Hard News by Russell Brown


Digital persuasion and the dark places of democracy

Last week, officially the first of Australia's 2019 federal election campaign, potential voters were subjected to a series of false claims about the Labor Party's policy on vehicle emissions reduction. But not everyone saw the ads, and of those who did, not everyone saw the same ad.

"[Labor leader] Bill Shorten wants to tax the Toyota Hilux. Sign up to help us stop him," read an ad seen by Hilux owners. Mitsubishi Triton owners, on the other hand, were told "Bill Shorten wants to tax the Mitsubishi Triton." These were targeted Facebook ads and using them isn't exactly rocket science. Car brands are an available "interest" category for Facebook targeting.

Labor responded by using Facebook targeting of the same potential voters ("If you're a fan of Mitsubishi you'll want to know about our plan to save you money"). This is a campaign in which both major parties are using social media targeting – in Labor's case, particularly geo-targeting – to reach particular voters. And the ads themselves are, so far, staying within Australian Electoral Commission party authorisation rules.

The same can't be said of the anonymous Facebook pages that are paying to amplify unsourced political ads to the benefit of the Liberals, according to The Guardian. The AEC told the Guardian that the lack of authorisation on these ads is a breach of the law and it would be contacting some of the page owners, but it doesn't, of course, know who their owners are. Facebook has temporarily banned political advertising booked by non-Australians, but declined to offer the transparency tools it has already deployed in some other countries.

So, much as our societal wellbeing relies on the "community standards" of giant companies that may not be totally focused on that wellbeing, we're reliant on platform owners for the health of our democracies. And even when the transparency tools are globally rolled out in June, it willl be Facebook that runs the approval process.

It seems worth noting that earlier this year, Facebook deliberately broke a ProPublica tool that let everyone see how ads were being targeted. The Guardian's appeal for its own readers to help its journalists understand what's actually going on by screenshotting any dodgy ads they may come across seems an inadequate form of oversight, but it's all we've got.

It all seems to signal a significant challange for our own electoral regulators next year. The Electoral Commission sets rules and decides what is or isn't election advertising, but hands off judgement on the actual content of advertising to the Advertising Standards Authority, via the Advertising Standards Complaints Board. The ASA is a sound organisation and a good example of industry self-regulation. But it's complaint-driven – and we seem to be entering an era where there can be multiple micro-targeted iterations of campaign advertising that concerned parties can't even see to complain about.

It has become easy in the social media age to mislead the public not only about what the other side is doing, but who "your" side even is. The Guardian revealed earlier this month that more than a dozen high-profile "grassroots" Brexit ad campaigns are in fact being run by staff at the office of lobbyist Lynton Crosby. The estimated £1m spent on targeted advertising for these campaigns all, it seems, flows through that office. Only Crosby and whoever's paying him knows where the money comes from.

Couldn't happen here? The paper's follow-up today further claims that the Crosby astroturfers have specifically sought to influence the public towards a hard Brexit and to undermine Theresa May. And it includes this passage:

There are also questions over how Crosby’s firm uses arm’s-length companies to run its digital campaigns. Since 2016 it has outsourced work to two rightwing New Zealand political activists called Ben Guerin and Sean Topham through their Auckland-based consultancy Topham Guerin, which bills CTF Partners for the work they do on behalf of Crosby’s company.

Guerin and Topham, both in their mid-20s, are regularly based in CTF’s Mayfair office. They also ran the digital campaign for New Zealand’s National party in the country’s 2017 general election, ultimately failing to stop the Labour leader, Jacinda Ardern, becoming prime minister.

Documents seen by the Guardian suggest Topham Guerin was also involved in running online pro-coal campaigns on behalf of mining giant Glencore to encourage the construction of coal-fired power stations, in addition to working in India and Malaysia.

Topham was previously the chair of the National party’s youth wing, while Guerin was a digital adviser to the office of the former New Zealand prime minister Bill English.

Topham Guerin told the Guardian it would not comment on “fundamentally inaccurate claims” made about its work with CTF Partners, but declined to say in which way the claims were inaccurate. It did not respond to further questions about its work with Crosby’s company or whether it had ever been involved in online Brexit campaigns.

Topham and Guerin, both young men making their way in the booming industry of digital persuasion, may not feel that they're doing anything wrong here; that it's all in the game, that working on contract for Darth Vader is just a hell of a career opportunity. But the rest of us might feel that the material involvement of politically-connected New Zealanders in such a deceptive and deeply cynical covert politics project brings things a little too close for comfort.

Anyway, if you've read this far, please do schedule an additional 15 minutes to watch Carole Cadwalladr's TED Talk about what happened in the Brexit campaign, the law broken and the lies told – and Facebook's role of the non-cooperating custodian of a crime scene – and what it means for democracy. Sean Topham himself retweeted Cadwalldr's hailing of the New York Times' report on Facebook's battle to avoid accountability for Russian "active measures". But as he says in his Twitter bio, "RTs ≠ Endorsements" ...

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