Although the internet was born out of a military research project, many of its original advocates touted its democratic potential to provide a platform for free exchange of ideas and creativity. But there were always voices of warning that the mass connectivity resulting from a global network could lead to something more Orwellian.
The creeping commercialisation and politicisation of the internet has led to many Big Brother moments over the last couple of decades, but it wasn’t until the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in 2018 that the public became aware of the true extent of manipulation of individuals online facilitated by big tech.
The Channel 4 sting of the flamboyant CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, built upon the work of investigative journalist Carole Cadwallader. She had written an article almost a year earlier, in which she exposed the damage to democracy through the manipulation of voters via targeted advertising using the harvested Facebook data of up to 87 million people worldwide, orchestrated by Cambridge Analytica on behalf of political clients.
How did the targeted advertising work?
In a nutshell, bespoke software was programmed to trawl through details of millions of personal accounts on Facebook, profiling each user according to their sex, age, race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, political affiliations, preference for cats or dogs, favourite flavour ice cream and thousands of other indicators. Once each user was successfully profiled, they would be automatically served with a political advert tailored specifically for them. A Christian African-American family man might get an advert with a black husband and wife and their children sitting on the lawn outside a church, with a red banner above saying “Vote Trump!” An agnostic Irish-American lesbian would instead be served with an advert depicting a white woman sitting on the same lawn with her same sex partner, with a trendy coffee bar in the background instead of a church, and a rainbow banner above saying “Vote Trump!” These are just theoretical examples which highlight the process – but there was broad consensus that the work of Cambridge Analytica had almost certainly played some part in the election of Donald Trump to the White House. Carole Cadwalladr argued that similar tactics were also used to swing the Brexit referendum, and fines were levied by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on Vote Leave and Leave.eu for certain data protection breaches. But former deputy PM Nick Clegg, now vice-president at Facebook, argued that there had been no Russian interference with the Brexit vote.
Cambridge Analytica decided to close its doors in 2018, soon after the scandal broke, along with its parent company SCL Group. In 2020 Alexander Nix signed a disqualification undertaking barring him from being a company director for seven years. Meanwhile, the ICO fined Facebook £500,000 for not doing enough to protect its users from their data being “harvested” for political purposes, and started an investigation which it described as “one of the most complex ever carried out by a data protection authority”.
Implications of the ICO investigation
On 6 October 2020, the ICO concluded its three year investigation and published a report entitled Investigation into the use of data analytics in political campaigns. In the foreword, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham alludes to the potential electoral manipulation:
“We may never know whether individuals were unknowingly influenced to vote a certain way in either the UK EU referendum or the US election campaigns. But we do know that personal privacy rights have been compromised by a number of players and that the digital electoral ecosystem needs reform.”
She goes on note how social media companies, amongst others, are failing to uphold privacy:
“We have uncovered a disturbing disregard for voters’ personal privacy. Social media platforms, political parties, data brokers and credit reference agencies have started to question their own processes – sending ripples through the big data eco-system.”
In a letter to Parliament, Ms Denham warns that Covid-19 could exacerbate some of these problems:
“What is clear is that the use of digital campaign techniques are a permanent fixture of our elections and the wider democratic process and will only continue to grow in the future. The Covid-19 pandemic is only likely to accelerate this process as political parties and campaigns seek to engage with voters in a safe and socially distanced way.”
Despite the aforementioned fines levied upon Brexit campaigning organisations, the ICO investigation found no evidence that Cambridge Analytica was involved in the official Brexit referendum campaign:
“From my review of the materials recovered by the investigation I have found no further evidence to change my earlier view that SCL/CA were not involved in the EU referendum campaign in the UK – beyond some initial enquiries made by SCL/CA in relation to UKIP data in the early stages of the referendum process. This strand of work does not appear to have then been taken forward by SCL/CA.”
And Nick Clegg appears to have been vindicated in his argument that there was no Russian involvement:
“We did not find any additional evidence of Russian involvement in our analysis of material contained in the SCL/CA servers we obtained.”
So in some ways the final results of the ICO investigation have been something of a damp squib, with an apparent lack of evidence to make many ground-breaking assertions. Nevertheless, many questions have been raised and there are clear problems which have been identified. In terms of next steps, one of the main recommendations from a report related to the investigation, Democracy Disrupted?, is that “the Government should legislate at the earliest opportunity to introduce a statutory code of practice under the DPA 2018 for the use of personal information in political campaigns.”
Separately, mass legal action, by almost a million users in England and Wales, is being launched against Facebook for its failure to protect its users from having their personal data harvested for political purposes.