What Brexit should have taught us about voter manipulation | Paul Flynn

Paul Flynn
The crash of the voter registration site last June had indications of a botnet attack, according to MPs. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The single thunderous lesson from the EU referendum is that new technology trumps arcane democratic safeguards. Artificial intelligence, algorithms and invisible money sources can overwhelm democratic rules.

A report by MPs on the public administration and constitutional affairs committee – Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum – gained considerable attention after highlighting the possibility that foreign governments interfered with the referendum. The voter registration website crashed last June, threatening the disenfranchisement of thousands of people, forcing the government to extend the registration deadline. Crashing a website is a technical instance where cause, effect and hopefully blame can be established. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre deals with around 200 such cases a day. The committee reported that the crash had indications of a botnet attack.

Botnets are online tools programmed to manipulate public opinion through social media platforms. A significant number of Twitter users are bots that can act to spam and manipulate public opinion on current affairs. The crash may well have been the result of an attack designed to influence political outcome.

But a much more troubling narrative is emerging. The use of algorithms and artificial intelligence was probably a significant but invisible element in the campaigns. There is no evidence that Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm linked to the Leave.EU campaign, used botnets or any other illegal activity – it seeks to use the web to manipulate public opinion through legal means. Legal though such methods are, the sinister nature of this manipulation requires robust regulation.

Broadcast advertising is subject to strict controls in the interests of fair play, as it traditionally had a wide reach and great impact. Recent shifts have proved unfair advantages are now to be gained from targeted online activity.

An elite group is shaping world politics to suit their private beliefs, and their behaviour has untold and unquantifiable effects. While the plot reads like a comic book, this cyber-manipulation is no fiction and played a role in the EU referendum and Donald Trump’s election.

Exceptional investigative work by Carole Cadwalladr has exposed the wide-reaching implications of this issue. It’s not just the EU referendum. Billionaire Robert Mercer is Trump’s biggest donor. He is also reported to be an owner of Cambridge Analytica. Nigel Farage’s links with Mercer led to Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the Leave.EU campaign. The company proved to be instrumental 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 are Cambridge Analytica’s actions that the Information Commissioner’s Office is looking into the firm’s reported use of personal data.

There is contempt for the electoral process. Leave.EU admits that Cambridge Analytica helped the campaign but was not paid. It seems clear that this type of work should have been declared to the Electoral Commission as a services-in-kind donation. It has not been. Arron Banks of Leave.EU has since declared: “I don’t give a monkey’s about the Electoral Commission.”

Lobbyists and billionaires are wilfully manipulating the media and public opinion in defiance of transparency regulations. Cambridge Analytica, while the most high-profile group, is only one element of this sordid tale that sees foreign funds influence our electoral processes.

Cambridge Analytica may not use bots, but other forces clearly do. Research from University College London explains how a large group of bots can misrepresent public opinion. “They could tweet like real users, but coordinated centrally around a specific topic. They could all post positive or negative tweets skewing metrics used by companies and researchers to track opinions on that topic.” Bots can even “orchestrate a campaign to create a fake sense of agreement among Twitter users where they mask the sponsor of the message, making it seem like it originates from the community itself”.

Evidence from Oxford Internet Institute suggest that a third of all Twitter traffic prior to the EU referendum was actually bots and that this type of targeting was used as recently as the Stoke-on-Trent Central byelection.

Together, this evidence makes it clear that democracy is struggling to stand tall in a disturbing era where lobbyists can weaponise fake news for the highest bidder, while bodies such as the Electoral Commission do not have the resources to intervene and sanction. Malign forces can track voters’ personal data and manipulate public opinion as if it were in fact using cyber-deception. All of this they can do under cover of anonymity and free of 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.

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