standing armies died with the arrival of the digital age. The Tories will now find themselves up against a range of nimble, online enemies – some of whom can be seen, many of whom cannot. […] Tory strategists noticed (during the 2017 GE) they were being attacked by all kinds of other groups. It later turned out that 30 so-called satellite groups had been fighting on Labour’s side. […] It’s fashionable to say that none of this matters, that the power of social media is talked up by sore losers hoping to blame Russian bots for their defeat. But the ability of technology to mobilise and convene voters is now undeniable.” (paywalled link)
These new electioneering battlefronts are due to what Nelson calls ‘the digitisation of the great British public, where people – nine in 10 Brisith adults – spend over three hours a day on their smartphones. He continues:
“When Dominic Cummings ran Vote Leave, he was able to deploy all kinds of imaginative tactics that the Conservatives would not dare attempt now. Governing parties face far more scrutiny. Every advert made, every statistic quoted, every penny sent to other campaigners is traced and pored over for years afterwards. For anti-government activists, it is all much easier: they can pop up, raise cash by crowdfunding, fire off attacks and then vanish. All this has made election campaigns feel more like insurgencies. For politics, it’s the new normal.
Corbyn’s main attack line in his speech yesterday – that the Tories will somehow sell the NHS to Donald Trump – is already being reinforced on social media by a group called European Movement UK. Other campaigners, often fronts for trade unions, are targeting individual constituencies with blood-curdling messages about school cuts. Momentum’s latest piece of handiwork returns to the Tories-hate-the-young theme (“We at the Conservative Party do not want your vote,” says a plummy-voiced woman: you can imagine the rest.) The advert had been removed and investigated for violating Facebook’s guidelines but was, eventually, approved. Impersonating Tories, it seems, is quite okay. (paywalled link)
Nelson remarks finally that the Tories have now hired a couple of NZ whizkids to help, but it’s not looking good:
“The Tories cannot really complain if their opponents are quicker to adapt to new technology or better able to inspire campaigners. Conservatism, if properly sold, should be just as inspirational. Brexit campaigners might help out this time and a pair of 20-something New Zealanders have been enlisted to direct the Tory digital war. Early results are not exactly encouraging. Both parties have released videos for the campaign launch this week: Labour’s has 2.6 million views against just 150,000 for the Conservatives. The great Tory hope is that they have, in Boris Johnson, a leader made for social media, a subject of endless media fascination who can make the digital universe bend towards him. Perhaps he can. But with less than six weeks until the election, now would be a good time to start.” (paywalled link)
Robin Pagnamenta, also writing in the DT under the title “Forget the season of goodwill – this will be one of brutal digital electioneering” (paywalled link) observes:
“More than ever before, Britain’s general election on December 12 will be largely fought and won online – and the parties and candidates who succeed in marshalling the best digital campaigns stand to scoop rich rewards at the ballot box. […] Parties engage in industrial-scale data mining to assemble detailed lists of target voters representing different demographic groups, who are then hit with tailored advertising via social media.
This ability to publish political material and instantly broadcast it to millions of people – grouped together by age, income, gender or interests in order to maximise the impact of tailored ads – is changing politics.
It is also allowing campaign strategists carefully to manage their candidates’ image based on data collected and analysed immediately. […] Of course, the growing importance of digital campaigning is fraught with problems too. The scandal over Cambridge Analytica has rightly fuelled concerns over data privacy and the ease with which social media can be harnessed to spread misinformation.
For the UK’s Electoral Commission, keeping tabs on election spending has become far more complex than ever before, amplifying concerns about violations of campaign finance rules – and of foreign interference.
Brace yourselves for a festive season filled not only with the usual frantic hunt for presents, turkey and sufficient booze – but for some brutal digital electioneering and a blizzard of microtargeted ads designed to press our buttons and deliver our votes. (paywalled link)
In yet another article on this digital warfare in the DT, Laurence Dodds writes:
“Labour could be breaching privacy laws by using a “data broker” to profile British voters in order to target them with social media adverts, leaked documents reveal.
Internal instruction manuals seen by The Telegraph show how the party paid Experian, the credit checking agency, to analyse more than 400 pieces of data about British voters and assign each one to demographic groups such as “Streetwise Singles”, “Dependent Greys” and “Childcare Squeeze”.
Labour has also used Experian to estimate individual voters’ employment status, family status and home ownership – potentially without their knowledge or consent – as well as automatically matching voters’ names to their Facebook accounts in order to ensure they were shown its adverts.
Those practices were just one part of the huge data collection and targeting apparatus laid bare by the documents, which Labour describes as “the richest and most sophisticated in Britain”, and which is likely to be a crucial asset for Jeremy Corbyn in any coming election.
The leak provides the clearest picture yet of any political party’s targeting operations, revealing a shadowy world in which British voters’ sensitive personal data, bought from commercial sources, and weaponised to deliver precision strikes on carefully-selected segments of the electorate.
But experts consulted by The Telegraph warned that some of Labour’s activities could be illegal under British data protection law, and could even open it up to having future election results challenged and overturned in court.” (paywalled link)
Looking at his next remarks, one can see that there might be a pathway to defend against this:
“Boris Johnson himself is now facing an inquiry from the ICO after some voters alleged that they had received campaign emails from the Conservative Party without having consented to it, which would be illegal.And in its investigation into the 2017 election, the ICO spread blame widely, saying that more than 30 entities had shown a “disturbing disregard for voters’ personal privacy”, and embarking on audits of 11 political parties, including Labour.”
“This system is indicative of what we see across political parties,” said Mr Rice. “It represents a commercialisation and reliance on commercial micro-targeting system… the blurring of the lines between the commercial and political is concerning legally and morally.”
Ailidh Callander, legal officer for Privacy International, said: “It is a matter of urgency that all political parties come clean about their data processing activities… failure to do so presents clear risks not just to people’s rights, but to integrity of the election and democracy itself.”
That means that if Labour is breaking the law, then so too might the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, and potentially any other political party in Britain.” (paywalled link)
Our line of defence is thus using the breaking of privacy laws. According to GDPR, you have to be asked to consent by entities asking for your email addresses. You can and should therefore ask the senders of such Momentum material how they got your email address in the first instance. They are obliged by law to answer. You can then tell them to take your name off their list and tell them they are acting unlawfully – which they are.
If enough of us Brexit stalwarts do it every time we receive such ‘ads’ and emails, it will clog up their system pretty quickly. Dealing with such queries takes time, and a threat of legal action might make some of those little grouplets to draw their horns in. If they can do it to Johnson, so can we do it to Corbyn. But it needs to be done now – they have already started.