Sorry Nick, but there is more that Facebook can and should be doing.

Nick Clegg was on the Today Programme this morning to talk about his job with Facebook and its role in facilitating interference with elections and referendums in the UK and around the world. 

Clegg says there is no evidence that Russia influenced the result of the Brexit vote using Facebook. 

To quote Mandy Rice Davies – Well he would say that, wouldn’t he.

Clegg appears to blame deep-rooted Euroscepticism for the outcome. He also argues for greater regulation of social media and tech firms saying there should be new rules of the road on privacy, election rules, use of personal data and what constitutes hate speech.

Clearly there is no single reason why the UK voted to leave. Pinning all the blame on Facebook, Russia, Cambridge Analytica or anyone else is misleading. However, there does appear to be significant evidence that the last of these had access to a huge amount of personal data, harvested via Facbook, and sought to use it via campaigns to influence people’s voting. The evidence of Russian involvement is not quite so strong as that Russia sought to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election (where it is undeniable), but it is clear that Facebook was used as a platform for illegal campaigning, even if unwittingly.

And it is also clear that whatever happened in the UK referendum, there have been many cases of outside forces seeking to affect national elections via Facebook and other online activity. The Macedonian name referendum and recent Ukrainian Presidential election are just two examples.

Clegg is right that the should be better regulation that reflects the modern world. But he is wrong to imply that there are no rules in existence at the moment. The UK, as most countries, has a vast amount of electoral law that codifies who can campaign and how much they can spend. That these laws were written before the advent of the public internet doesn’t matter. If the law can apply to paper leaflets then, broadly, it can also apply to internet communications.

Difficult though it may be for Facebook, a company that operates in 150+ countries and therefore with 150+ sets of different election laws, it is the responsibility of everyone to obey the applicable law in the countries in which you operate. Facebook’s reaction until now, however, has been to place itself above the law. It has proposed (and is gradually implementing) two significant changes, requiring election related advertising on its site to be clearly labelled as such and reporting on who is paying for political advertising. Both of these changes are to be welcomed, but they are not yet universally applied. And, crucially, they do not accord with the detail of election law in each country. In seeking to apply its own solution, Facebook is thumbing its nose at elections around the world.

It is not just the main Facebook site that is doing so. WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and many other social media platforms also have their problems. Some of these will need new legislation to solve, but most simply require the company behind them to read and adapt to local laws.

Social media platforms must do more to prevent election attacks

It’s pretty clear that social media attacks have a real potential to affect not just elections, but political life in general. That’s why Facebook’s ‘two steps forward, one step back’ strategy is so disappointing. They – with their subsidiary WhatsApp – are the biggest players in the social media market and they have a responsibility to act. Only when platforms are completely transparent will election authorities be able to act and we, the voters, will have confidence that our elections are not being distorted.

How election regulations work

Different countries have different laws regarding elections and this applies to online campaigning and social media too. In most countries, the principle means of regulating election campaigns is via spending limits – although there may be a range of other controls. Parties and candidates are required to submit a spending return after the election (and sometimes interim returns mid-campaign). They may have to open a dedicated bank account and there may be limits as to who can contribute and how much.

Many countries view day to day non-commercial uses of social media as being essentially free and so they do not fall under the scope of election expenses. Even websites are often viewed as being low cost and are an under-regulated form of influencing votes.

Such ‘free’ uses include:

  • Setting up a Facebook page to promote a candidate or party and gather ‘likes’ for them. People who have ‘liked’ the candidate can then be sent messages and other information. Likers and other users can view live streams of campaign events
  • A twitter account to promote the candidate, to encourage retweets and to retweet others (endorsements, party leaders etc)
  • A WhatsApp account to create groups and to share information among those groups and encourage other group members to forward the information to others.
  • An Instagram account to share images and engage in conversation with followers and others.

There are, of course, many other social media platforms, but they broadly fall into one of these basic use profiles.

Increasingly, social media is also being used to host paid-for advertisements of a political or campaign nature during elections. These may come from parties or candidates themselves and can be positive or negative in nature. Or they can come from third party actors within the country or from outside. Different rules apply in each country with some countries permitting third party groups to spend money campaigning during an election either for or against a candidate or on the basis of issues. And whilst some countries permit funding by citizens living overseas, broadly speaking no country permits out of country election spending by non-citizens.

Why parties use social media

The advantage of social media advertising is that it allows an advert to be targeted at a specific audience. To take Facebook, the company knows enough about its users that it can sell advertising so that it reaches a very specific group. It is easy to target, for example, women aged 24-35 in a particular city. And, the company knows much more than simple demographics. They also know about an individual’s likes and dislikes (quite literally because of the ‘like’ buttons clicked). So Facebook can sell advertising enabling very precise targeting. And because the user data is not shared with the advertiser – they only receive personal information if the recipient of the advert chooses to share it with them – this practice is seen as compliant with data laws around the world.

The attractiveness of social media to parties, candidates and other political campaigners is obvious and not a bad thing. Lots of voters complain they don’t know enough about what politicians or parties stand for, so this means of communication should help. But a platform that allows genuine communication is also open to fake news and outside interference.

unnamedA disclaimer here: As a campaign manager in the 2016 EU referendum, I commissioned and paid for Facebook adverts on a number of occasions. I was able to define the audience I wanted to see these and I thought they were good value for money. I didn’t of course, have access to the private data that the platform used to target that audience. Our advert spending was properly declared to the Electoral Commission.

The Cambridge Analytica/AIQ case is something different. In this case data was harvested for one reason and then given or sold to political advertisers for completely different reasons. Facebook has been shown to have known about this illegal transfer to the extent that they have been fined the maximum amount permitted in the UK. But even if the company acted illegally in that case, it does not currently inhibit the legal act of selling advertising by Facebook and other social media companies.

Recent problems

There have been a number of scandals to hit election related social media in recent years:

  • During the 2016 UK referendum on membership of the EU the Electoral Commission found that the Vote Leave campaign illegally co-ordinated their campaigning with BeLeave by passing on funding which was spent on social media advertising;
  • During the 2016 US Presidential Election, it is alleged that Russia (and possibly China) sought to interfere with the contest through the promotion of fake news and the use of ‘bots’ to spread false information. (Other claims about Russian interference have been made but they don’t come under the heading of social media;
  • During the 2018 Brazillian Presidential Election, it is claimed that fake news aimed at both candidsates has been spread via WhatsApp groups;
  • During the 2018 Macedonian name referendum, it is alleged that many hundreds of websites, Facebook groups and other means were created from outside the country to promote a boycott and therefore to lessen the credibility of the outcome which was expected to be a Yes vote;
  • Allegations of foreign interference have also been made about French, German and other elections in Europe and elsewhere.

In addition to social media, voters may see election related content on news sites, gossip sites, blogs and so on. Frequently, these sites encourage interaction via comments and these are often un-moderated. Whilst parties can campaigns will endeavour to push messages out via these sites – as they do through mainstream media – the comments sections are often the territory where activists and others will seek to promote points of view and stories which are less factually robust.

So what action have Facebook taken?

They have made two significant changes which are broadly positive. They have required that every political advert carries a form of identification so the viewer can see who produced it. However this ‘imprint’ is often not as clear as one might like, providing little real clue as to who is behind it. A recent example are adverts urging constituents to contact therir MP and ‘stand up for Brexit’. A number or groups have produced these and some are clear whilst others are far from.

Second, Facebook will periodically release the details who who has spent what on political advertising. That’s great, but it won’t be linked to specific content.

They have also announced a ‘war room’ to tackle fake news during there EU elections.

On the downside, Facebook appears to have restricted the ability of plug-ins to monitor advertising content. This has hit the Who Targets Me platform even though the use of plug-ins in that case is entirely consensual. So one of the prime investigators of shady political advertising is no longer able to undertake its investigations.

And, as I’ve previously written, WhatsApp in India has restricted the ability for users to forward messages. However this make the spreading of fake news slightly harder rather than eliminating the possibility entirely.

Has fake news swung elections?

It’s impossible to tell. Governments do not like to admit that they might have come to power or their course of action might have been set via a referendum that was fundamentally flawed. And courts and election commissions have been very reticent in declaring a ballot to be void. That is not to say that it has never happened, but these remedies do not appear to be the most reliable.

Whilst in the past a second country (or people based in a second country) might have sought to influence the conduct of an election by means of radio broadcasts and the like, the advent of the internet, and particularly of social media, has made it much easier to seek to influence an election in another country whether through ‘fake news’ or truthful campaigning.

There is also a question as to how much a vote is actually changed by a piece of fake news. In most cases it appears that a voter is likely to cast their ballot in a certain way and the information they choose to listen to or accept (whether fake or otherwise) simply confirms their choice.

And what constitutes ‘fake’? An outright lie or doctored photo such as the one claiming that the former Brazillian President Dilma was a prodigy of Fidel Castro is simple to categorise. But the ‘£350m for the NHS’ slogan on the side of the Vote Leave bus during the UK’s referendum is not so obviously fake. Had politicians decided to do so, they could have made this come true, regardless of the impact of Brexit on public finances. It is fair to point out that the pretext of the claim – that Brexit would make the UK better off – is probably not the case, but we are then into a political debate – something that should not be policed in a heavy handed fashion, if at all.

However, it does seem probable that there have been significant numbers of votes affected by fake news or international campaigning in various elections and that this is something that should be taken seriously. Respected NGOs in various countries have raised concerns about this issue.

Next steps

Governments across the world have been reluctant even to address this issue. But some have and they have chosen different approaches. In the UK, ministers have said that recognising and ignoring fake news is the responsible of the individual. They don’t propose to take any action to stamp it out. France, however, has indicated that it might try to set up an official body to make rulings. The difficulty here is that such rulings are likely to come after the horse has well and truly bolted.

What seems logical as a first step is for platforms such as Facebook to be much more open about who is funding political advertising and what it says to whom. It is not necessarily for social media executives to do the work of electoral commissions, but they need to enable the official regulators to do their jobs properly. If an individual, organisation or even foreign country is trying to influence elections then this should be clear and, if it is against the law, then action should be taken. But until the social media platforms come clean, this can’t happen.