Is social media empowering us or manipulating us?
Social media can be exploited by foreign powers and interest groups during elections in ways that are hard to track, but tech projects such as Who Targets Me and Swap my Vote are fighting back, attempting to bring people a greater sense of transparency and control.
Presented by Maija Palmer. Produced by Ruth Lewis-Coste
Hi. I'm Mia Palmer. The FT has been running a series of special reports on how people in communities are using technology, everything from apps for civic activists, to digital solutions for the disabled. And the project wouldn't be complete without looking at technology and democracy, especially the rather inflamed question of how we use social media. Is it empowering us or manipulating us?
With me to discuss this are Carl Miller, Research Director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the Think Tank Demos and who's also writing a book called Power. We also have two people with very interesting projects applying technological solutions to political problems. One of them is Tom de Grunwald, who founded Swap My Vote, a website that allows people in the UK in general elections to trade votes with each other for tactical voting.
And Sam Jeffers, co-founded Who Targets Me, a technology that helps you track who is targeting you with online political ads. So thank you all for joining me. Let's start by talking about where we are with social media today.
When you read about the fact that Russian accounts were buying highly targeted political advertising on Facebook during the US election, there's that feeling that social media is being used to subvert the democratic process rather than aiding it. Is that a fair assessment of where we are? How does it feel to you? What are you seeing, Carl, at Demos and as you're writing your book?
Well, I think that very clear to us now is that social media is both of the most emancipatory and liberating things ever to happen to politics. And also one of the things that is adding and introducing all these new ways in which we can be controlled or manipulated. The kind of tremendous problem that we all have is both exactly the same time.
So everyone's finding their voices. We have this explosion of civic activism. We've had all these new amazing ways in which people are engaging in the political process, sometimes for the first time. I think that's a shift which is one of the most important of all and it's one that we've only just begun to really realise it's happening.
So yes. What do we do about that?
I think in terms of what we do, one of the big things we have to really focus on is literacy and media literacy. We have to make sure that we're all cognizant of the way that technologies are being used and Sam's project's fantastic. And I will talk about it in a moment. But that's a really great example of how people can come together to actually increase the knowledge of what is going on.
Yeah. Well it's a good point actually to bring Sam in. I mean, Sam, can you tell us a little bit about Who Targets Me?
The inspiration for it was really disparity between the conservative and labour elections pending in 2015 on social media and the conservatives saying how much money and how successfully they had used Facebook advertising to win that particular election. And realising that there was no real way of knowing for sure exactly what was going on.
And so, when the 2017 election was called, we built this piece of software that allows users to essentially scrape the Facebook ads off their feed into a database that allows us to do, A, to tell them who's targeting them, but B, to do more analysis of how a campaign is being fought.
And so, for the first time really we're trying to create the sort of things actually we believe the big platform companies should do themselves, which is kind of expose more of what's going on so that people have more visibility over how a campaign is actually being run.
And was this because it was actually really difficult to know how much exactly was being spent on Facebook advertising and by whom? It didn't exist in the public record.
So the public record would tell you how much was spent and it would basically the invoices, but it wouldn't how that money was spent.
And what kind of information then were you collecting? You were seeing what the message was and the ad, who it was targeted to, and on what basis people were targeted?
Exactly. So we could see the ad itself, some of the interaction with the ad, people liking it. Is it being positively responded to? We asked our own questions about how it was being targeted and we probably could have asked more. But at least gave us some semblance into this ad is showing up in this constituency and it is reaching women over 50 for example.
And so, that at least allows you to see how the parties think they're going to win. And that's kind of unprecedented really, having those kind of real time sources of information about how election campaigns are being fought.
And were there any conclusions that you are beginning to draw from the data that you collected?
The thing that probably in the end was most interesting to me was the negativity within the major campaigns. And I think this is newish to UK politics is the ability to say, for example, the dementia tax, which is Labour's phrase they coined for Tory inheritance policy. They were targeting ads into older people who owned homes and not obviously other people who might be put off at that kind of negative turn in their messaging.
And I think that's the sort of thing where you see social media being used to really open out the polar extremes of political debate in a way that hasn't really happened before. Because if people didn't like your negativity, they'd be switched off by it. You might be a little averse to doing more of that type of messaging. So that's within the mainstream of.
And this way nobody go to see that. People who might be turned off by the negativity don't see it. And then, the people who like that message, only they see it. So it's that kind of secretive nature of it.
Yeah. Political campaigning types know that negativity works and now they have this platform where they can reach exactly who they want to with that negativity.
Carl, are you seeing-- Do you think is that something that you're following at Demas and is it having quite a big impact in terms of changing political discourse?
Well one of the brilliant things about Sam's project is that he's exposing something which is actually very closed and it's incredibly difficult for researchers like us at Demas to actually get a handle on what kind of messaging is happening.
And unfortunately, I think the bigger picture here is that Sam and projects like his are stepping into a gap which really should be sorted out by the electoral commission and public authorities and statutory authorities.
It is incredible to me how we've seen the rise of digital platforms, which is now one of the key ways in which political power is actually won, is one of the main areas of emphasis where political parties are investing enormous amounts of time, completely new technology, completely novel uses of data. And as we've seen here, all new dangers that come attached to that. And it's there where there was absolutely no regulation.
Why have we failed to regulate there? Is it just because regulation takes time or there's a real feeling that this is not regulatable? Nobody wants to do it?
I think that's a question which we run picking now. I think partly the story here is of technology now always moving faster than the legal and political institutions which try to govern it. That's a massive problem. I think partly this is a question of the actual kind of fundamental difficulty of actually regulating the internet in first place.
These are almost predominantly American tech giants, which is very difficult for any single country, any single legislative body to actually handle. And that means that I think we've got this almost sense of learned helplessness within the political class of the moment.
I want to bring Tom in now to talk about Swap My Vote, which was in a way, a kind of real harnessing of technology. I suppose, let people do deal with the frustration of the UK'S first Past The Post system, where quite often, your vote doesn't count.
In 2010 I was living in a marginal and I just moved house and just moved from a place where something quite exciting was happening electorally. And I really wanted to vote to my old constituency. Meanwhile, my friend in the old constituency had exactly the opposite feelings about the parties. And said, well, why don't we swap votes?
And I thought, why don't we have a web platform that helps people find a voting partner? So we got ready for 2015 election. It was a sort of a thought experiment to some extent. It was just the idea that actually, let's put this up there and see what happens. See whether tonnes of people use it.
We've thought it was be tremendous if 100 people used it. But actually, thousands of people used it and hundreds of people found work through it in 2015. And we repeated it 2017 and had an order of magnitude more people using it. Felt like it started to really cut through people's sense of what is possible in an election. So the idea feels like it has caught now.
It did feel like it was permeating the general conversation. I heard people completely unconnected to work mentioning this to me and so I do feel like it's something that's starting to feel maybe a little bit more normal. But people are still really worried that, well, what if I agree to swap my vote but the other person doesn't honour their side of the bargain.
And there are certain questions people always have and that's one of them. How do I trust my partner? And so, I think where we helped the idea of votes were pretty much has been around for a while and it's even used in parliament by MP's and the innovation that we brought was the ability to log in with your social media profile which has a degree of identity attached to it.
And that means that the person at the other end, once you actually find a person to swap with, you can recognise that they're a real person.
So there's that element of trust?
Exactly. So that introduces that level of trust. And of course, if you click through and you don't have a sense of trust with the person at the other end, then you don't agree with them. You find another partner.
Do you think it will make a difference, Carl? Is this encouraging to you that people like Tom are taking the initiative, creating websites that are helping them maybe make some political changes?
Yeah. Undoubtedly. Look I mean, we at Demas have always been concerned with political engagement and always want to try and help and applaud those that are finding new ways of increasing it. So technologies which allow people to get over some of the kind of General Palon malaise of the first part of the vote system is, I think, really good.
I think also, there's tremendous potential for technologies to increase engagement of people between elections too. And I think of the most exciting kind of initiatives we're seeing are ones which are beginning to change what politics actually is.
What kinds of things are you thinking of it?
Well, as I was writing the book the most interesting person and example that I came across was Taiwan and Audrey Tang. So Audrey was a high school dropout. She became a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. She retired at the age of 13. Went back her native Taiwan and became a civic hacker.
And then in 2014, the sunflower revolution happened in Taiwan. And a kind of Motley collection of students and academics and activists occupied the legislative chamber there for weeks. And at the end of it, it began kind of as these things always do on a technicality.
It was to do with the fact that the opposition didn't think they were being consulted enough on a trade treaty with China. At the end of all of this Audrey was approached by the government who desperately wanted to stop anything like that happening again. And she eventually became digital minister of Taiwan.
And what Audrey's done since then, is to try to use digital technologies to radically throw open the decision making process from the government out to as many people she possibly can. The protest is angled towards finding consensus and if that consensus is actually found, she's committed the government to actually honouring that consensus in law.
Now if you kind of step back for a moment and pause and think about what that actually means, it actually means something that I think is incredibly profound. It has to do with power being moved outside of government and onto these strange new forms of debate and engagement.
And I think that Audrey's is only one of I think a kind of growing, kind of ripple of politicians, who don't only want to change what government does but what is itself. And kind of embracing digital technologies as offering, I think perhaps for the first time, a completely new idea of what democracy means the 21st century.
Because it's massively increased participation, which is now possible, and this is where I kind of want to go back to Sam. I mean, your project is another one of these ones where they needed to instal a browser extension, did they not, to run who targets me?
Yeah. So we had about 12,000 people will do it in the UK election and the bigger the sample, the more ads you capture, the more you see and also the better your information is about how those ads are being targeted. So it does require us to get to a certain level of involvement and engagement.
And who was typically volunteering to do this?
We saw people from 18 to 80 installing the software, men and women. Geographically, we had a really good spread. So we had at least one person, every constituency in the country, and we had a very equal mix of people in marginals verses people in safe seats. So it's important, if you want to try and sort of monitor these big global platforms, to get as many people as possible to participate in it.
Because Facebook and others provide you essentially a bespoke experience for you. Your Facebook is different to everyone else's Facebook. To be able to build up that picture, you need as many people as possible to participate.
And you also did this in Germany during the German elections.
Yeah and also in Austria. We just finished in their elections as well. And so we're starting to think about how we take it from being a UK effort into being sort of this global observatory really of political ads. The software works anywhere now
In Germany, we saw, again focusing on the political parties, at least stuff that was recognisable as communication but potentially more aggressive and pushy. So certainly from the AFD on the right, some of the ads and messaging they were using were very kind of unsubtle dog-whistly stuff that you might not have gotten away with on the radio or on a TV interview without being challenged.
I think that, again, sort of stuff about how things are being polarised was an interesting thing we saw in Germany too.
What do you hope to do with all of that, when you say you'd like to be a sort of global observatory of social media political advertising? Would it be open for people to maybe look at to see what was the totality of what's going on? Is transparency the main objective or there other goals that you have?
There's a range of objectives and we're still of trying to work ourselves out in that respect. But I think that one of those things is that individual voters should just have some ability to hold politicians accountable for the messages they've seen.
So one of the problems with ads is they disappear pretty much after you've seen them and if someone makes you a political offer that you then can keep hold of, that's not a great thing and that has been the case with ads about saying one thing to one of the people and one thing to another group of people.
So the ability to sort of see what was offered to you and also compare it to what was offered to others is I think an important thing if we're going to have these micro targeted campaigns. And I think then storing all of that making that open and available to people and researchers and journalists and so on is part of what we want to do as well.
And then alongside that, there is this advocacy piece about what happens next. What should the platforms do if, as they say, they are. so committed to Democrat integrity, et cetera, what actually should their steps be?
Well, let's brainstorm some ideas. Where do you, Carl, think we need to go from here? I mean, obviously, you've already said about the social media platforms taking a much more proactive role, governments need to understand and legislate and so on. But what would you like to see happen?
Well, I think one of the most important things that we need to do is actually expose where power lies and what power is. I think we can't underestimate in systems that look really distributed and look kind of like they've radically thrown power open, we can't underestimate the capacity for sophisticated well-financed actors to themselves form new concentrations of power within it.
So, I have every faith that Tom's platform will be safe. But for many I think kind of civic society initiatives happening around the world they are incredibly vulnerable to the activities of sophisticated state actors.
So how do we bring about that exposure? Is that where projects like Sam's and others come into it?
Well, to be honest, no. I think that's where investigative journalism comes into it. I think that journalism has always tried to, at its best, expose and confront power in its mendacious and abusive forms.
And here's a new worry. Exactly at the moment when we need journalism to be at its strongest, is also the moment when commercially it seems to be, by those very same networks and platforms we've been talking about, being undermined.
Sam, what about you? Any thoughts on where do we move from here?
Well, I totally agree on the point about investigative journalism. I mean, one of the things we did was partner with the Bureau of Investigative Journalists on the project in the UK to make sure that we had people who had an understanding of how to go through large volumes of data, how to read stories, how to tell stories, how to pitch them to the right media that they get out the right people.
And I think we're going to have to work out a lot more of that in the future. I think one of the things that we're trying to do is to get the big platform companies to sort of accept and the regulators too to kind of understand what standards we as voters expect of them in terms of transparency.
We've now got to this story with the Russian ads, where Facebook is starting to publish some of its political staff and it's going to expose what it calls dark ads. It hasn't made that very clear just yet. And I very much doubt they're going to take very extreme steps in terms of transparency.
So you know, things I would like to see more about is like how much money is being spent on this stuff? Who was the ultimate buyer of this ad? How much of the interaction in this post was paid for versus organic? You know, you'll see a lot of the sort of tactics about this Russian approach was to create a lot of fake pages that looked real enough.
And they probably used a smallish amount of money to kind of seed them in the first place into real users. You then start to share them around and kind of govern it from there. And so, how do detect that approach better?
I mean, here's an idea, a practical one. Let's oblige every political party that fights in the next election to submit all of their ads to the electoral commission. And let's put some simple rules around what can and can't be said, which reflect in the online space all the values and principles which we've long considered to be important for advertising in any other arena.
Yeah. Absolutely. Budgets, content, and targets, that's what we need to see in social advertising from the parties. And it makes sense for the electoral commission to collect that data and make it available to them.
I'm afraid we're going to probably have to stop there. I think we could keep talking about this and there are plenty more interesting projects I think to come. But for the moment, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us. If you would like to read more from the People's Technology Special Report, you can find it at FT.com/reports/peoples-technology.