The dark arts of digital political advertising, Brexit and Vote Leave campaigning

Digital political advertising and “fake” news has become widespread on social media, is being targeted to and manipulating specific groups of voters, and could play a critical part in the anticipated Brexit elections. Yet we do not know who it is from or how it is funded but that it has already been highly effective in the US general election and the Brexit referendum in 2016.

The dark arts at work

One should bear in mind that social media has now become the main source of news for very many people, especially the young, and that traditional newspapers and TV news are in decline. So, what appears on social media is becoming of critical importance to informing people of politics and political issues. Yet in this media form, there are many dubious practices at work.

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister (PM), thousands of people received anonymous ads on Facebook with Johnson’s face looking forward and in one the words, “These are my priorities. What are yours?” In the pre-election that is currently taking place in the UK over Brexit, Facebook is already teaming with such activity.

Just recently, part of the team behind Johnson’s successful campaign to be PM, Lynton Crosby’s CTF Partners, was revealed to be very active in unbranded “news” campaigns on Facebook.

Johnson has just appointed Dominic Cummings in his team at No. 10, as his chief special advisor or SPAD, and all ministerial SPAD’s now have to report in to No. 10. This person spear-headed the winning Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum and is seen as an amoral and ruthless master practitioner in the dark arts of online manipulation. His appointment was controversial not just because of his campaigning methods but also his refusal to appear before the investigating Parliamentary committee on this and was found in contempt of Parliament.

The web of influence

Data and digital advertising are seen as crucial to the success of the referendum campaign, as also Trump’s Presidential campaign the same year. The Canadian company AggregateIQ ran targeted online campaigns on behalf of Vote Leave and have since been subject to regulatory investigation by the UK’s ICO and the Electoral Commission. It is believed that data sharing took place between several of the Leave campaigns and it is alleged that this involved the insurance billionarire and UKIP and now-Brexit Party funder Arron Banks. It is also believed that widespread data harvesting took place of millions of Facebook profiles, and there are allegations that this involved another now-defunct campany, Cambridge Analytica, owned by the American IT billionaire Robert Mercer, a Trump funder.

Issues in need of attention

It should be said that the Leave campaign are not alone and that a wide range of political organisations are active online and in social media. Marketing people will tell you that the cheapest and most effective way to push a message is to build and massively utilise a presence on social media.

The issue here is the lack of regulation, available for advertising offline but not yet online. A key concern is the lack of transparency. There is a lack of regulatory obligations to disclose who is running these campaigns, who their backers are, how they obtain their data, how it is being used, how far privacy is being respected by them (although in the EU, GDPR is at last providing some protection), how the recipients are selected, or how the messaging is adapted to individuals. Moreover enforcement appears to be weak.

If Facebook, Google and other can build detailed profiles of individuals for targeted marketing to influence buying behaviour, so too can political organisations and lobbyists conduct political advertising with undisclosed and potentially controversial agendas.


Here is an excellent TED talk by the investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr on the subject (Note: this talk is one of the issues that are subject to litigation by Banks against Carole, alleging libel. She is counter-suing alleging harrassment. Many consider that Banks is using his very considerable wealth to silence her. Please treat the video as Carole’s views): click here

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