It used to be that how you voted depended very much on your class or where you were born or grew up. But in recent years, people have been, as Alexander Nix then CEO of Cambridge Analytica, puts it, ‘buoyed by the availability of information and a plethora of options available on the internet’ to look outside of values espoused by their family or their neighbours in order to find their own identities and beliefs. Nix claimed to have incredibly precise insights into what voters wanted, down to the level where he claimed in an Op-Ed for Campaign Live that they discovered ‘a small pocket of voters in Iowa who felt strongly that citizens should be required by law to show photo ID at polling stations’. He claims that by targeting voters on a more individual level, they were able to swing the Iowa Caucus for Ted Cruz – though ultimately this wasn’t enough to win him the nomination.
According to Martin Moore, Project Alamo, the digital wing of the Trump campaign, was using 40-50,000 variations of adverts. These were continuously tracked to determine their salience and effectiveness and adapted based on the results. They designed Facebook ads and scripts for phone canvassing and door-to-door use to communicate their message in the most amenable way possible for different categories of voters. For example, for those who were designated part of the ‘Temperamental’ personality group, it was decided that campaigners should take the line that showing your ID to vote is ‘as easy as buying a case of beer’. Or for those categorized as being in the ‘Stoic Traditionalist’ group the best message was that showing your ID in order to vote ‘is simply part of the privilege of living in a democracy’. Just as with the titles of advertising groups that Facebook places you into, these titles are just attempting to give a literary description to the shared data points and patterns in each category.
Based on users’ responses to these posts, Cambridge Analytica was able to identify which of Trump’s messages were resonating and where. That information was also used to shape Trump’s campaign travel schedule. For example, if targeted voters in Kent County, Michigan, clicked on an article about bringing back jobs, then it was time to schedule a Trump rally in Grand Rapids that focuses on economic recovery. As is the case with most of these techniques, talking to voters about region-specific issues is hardly something CA pioneered. It doesn’t take a complex algorithm to work out that it would be pointless to discuss the improvement of transport in London when addressing a crowd in Liverpool. The difference here is that these techniques have been refined and enhanced significantly by big data analytics.
From their monstrous vault of user data, the Trump digital team identified 13.5 million persuadable voters and modelled which combinations of these voters they needed in order to get themselves over the line. The US uses a strange weighted system to count their votes known as the Electoral College. Each state is allocated a certain number of electors and the winner of the state-wide election is granted all the electors from that state (except in the case of Maine, which allocates its electors proportionally) as the candidates race to 270 electoral college votes.38 Just like Vote Leave, they relentlessly tested and refined their messages. They were focused on finding voters who would not traditionally voter Trump or Republican.39
At one point, in response to the data, Brad Parscale said he ‘took every nickel and dime I had out of everywhere else, and I moved it to Michigan and Wisconsin’.40 Jared Kushner suggested he started campaigning in Pennsylvania after seeing the data as well. Pundits called it crazy, questioning why Trump would be trying to penetrate Clinton’s ‘blue wall’. In the end, Trump won all three states. Cambridge Analytica built a system capable of assessing target voters’ responses to say, an article about Clinton’s negligence over her email server and serve up more ads based on those responses. Continually refining both itself and its knowledge of voters allowed them to shape their digital campaign, and identify areas where their message was particularly resonant. Ultimately it was victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by tiny margins that won Trump the election. Vote Leave developed their voter targeting software with AggregateIQ, who helped build the ‘The Database of Truth’, for Trump during his campaign, whose intellectual property is owned by Cambridge Analytica and SCL. The adverts used on Facebook have become known as ‘dark posts’ or ‘dark ads’. They can only be seen by those who are posting the advert, and those being targeted by it. There is no regulation, no fact checks, no oversight, and no accountability. When Gerry Gunster appeared on Panorama in 2017 he explained very clearly how these adverts could have been used during the Brexit referendum:
You can say to Facebook, ‘I would like to make sure that I can micro-target that fisherman, in certain parts of the UK,’ so that they are specifically hearing that if you vote to leave you will be able to change the way that the regulations are set for the fishing industry…Now I can do the exact same thing for people who live in the Midlands who are struggling because the factory has shut down. So I may send a specific message through Facebook to them that nobody else sees.
The targeted nature of these posts makes it so difficult to conduct oversight. Anyone can place political adverts on Facebook, with no requirement to prove their source or validity. As a part of the parliamentary inquiry into fake news, Damian Collins, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, has pointed the finger at Facebook, claiming that they need to be more accountable for its role in these elections and in political campaigning in general:
Historically, there have been quite strict rules about the way information is presented and broadcasters work to a very strict code in terms of partiality and there are restrictions on the use of advertising. But with something like Facebook you have a media which is increasingly seen as the most valuable media in an election period but which is totally unregulated.
A politician heaping blame on someone else isn’t exactly front-page news, but it does raise an intriguing question: who is accountable here? During the EU referendum, the Vote Leave campaign paid for 1 billion ad impressions (how many times an advert will be seen). Just to put that in perspective – for every single person that voted in the referendum (some 33.6 million people) Vote Leave paid for 29 impressions on social media; 29 times for every single person. Imagine the cost involved if you needed that level of advertising in print, radio, billboards, or television. It would be astronomical. The ads would be publicly available for everyone to see and there would be far more scrutiny over their content. Facebook allowed campaigners to bypass all of these obstacles and plug directly into the beating heart of digital life. These adverts made up a huge bulk of the digital spend with AggregateIQ. Zach Massingham explained: ‘Though we are listed as one of the largest expenditures, the reality is the vast majority of that money was for online advertising to those groups of people the campaign wanted to reach.’
Emily Las, a New York digital marketer, found a smattering of what appear to be Vote Leave ‘dark ads’ online. They included a video that claimed: ‘Turkey is joining the EU. Our schools and hospitals already can’t cope.’ It told viewers that 76 million people were preparing to land on British soil and swarm the NHS and education system – it was viewed by some 515,000 people. Facebook was asked by the UK parliament’s DCMS committee to disclose the Brexit ads as part of its enquiry. Eventually, Facebook released a few adverts run by AIQ for the official Vote Leave campaign, BeLeave/Brexit Central, and the DUP.
One reads: ‘The EU is expanding. Turkey is one of Five new countries joining the EU. The EU will cost us more and more’ and goes on to list the populations of Turkey (76 million), Albania (2.8 million), Macedonia (2.1 million), Montenegro (0.6 million), and Serbia (7.2 million). An alarm bell symbol on another is accompanied by, ‘Turkey, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, & Montenegro are joining the EU,’ and asks ‘Will this hurt the UK?’ Another reads simply: ‘Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU. Vote Leave, take back control’ with a picture of an open door made from a British passport. Each advert was tailored to our individual personality (or at least what we let Facebook see). For the environmentalists, one ad reads: ‘The EU blocks our ability to speak out and protect polar bears!’, for tea addicts ‘The European Union wants to kill our cuppa’, or one for the mild Eurosceptics featured a more sensible line on immigration with Boris Johnson pictured announcing: ‘I’m pro immigration, but above all I’m pro controlled immigration.’ Older voters were hit with ads about the cost of the EU and young voters with adverts quoting old Jeremy Corbyn speeches: ‘The EU takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers.’
Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.
Mistrust in the mainstream media has been fuelled by allegations of bias and the spread of ‘fake news’. Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017 found that just over 40 per cent of people in the UK agreed with the statement, ‘I think you can trust news most of the time’, a shockingly low figure for a developed Western nation with a free press. We should, however, be thankful that the problem isn’t quite as bad as in the US – given the level of madness in America and in Brexit you may have missed or forgotten the incident where President Trump launched a series of bizarre personal attacks over Twitter aimed at CNN and ‘Morning Joe’ hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough. He tweeted: ‘Crazy Joe Scarborough and dumb as a rock Mika are not bad people, but their low rated show is dominated by their NBC bosses. Too bad!’
He followed this up with an edited professional-wrestling video of him tackling a man with the CNN logo superimposed on his face. It might seem trivial to mention this, but it is a great example of the way Trump (and to an extent our politicians) can get away with disparaging the media because they are biased; even defenders of the free press can’t help but accept that critics of the media have a genuine point. I’m alarmed by the attack on the press, but CNN is far from the world’s greatest news channel – they don’t have a single investigative reporter on staff. It is basically a 24/7 political theatre, where pundits and guests compete to get the best zing in that fits in 280 characters or a 30-second soundbite.
Members of our government have repeatedly accused the press of being overly critical of the Brexit process; Andrea Leadsom famously asked the BBC if the media could be a little more patriotic about Brexit. We should be thankful for the integrity of democracy and our political system that they haven’t directly attacked the press in the way Trump has.
There have also been accusations that certain members of the right-wing press, most notably Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, have received preferential treatment and were courted by Theresa May’s government to help them sell the Conservative message. It was revealed in March 2017 that Theresa May had hosted Dacre at 10 Downing Street several months into her reign as prime minister, which triggered further allegations that the Daily Mail was simply a mouth-piece for the Conservative Party. Running headlines like ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ and ‘Enemies Of The People’ in full-throated support of Brexit and Theresa May’s distaste for democratic debate did little to quell or combat these allegations.
These sorts of headlines hardly seem like reasonable responses from an independent press, especially one that spent months campaigning for British courts making British decisions. The judges who declared parliament should have a vote on the Brexit deal were labelled treasonous for dictating that parliament should be sovereign. This definitely seems like the response of a reasonable and well-balanced news outlet.
The anti-Corbyn bias and almost unwavering support of the Conservative Party amongst the right-wing papers, combined with the level of mistrust in the media, have spawned an explosion in independent media over the past few years. Outlets like The Canary, Evolve Politics, Novara Media, and Another Angry Voice have sprung up to provide a counter-narrative to the establishment media. They have not yet come to dominate our news landscape, despite their best efforts, though they are making serious inroads into the influence of the right-wing media. There are also still traditionally centrist and left-wing outlets running in the mainstream press, but it is the right wing, and particularly the tabloids, that have the widest reach and thus the biggest impact on our political landscape and conversation.
This isn’t just in print either, traditional outlets have made a somewhat successful jump to digitally-driven journalism and media, although some have had to resort to paywalls or asking for donations/subscriptions in order to compete in such a media-rich environment. This transformation towards digital media is just another iteration of the disruption that tech and the internet have caused across every industry. Look at what Uber did to transport, what Amazon did to retail, what Fintech start-ups are doing to financial institutions, what Airbnb did to hostel and hotel bookings, the list goes on.
In our drive to find truth where mainstream media has left gaps, we have been left open to being fooled or manipulated, especially if we don’t do our due diligence. We have to find new ways of ensuring that people know who can be trusted as honest arbiters of information. Back in 1996, just as the internet was starting to grow beyond the very fringes of society and technology, Nicholas Negroponte predicted that the digital revolution would create a ‘cottage industry of information and entertainment providers’. That is what we see now, a mass of public and privately funded news and content providers pumping out hours of exactly what we want to hear or read, their business model relies on our clicks and engagement. Our commitment to the truth is rarely as prominent as our own biases, so whilst the truth is most important to a free and functioning press, it may not be what we really crave – we want to remain in our echo chambers.
Net Neutrality has levelled the playing field in terms of our access to information, but now we have to rely on our critical thinking skills, not just the press regulator. Unfortunately, the press is largely unaccountable, no major outlet has signed up to a state-backed regulator. In fact, the only outlets who have signed up to a state-backed regulator are sites like the Canary, Evolve Politics, and Left Foot Forward (a left-wing blog) through the independent regulator IMPRESS. Ironically, these outlets are often criticized by those in the mainstream press for being nothing but fake news and lefty nonsense, despite IMPRESS being the only press regulator in Britain to have complied with the results of the Leveson Inquiry into press practices. It’s fantastic to see a media revolution attempting to improve the quality of journalism in the UK, it’s a testament to the human desire to seek out truth. Yet, these outlets cannot be relied upon to produce the kind of investigative journalism that we need in a democracy. In an interview with Vice, Ian Hislop explained that:
What you can’t get online is that dedication to journalism which is very expensive and requires a lot of time. People investigate things and nothing happens – you don’t get a story and people say, ‘Well, that’s a waste of money.’ It isn’t, it’s part of the next story that will be any good. Online is much better at opinion and ‘bleugh’.
Within news and media, traditional outlets have managed to stay competitive in the market, and whilst disrupting independent blogs have started to gain more and more traction online, their imprint on the entire population is still rather small. According to 2017 research done by NewsWorks.org, print journalism still reaches one in every two adults each week, whilst online, UK news brands have driven 940 million social media interactions in the last month, including 817 million interactions on Facebook and 110 million interactions on Twitter. Despite the meteoric rise of blogging and alternative media, news brands still reach 97 per cent of all millennials and have significantly more interactions online than even Buzzfeed can garner. The influence and reach of mainstream papers has been reduced in the past few years, and trust has been eroded, but the MSM still play a huge part in our political conversation. Sun editor Tony Gallagher texted The Guardian team about an hour after the final result of the Brexit referendum was revealed, ‘So much for the waning power of the print media.’ Despite trust in their content waning rapidly, the mainstream tabloid press has had a hugely detrimental impact on our understanding of Europe (and politics as a whole) and on the quality of our political conversation.