By Jeffrey Adams
The extent of data mining to drive voter behaviour is finally out. The Guardian clinched an interview with Christopher Wylie, a sharp young tech who helped establish Cambridge Analytica, the data mining firm. Alt Right media guru Steve Bannon was his boss, and Robert Mercer the US multibillionaire, the investor. This firm is being investigated in how it helped propel Trump to victory as well as links to LeaveEU. The net is closing in.
I wrote an article in Orkney News on this topic last year. Shampoo and Brexit It was very detailed, too detailed perhaps to be effective. The mention of Cambridge Analytica was omitted from the Orkney News for good reason. The firm were suing The Guardian at the time for their suggestion of illegal voter influence, and I didn’t think Orkney News needed a law suit.
But concerned by the parallels of the messaging between the Brexiteers and the Trump supporters, I wanted to see what could be done to help. My German friends were heading into an election and although it seemed too late for the US and the UK, there was a chance to make a small difference in Germany maybe. So we produced a step by step guide showing how to remove election advertising from Facebook. It was clearly marked under advertising interests as “election” but it took 12 steps to remove it. Who would know to do that if they weren’t deliberately looking?
What needs to happen now, is a full investigation into micro targeting of voters in the Brexit referendum and the General Election of 2017. Investigation also needs to happen in Germany, where I believe similar tactics were deployed. Germany had a shock election result when the hard right party, AFD, gained a significant amount of seats mostly in former East Germany. Like the Brexit referendum voters, voters had switched from center left parties to a hard right party- Immigration being the key message.
Nigel Farage spoke at the AFD conference before their election, and given the investigation in the UK now,German authorities would be wise to check if citizens’ data has been used by the AFD to get ahead.
Rather like the UK General Election 2017, what struck me about the German result was the geography of the voters who shifted to the fringe right wing party. In Germany the map looked like this.
A clear East West divide.
In the Brexit referendum there was also a geographical divide.
A clear North South divide and division by countries.
The GE 17 had some shocks with seats of the SNP big hitters turned over to Tory.
Look at the geographical split.
The Aberdeen area – oil industry and key fishing area turned blue.
Did these areas receive bespoke messaging? Were anti CFP and fears of a hard border between England and Scotland exploited? Who is trying to sow division among European countries ?
The response to some of this may translate in people exiting Facebook in disgust and distrust. I don’t blame them. But targeting was not only digital. It was on posters and billboards like the now infamous Leave poster with £350 million for the NHS on the side of a bus.
It shocked me when I saw the same things happening here in Germany. One poster for AFD read ” We prefer bikinis to Burkas“
My town had AFD boards on every third lamp post saying “Because Offenbach is not Tanzania”
The messaging for AFD was crass, in your face, glossy and American produced. A firm in Texas ran the advertising for the German AFD with humour that read like a lad’s mag that disguised a sinister race related message. Have Steve Bannon et al exported their movement for a more right wing world to the rest of us?
What now for Scotland’s Indyref2 ?
I sympathize with the passionate pleas from Indy supporters for the Scottish Government to call the referendum now. Some YES supporters are weary of what they see as SNP inaction, or an administrative feel to Nicola Sturgeon. “We need Indy & we need it now”
But I am going to be controversial and say we need to wait.There is not enough known about micro targeting to be confident voters are protected.
If Germany is anything to go by, it is not just digital campaigning that could be deployed.Clever targeted messages could pop up everywhere. I am talking about posters coming to a lamp post near you covered in Union Jacks and stirring emotion that could be dangerous if it all spills over. Indy supporters are one of the most informed group of voters, but one hurdle is how to speak to others outside the movement. Digital marketing and clever ads can do just that- and fast and often.
If a firm link is established between data gathering and Leave EU, that is a gift to the Indy movement. It says the UK Government cannot protect us from election meddling. If evidence is found that the GE17 micro targeted Scottish seats for Tory gain, then the SNP have a huge opportunity to tell the people of Scotland they have been manipulated and it is time to go.
Let’s give our Scottish Government time to do their research. The population needs to catch on and our lawmakers need to catch up.
Then, we will be ready.