Social Media and Foreign Influence: Implications for the December 2019 UK General ElectionDecember 9, 2019 in Brexit, Britian, Cyber, United Kingdom
With less than a week until polling day, the 2019 UK general election campaign has been marred with accusations of fake news, misleading political propaganda and ‘dystopian’ electioneering tactics. The key issue is a lack of clear legal regulation regarding the use of social media for campaigning, leaving platforms open to abuse and misinformation.
Attempts had been made before the departure of Theresa May to implement changes that would clearly define the legal role of social media platforms operating in the UK in regard to political advertising. However, according to senior civil servants and government officials, the current dominance of Brexit in the policy making schedule and uncomfortable questions about the legality of the Brexit referendum campaign make the implementation of sufficient safeguards difficult. Additionally, there is an inherent issue in tasking politicians who may benefit from lax social media regulation to legislate against their own interests.
For individuals, there are two clear issues. First is the micro targeting of social media users. The information Commissioners Office and the Electoral Commission have warned against misusing individuals data, such as their address, age and interests to target potentially misleading ads directly at certain demographics. Secondly, and with specific regard to Facebook, adverts containing false information or misleading claims are allowed to go unverified, and against Facebook’s policies against fake news, due to the platform’s categorisation of political ads as ‘opinion pieces/satire’. This is problematic; over 5000 ads on Facebook alone have been purchased by the three major political parties.
The responsibility for upholding advertising standards has fallen largely on social media platforms themselves. Twitter and Tiktok have banned political advertising across their platforms, however, fake accounts still have the potential to spread misleading political information disguised as ‘fact’. This issue was highlighted by the November 19th rebranding of the official Conservative Party Press Office account into ‘@factcheckUK’. Google has banned 8 separate Conservative advertisements for ‘violating advertising policies’, one of which saw the fake website ‘labourmanifesto.co.uk’, designed to mislead voters about Labour policies, removed for buying advertising in order to manipulate search traffic and shift interest from the real Labour manifesto. The Brexit Party too, has seen five of its adverts removed. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are yet to have advertisements removed by Google.
It should be noted that due to long standing calls for reform, critique of the current regulatory system and examination of existing loopholes for the spread of disinformation, some researchers have voiced concerns that the government has created an ‘election interference playbook’, without sufficiently addressing any of these avenues of exploitation in law. This is where the discussion shifts from the underhanded tactics of party politics, and instead has implications for national security.
There is concern that actors other than British political parties may seek to benefit from the spread of disinformation in the UK general election, specifically, the Russian government. Draft documents from the UK-US Trade and Investment Working Group were leaked online and later picked up by the Labour party in order to undermine Boris Johnson’s position on the National Health Service. The account, which published the documents on Reddit a month before they gained widespread media coverage, was determined to be of Russian origin, along with 60 other Reddit accounts linked to a ‘coordinated effort’ from Russia to spread misinformation. Despite claims from both Johnson and Corbyn that Russian interference is ‘nonsense’, given previous Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election, and the recently uncovered ‘Secondary Infektion’ disinformation scheme, also coordinated from Russia, concerns about attempted Russian interference in the upcoming election should be further investigated.
Ideally, these issues would be addressed in the yet-to-be-published Intelligence and Security Committee report, which is expected to contain an examination of Russian interference in UK politics, the Brexit referendum and the Conservative Party. Until this report is published, the full scale of Russian attempts to undermine UK democracy is unknowable. Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s election, questions regarding the legitimacy, independence and democracy of the UK political system will remain.