137.It is important to recognise the role that social media plays in encouraging political debate. However, the ability of social media companies to target content to individuals, and in private, is new. This creates new issues in relation to the regulation of elections, including the nature of content and the cost of dissemination, both of which have in the past been strictly controlled.
138.The importance of social media has been recognised by businesses and campaigners at a much faster rate than by legislators and regulators. This has resulted in candidates using social media to secure elections and win votes without the regulatory framework or laws to govern modern elections. Businesses such as SCL and Cambridge Analytica have exploited this freedom, using social media to persuade candidates that targeting voters individually can have a much bigger impact than traditional untargeted advertising.
139.Facebook told us that in June 2018 that they had no way of categorising which adverts could be classified as political:
Our systems do not have a perfect or reliable way to classify the category that advertisements (which are developed and distributed by third-parties on our platform) fall in, whether it is political or housing or educational or otherwise. We are heavily investing in advanced technologies and machine learning to better assess advertisements that fall into specific categories (like political and issues adverts) so we can identify and enforce policies and tools that may apply […] In addition, issue-based advertising is particularly difficult to define at a global scale as there is no universal definition of a political issue advert and this concept varies by culture and geography. We are continuing to refine our definition of this in collaboration with external stakeholders in anticipation of rolling out our transparency tools in the UK.
140.The Electoral Commission’s recently published report describes the nature of ‘dark ads’: “Only the voter, the campaigner and the platform know who has been targeted with which messages. Only the company and campaigner know why a voter was targeted and how much was spent on a particular campaign. This is why the term ‘dark ads’ has been used to describe micro-targeting, although it is perfectly legal”.
141.Some organisations such as the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) support creating a central public register of online political adverts, rather than leaving it to the social media companies themselves. The IPA’s written evidence calls for a total ban on micro-targeting political advertising online, with a minimum limit on the number of voters who are sent individual political messages, which would go some way to promote a standard line for politicians to follow. While it might be difficult to advocate a total ban on micro-targeting political advertising online, a preferable alternative could be to limit the amount of ‘lookalike micro-targeting’, where people with similar views and opinions to core voters are also targeted. Micro-targeting, when carried out in a transparent manner, can be a useful political tool. Christopher Wylie told us that it can and should be done in an ethical way “that respects the consent of people, that is transparent so that people are aware that you are sending them a political message or a commercial message, and why it is that they are being sent it”.
142.We recommend that the Government look at ways in which the UK law defines digital campaigning. This should include online adverts that use political terminology that are not sponsored by a specific political party. There should be a public register for political advertising, requiring all political advertising work to be listed for public display so that, even if work is not requiring regulation, it is accountable, clear, and transparent for all to see. There should be a ban on micro-targeted political advertising to lookalikes online, and a minimum limit for the number of voters sent individual political messages should be agreed, at a national level.
143.We reiterate our support for the Cairncross Review and will engage with the consultation in the coming months. In particular, we hope that Frances Cairncross will give due weight to the role of digital advertising in elections, and will make concrete recommendations about how clearer rules can be introduced to ensure fairness and transparency.
144.The Government should investigate ways in which to enforce transparency requirements on tech companies, to ensure that paid-for political advertising data on social media platforms, particularly in relation to political adverts, are publicly accessible, are clear and easily searchable, and identify the source, explaining who uploaded it, who sponsored it, and its country of origin. This information should be imprinted into the content, or included in a banner at the top of the content. Such transparency would also enable members of the public to understand the behaviour and intent of the content providers, and it would also enable interested academics and organisations to conduct analyses and to highlight trends.
145.Tech companies must also address the issue of shell corporations and other professional attempts to hide identity in advert purchasing, especially around election advertising. There should be full disclosure of targeting used as part of advert transparency. The Government should explore ways of regulating on the use of external targeting on social media platforms, such as Facebook’s Custom Audiences. We expect to see the detail of how this will be achieved in its White Paper later this year.
146.Currently, the cost of campaigns is regulated strictly with defined legal limits. In the EU Referendum, campaigns were permitted to work together on joint campaigns for a particular outcome. However, the nature of the joint work determined how it applied to spending limits: any spending on a joint campaign counted towards the limits for each campaigner involved; and where spending was on a joint campaign with a designated lead campaigner, all spending counted towards the spending limit of the designated lead campaigner only. In other words, if campaigns were co-ordinated, then the cost of co-ordinated campaigns would be accumulated when assessing campaign limits.
147.Vote Leave (as the designated lead ‘Leave’ group) had a permitted expenditure limit of £7 million during the Referendum campaign. As we stated in our Special Report of June 2018, Vote Leave was under investigation by the Electoral Commission, over whether it breached this limit by making a £675,315 payment to another campaign group, BeLeave. These revelations came from both Christopher Wylie, in his evidence to the Committee, and from another whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, who worked with Vote Leave. The £675,315 payment was registered with the Electoral Commission as a donation from Vote Leave to Darren Grimes, the founder of BeLeave. Some witnesses and outside commentators raised questions about the extent to which it was a genuine donation.
148.The Electoral Commission published the conclusions of its investigation into the campaign spending of Vote Leave and other campaign groups on 17 July 2018. The findings show that:
149.As a result of these findings, The Electoral Commission has referred David Halsall, the responsible person for Vote Leave, and Darren Grimes to the Metropolitan Police, for the false declaration of campaign spending. As we have previously said, Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave, refused to appear before our Committee. Likewise, the Electoral Commission wrote that “Vote Leave declined to be interviewed. Its lack of co-operation is reflected in the penalties”. The level of fines are £61,000 for Vote Leave, £20,000 for Darren Grimes, and £250 for Veterans for Britain (for inaccurately reporting a donation it received from Vote Leave.)
150.As we also highlighted in our Special Report, evidence to the Committee from Facebook showed that BeLeave used AggregateIQ datasets covering the “exact same audiences”. AIQ had a working relationship with SCL/Cambridge Analytica, focused on the use of data in campaigns. AIQ had links with Vote Leave and other Brexit campaigns, including Be Leave, Veterans for Britain and the DUP and all used the company in the short period immediately prior to the EU Referendum. We believe that the precise nature of the co-ordination between the different organisations and campaigns should be investigated further to establish if the law concerning spending limits and data protection was observed.
151.Insurance companies have access to detailed personal information about their customers. Arron Banks described Leave.EU’s method of campaigning, by using the micro-targeting of individual voters:
My experience of social media is it is a firestorm that, just like a bush fire, it blows over the thing. Our skill was creating bush fires and then putting a big fan on and making the fan blow. […] the immigration issue was the one that set the wild fires burning.
152.The question that then arises is how did Leave.EU acquire data to set “wild fires burning” on the immigration issue? We heard evidence from various witnesses and from written statements that, during the Referendum campaign, Leave.EU used insurance data for such micro-targeting of voters, data from Arron Banks’ company, Eldon Insurance Services Ltd. Arron Banks described the way Leave.EU carried out psychological profiling, and told us that “insurance is all about how you target your product to the person you want to target to”:
The three things that were of interest to me were: obviously, the Referendum campaign, my insurance business—could they offer services that were along those sorts of lines?—and thirdly, with the UKIP hat on, would it be a useful messaging tool for UKIP? I can see why you would think there would be a conflict, but there really wasn’t.
153.Paul-Olivier Dehaye, founder of PersonalDataIO, told us that Leave.EU mailings had had insurance adverts for one of Arron Banks’ companies at the bottom of the mailings. Evidence submitted to the inquiry recorded Andy Wigmore, Director of Communications for the Leave.EU campaign, in conversation with Dr Emma Briant, Senior Lecturer at Essex University, explaining that the insurance companies’ actuaries used data to determine which 12 UK regions Nigel Farage, the then leader of the UKIP, should visit during the campaign.
154.Andy Wigmore described in the taped conversations with Dr Emma Briant the power of using emotion, rather than facts, which “created a wave of hatred and racism and all this right movement, empowering all those things”. He spoke of the Nazis’ propaganda strategy: “If you take away all the hideous horror […] it was very clear, the way they managed to do what they did. In its pure marketing sense. […] You can see the logic of how they presented things and the imagery, everything from that”.
155.However, when Andy Wigmore gave evidence to the Committee and was asked about the recorded conversation with Dr. Briant, his reference to actuaries using data to locate the regions that Mr. Farage should visit, and whether the work of the actuaries was recorded in Leave.EU’s spending returns, Andy Wigmore replied, “No, I was wrong. I apologise because that was completely misinterpreted and that was incorrect”. In the ICO’s interim report on their investigation into data harvesting, they made reference to these allegations of customer data from Eldon Insurance Services being shared with Leave.EU, and then used for political campaign purposes during the EU Referendum. This is contrary to the first and second data protection principles under the Data Protection Act 1998.
156.The ICO’s current investigation is also looking into this issue of whether Eldon Insurance Ltd’s call centre staff used customer databases to make calls on behalf of Leave.EU. This would be in contravention of the Privacy and Electronic Communication Regulations 2003. Brittany Kaiser told us that she visited the Eldon Insurance and Leave.EU headquarters, “which was in the same building with the same staff. When a senior data scientist and I spent time with their phone bank I was told by the people using the phone bank that the individuals they were calling were from the insurance database”, to which Arron Banks responded, “A flat lie”. Yet on 25 January 2016, a French news documentary showed Arron Banks’ insurance call centre employees working at the call centre for Leave.EU, with Liz Bilney, on tape, confirming this.
157.The ICO is also investigating whether Eldon Insurance Services Ltd transferred its insurance customer data to the USA, specifically to the University of Mississippi, which would be in contravention of the eighth data protection principle, under the Data Protection Act 1998. A UK resident, Kyle Taylor, has filed a law suit in Mississippi to determine whether UK data was transferred to Mississippi. The ICO’s line of inquiry “is ongoing”.
158.Determining whether there was collusion between (technically separate) campaigns in the EU Referendum, in breach of rules on spending limits, has been a matter primarily for the Election Commission, which has now reported its highly critical findings into the activities of Vote Leave, Darren Grimes and BeLeave. Determining whether data protection law was breached by any use of shared datasets by BeLeave and AIQ is similarly a matter for the Information Commissioner and the police. We look forward to the ICO’s findings, on which we may wish to comment further in our second Report later this year. The Electoral Commission’s report has vindicated evidence given to the Committee about the breaching of spending limits, and we look forward to the ICO’s final findings.
159.Data sets allegedly enabled Leave.EU to push their message to groups of people that they might not otherwise have had information about. This evidence informed our inquiry, backing up concerns that data is being harvested and utilised from many people unwittingly and used for purposes of which they may not be aware. It is alleged that Leave.EU obtained data used during the Referendum from insurance data from companies owned by Arron Banks. The Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating both the alleged misuse of customer data from Arron Banks’ Eldon Insurance Services Ltd and the misuse of that data by the call centre staff, to make calls on behalf of Leave.EU. These are extremely serious allegations. We look forward to hearing the final results of the ICO’s investigations, when it reports in October 2018.
165 , 8 June 2018
166 , The Electoral Commission, June 2018, Para 43
167 The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) ()
168 , for a description of lookalike audiences, accessed 12 July 2018
170 , The Electoral Commission, p12
171 The Electoral Commission’s investigation was into Vote Leave Limited, Mr Darren Grimes and Veterans for Britain Limited.
172 Christopher Wylie,
173 The named recipient was Darren Grimes. , The Electoral Commission.
174 For example,
175 , Electoral Commission, 17 July 2018
176 , Electoral Commission, 17 July 2018
182 Dr Emma Briant ()
184 , ICO, July 2018
185 , ICO, July 2018, page 4
187 The French documentary can be found on YouTube.
188 , ICO, July 2018, p38
189 , Electoral Commission, 17 July 2018
Published: 29 July 2018