I remember the moment when I began to suspect that a new generation of ‘wire strippers’ were at large in our internet wiring.
It was June 2016 – the month of the the UK’s Referendum on remaining in the European Union (EU). I was reading through postings by a good cross-section of my friends on social media.
The opinion polls were showing that the vote was projected to be neck and neck. There was great tension in the country, with internal divisions that were splitting both families and businesses down the middle.
It was as ugly a political period as any I remember and it made me realise how much was at stake – and how many large organisations were part of the persuasion process…
One day, a large part of my Facebook screen was replaced with an advert that appeared to be on on behalf of the Labour party – only the message was wrong. I knew that, despite the lacklustre performance of that party’s leader on the subject of Europe, the official party line was to be part of the Remain camp. However, the advert, which was devious in the extreme, quoted the party leader’s old statements on the subject, from his pre-leadership anti-European days. The whole advert was dressed as an official Labour plug. Unless you definitely knew otherwise, it told you, convincingly, that the Labour position on Europe was negative…
I asked around, but no-one else had seen it, which I found strange. As a pro-European I knew the effect of that ad would be significant, especially as I suspected that a mobilised Labour vote, plus the majority of the Tory party, would comfortably swing a majority behind Remain. I felt considerable anger that someone was twisting the truth in a very sophisticated way.
And then it occurred to me that the reason no-one else in my small sample had seen it was that I had been part of a group that had been targeted for a a very specific, negative message.
Could that be? If that were true then the data analysis used by such social media systems had radically changed in a short time.
Social media is a mixed blessing. I find it a very powerful means of communication, and we tend to forget that we do not pay for it… well, not in money up front, anyway. It’s not an authoring package – WordPress is much stronger in that respect – but it is a good ‘short message’ mechanism. As a WordPress blogger, I quickly learned that posting a link to a WordPress piece on Facebook produced little interest – the recipients expected ‘home grown’ stuff. Fair enough, I can understand. There is a certain homogeneity of what works on each platform.
The Referendum proceeded. Culminating in two weeks during which the most deceitful and cynical promises were made to a pre-targeted section of the British population; so successfully that even those making them were left visibly surprised (not to mention policy-less) by the result.
At that point, I had no idea of the concert of targeted data manipulation that had been played out to the UK electorate. Nor the international reach of those involved.
Continued in Part Two
©Copyright Stephen Tanham 2017