2010 and the unseen internet election

To dismiss the role of new media is to misunderstand them.

People I both like and admire appear to have been queuing up in the past week to declare that this was not the internet election after all. First Jon Snow, writing in Saturday's Times, described the past four weeks as "The internet election that never happened". A day later Peter Preston, in his media column in the Observer, declared: "TV has dominated this campaign: the rest of the media were spear-carriers".

In fact, both articles are more nuanced than those headlines suggest. Nevertheless, as a piece by Steve Hewlett on the Today programme this morning underlined, there seems to be some glee -- a little Schadenfreude -- in passing judgement on the medium that didn't bark.

But much of this commentary misunderstands the role of new media and its influence on our politics. In all election campaigns, there is a ground war and an air war -- and the internet was always going to be far more effective in fighting the former.

As we wrote in our leader "Lights, camera, reaction", the week before the campaign got under way:

Despite the growing role of new media as a conduit for political conversation, most people will get most of their election news mediated through the usual channels -- television and newspapers. Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere are a useful, increasingly essential, means of talking to the base (energising volunteers and activating the activists), but they are far less potent when it comes to reaching out to and persuading floating voters.

In the words of Joe Rospars, Barack Obama's director of all things web during the 2008 presidential campaign, new media is about the "mobilisation of real people". And to that end, the verdict on the 2010 election will be much kinder.

Take the Labour Party. Its overarching campaign may at times have been quixotic, even chaotic, but its new media operation will likely be regarded as a success. It used social media -- its own MembersNet network of 30,000 activists, Facebook and Twitter campaigns such as #labourdoorstep -- together with less glamorous email lists and databases to co-ordinate the staples of electioneering: phone calls and face-to-face encounters.

In the closing two weeks of the campaign, I'm told that Labour supporters knocked on 900,000 doors. In 2005 it was struggling to make 50,000 face-to-face visits a week.

The party also built a virtual phone bank that allowed members of the party to make constituent calls from the comfort of their own homes -- or via the discomfort of the streets using a phone bank app for the Apple iPhone. In all, 60,000 calls were made using this system, a fraction of the total, but calls that would otherwise not have been made.

Encouragingly for the party, grass-roots campaigners didn't wait to be asked before using the technology -- witness the #MobMonday Twitter campaign, inspired by 24-year-old Grace Fletcher-Hackwood and her fellow activists in Manchester.

Labour also hitched a ride with other non-party activity, notably Clifford Singer's MyDavidCameron, which has changed the way we look at election posters for ever and, more immediately, forced the Conservatives to change their advertising agency. Back in January, Gordon Brown was encouraged to drop in a reference to the "airbrushed" David Cameron during PMQs, bringing what had been an online in-joke into the mainstream.

The Labour Party was not alone in harnessing the web but -- activities like Singer's aside -- the real point is this: internet electioneering is largely invisible to the wider public, it's not designed for the mainstream. Rather, it is designed to get the vote out. Studies in the United States suggest that door-to-door canvassing can increase turnout by up to 11 per cent.

Will it work? We'll know in 36 hours or so.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?