Among the swathe of anti-Labour front pages on Friday morning, The Daily Telegraph’s stood out with its story about an army of fake Twitter accounts were helping to boost the party’s poll numbers.
Accounts “discovered” by the newspaper’s journalists were tweeting thousands of times either in support of Jeremy Corbyn or attacking Theresa May. The paper even implied that the weak-willed youth of Twitter were being swayed into supporting Labour as a result.
The story taps into a narrative that has become increasingly popular on both left and right that sees shadowy forces, from Russian spies to American billionaires, using the dark arts of the internet to subvert elections around the world.
There is, of course, little doubt that bad actors are trying to interfere in national politics through social media. Russia’s “troll army” is well documented and there have been detailed investigations into right-wing Reddit groups spreading disinformation ahead of the French election. There’s even a good chance that they have some success, but there is still little evidence that tactics such as spreading fake viral stories or coordinated trolling has changed any results.
Yet you don’t need to go full on tin-foil hat to be worried about how political campaigning works on the web, because even the mundane world of digital advertising is murky enough to have a negative impact on democracy.
Just hours before the Telegraph story, BuzzFeed ran its own, which exposed some of the Facebook ads that the Tories are targeting at voters in marginal constituencies. Most of the ads attack Corbyn on issues such as security or Brexit negotiations. Cumulatively they are racking up millions of views. And even though they are targeted specifically at the constituencies the Tories believe are most needed to secure a majority, they are not governed by strict local spending limits, so long as they don’t mention a local candidate or issue. Instead they can come out of the far larger national pot, which is capped at £19m.
Labour will – if they have any sense – be doing something similar. But the Tories are more practiced at using social media for campaigning, and have access to greater resources. Labour are unlikely to be able to match their operation.
But it doesn’t matter who is pumping money into political advertising on to Facebook. It matters that we have very little idea of what that money is doing.
The ads unearthed by BuzzFeed are a small sample collected using a recently-launched service called Who Targets Me which aims to open up the black box that is digital political advertising. It’s necessary because the Conservatives have refused to reveal the content of the ads they put on Facebook.
Being able to examine the content of those ads matters, because targeted digital advertising enables divisive campaigning that would be far too risky on TV, radio or even in print. On Facebook, parties can push out messages only to those they believe will be receptive, without running the risk of turning off other voters. You can make sure your message about the opposition’s planned tax rises to fund public services only reaches high earners, safe in the knowledge that those who might back greater redistribution will rarely, if ever, see it. You can make sure your scaremongering about immigrants is only shown to those with exclusively Anglo-Saxon heritage (if you can find any, that is). You can say one thing to one voter, and something completely different to another, and it’s this capability that makes Facebook so appealing to campaigners.
And all this is going largely unregulated, because the Electoral Commission is woefully ill-equipped to do anything about it. Not only does it lack the resources to investigate digital campaigning effectively, but it is also only able to enforce the rules set by legislators, and those rules treat the web as almost an afterthought.
Headlines about an army of automated digital infiltrators trying to put Corbyn into Number 10 may sell papers, but political campaigns are already making widespread use of the social media weaponry that is designed to be divisive and polarising. It’s just a lot harder to see them doing it.