Opinion Piece By Jeffrey Adams
[Includes a 12 step guide on how to control the ads you see on social media]
Social media data can be sold to a shampoo company just as it can to a political group, but does that break the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights? and data protection laws ?
The UK Information Commissioners Office is now investigating the political grass roots group Leave.EU. The investigation relates to data gathered from social media, data protection and election spend limits. There are articles with further information if you search online under: ‘ Big Data and UK election’.
The powerful influence of social media in swaying voters was explained by political strategist Gerry Gunster, from Leave.EU who told BBC Panorama the following about Facebook:
“It was a game changer for convincing voters to back Brexit… 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… I can do the exact same things 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”.
How does this tailored messaging work?
If we continue with the Facebook example, people like me, and if you happen to be reading this on Facebook, people like you, agree that our data can be collected and categorized. This categorization is based on the kinds of things we like or share and even how long we stay on a particular page. Facebook can place this behaviour and activity data alongside other users with similar interests. This data can be bought as set out by Facebook terms and conditions. Facebook state that data is sold onto advertisers to provide us with “products and services” and can be shared with third party partners and customers listed as“advertising, measurement and analytics services”. Advertising I can understand, this is a huge revenue stream for Facebook, but measurement and analytics services- for what purpose ?
Pre Brexit vote you or I may have seen bespoke adverts the type of which Gunster described. Even if you are not a social media user it is likely you have spoken with someone who is. This is what makes social media an effective communication tool. It has reach beyond that of newspapers and TV, it is interactive and brings ideas and messages to life with video and sound. Add to that the amount of time the public spend on it per day and buyers of your data have an engaged audience to communicate with.
But is there any way of protecting ourselves from the huge amount of data being harvested landing into the laps of politicians or political groups ?
A search around Facebook helped me find a way to limit targeted advertising.
How to Protect yourself from unwanted ads
Continuing with Facebook look at your Facebook feed and you will see what type of adverts you are getting. On mine I can see what Facebook calls a ‘suggested post’and a ‘suggested video’. The first suggested video is for a training and fitness app, then there is a suggested post about B vitamins, and one for a shampoo. Facebook has identified that I may be interested in fitness, health and hair care. My Facebook activity has been sold as part of a group lot of data to an advertising firm who want to sell me their products. As Gunster explained data is bought with a target market in mind. Data helps advertisers understand their audience better; what motivates them ? what interests them ? what do they believe in ?
The data gathered covers everything from religious articles you might have read to holidays in Austria or a funny video you liked. All of this data builds up a picture of you. A shampoo company for example might ask Facebook for data on women or men in a certain age group and location to get an idea of their interests, so they can send adverts with messaging closely matching the targeted consumer, you. So this is how suggested posts and videos end up on your Facebook feed.
But, here is the problem, there is a quantum leap between trying to sell you a shampoo and trying to sell reasons for Brexit. These things are not comparable and shouldn’t be treated by our social media as if they were. The intention and consequences are different. Once I buy a shampoo I am protected under consumer law, the impact on my life is minimal. But bespoke political adverts bring political decisions to a personalized level right down to location, age, gender and profession and they are intended to drive behaviour at the ballot box. It is a powerful weapon. The Panorama report stated that membership to the BNP grew at an unprecedented level following the release of BNP Facebook Ads.
Until such time as our law makers catch up it is down to us to understand what we are viewing and raise awareness of how people can control how much messaging they receive. Attached at the end of this article is a step by step guide to limit the adverts Facebook show you if you want to restrict political groups targeting you. Election is one of the advert topics I was able to remove.
But is social media categorization and sale of our data having another effect beyond seeking to influence our vote ?
Online conduct – A growing problem
MEP Alyn Smith recently wrote in The Herald his concerns about lawmaking not keeping pace with technological advances and the problem of growing online hostility. Smith described this hostility as a return to a sort of tribalism:
“That’s my team, we’re right, you’re wrong. Anything my team says is right, and anything your team says is a cynical distortion of the truth”.
Smith also called for all political parties to work together to regulate themselves and for party members to follow an online code of conduct.
Could the group tribalism and hostility Alyn describes be a by product of the way social media has organized us into groups and sent us political messages? Facebook’s mission statement says the following:
“we are passionate about creating engaging and customized experiences for people”.
But is it this very customization that is blinding us to other points of view ? and is it tapping so far into our psychology that people are reacting strongly, deeply convinced by what they have seen and read. Add to this the level of anonymity social media affords and it is easy to see why people react online. This is emotive targeting over emotive topics. No one is arguing online over shampoo.
One of my recent articles sadly resulted in an online mobbing. “ if you hate Scotland then leave !” was one of the more restrained remarks. In this instance readers had misunderstood a comment under the article which included asterisks. Some readers thought the asterisks were a swear word used to describe Scotland.
People were outraged. But the man had used the asterisks to mean Scotland was 5 star, top class and was bewildered by the hostile responses. Watching the angry comments appear I paused to consider how online activity has allowed passions to tip over into anger. How can we discuss this topic without a sanctimonious overtone and creating a fear of technology.
Maybe in years to come students of media studies will reflect on this period. I am confident we will catch up and be more aware of our data footprint and how our social media is influencing us via ads and the echo chamber effect.
Until then, it is important our law makers don’t take a wrong footed approach. The pressure is on for the Government to act and protect individuals from cyber bullying. Labour MP Diane Abbot recently spoke of the online levels of abuse she received during the General Election campaign:
“Just to outline I’ve had death threats, I’ve had people online tweeting that I should be hung”.
The Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will hold an investigation into online abuse of election candidates and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly called for better conduct online.
Social media cannot become a place we fill up with rage, but at the same time it can’t become a space that is censored. Where does the balance rest?
My concern is in overlooking the root of the problem, the temptation will be to regulate what we say on the internet. The Tory Manifesto set out plans to make certain online activity and hostility as easy to convict as if it were carried out in the non virtual world. Whilst some levels of online abuses are covered by law, others are not because of freedom of speech.
But rather than regulate citizens I would like to see legislation that prevents our data being sold for the use of election campaigns or election research. I would also like to see the social media giants who sell big data for profit be held more accountable regarding who they sell to and for what purpose. There needs to be more transparency for the user and social companies should spend more on resources that remove offensive comments and misuse.
Facebook has already set up a system to identify fake news, it’s a start but it doesn’t protect us from the political advertising. Legislation to prevent political parties with deep pockets buying up data under the pretense of using it for “analysis and measuring” needs to be a priority if we are to feel confident in our election process.
Your vote has been hard fought for and is precious. The chance to influence it shouldn’t be sold like a commodity.
Data Protection and The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
Going back to my original thought, has EU law been broken ?
Under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights there are the following areas:
- Everyone has the right to the protection of personal data concerning him or her.
- Such data must be processed fairly for specified purposes and on the basis of the consent of the person concerned or some other legitimate basis laid down by law.
It is a fundamental principle of Data Protection law that there is transparency in how data is used. Transparency is especially important in situations where individuals have a choice about whether they wish to enter into a relationship. If individuals know at the outset what their information will be used for, they are free to make an informed decision about whether to enter into a relationship with the collector of the data.
But did people know data collected on social media could end up in the hands of political groups ? I didn’t and would not have consented to receiving the targeted adverts had I known.
Facebook says our data is used to provide us with products and services, but can a political message be classified as either of those ?
If I like or share an article about healthcare which leads to a targeted message about the NHS by Leave.EU is my data being used in a way I have consented to ?
Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Is it possible that our ability to think freely has been compromised if social media channels are being paid to pile on political messages psycops style without our awareness ?
There is a difference between bespoke messages and party political broadcasts that are clearly identified and subject to regulations.. Newspapers also address political issues as I am doing, but it is clear that is what the topic is and it is not individualised. Social media is individually subtle and there is just much more of it.
Freedom of expression and information
- Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
Freedom to impart information and ideas without interference by public authority, how is this being monitored and upheld ?
These are big questions that need legal minds to answer them.
If/when Britain has extracted itself from the EU these EU Charters will no longer be valid. Unanswered questions about our democracy washed away in the UK journey to Brexit. Which leads to another pressing question what will the Tories replace the EU Charter with ? The Tory proposed Digital Charter needs scrutiny. Whoever owns our data and sets the rules on how it is to be used, holds the keys to the Kingdom.
12 Step guide to taking contorol of the ads you see
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Jeffrey Adams is a regular contributor to The Orkney News. We welcome contributions from our readers. You can e:mail firstname.lastname@example.org or use our contact page