Why we must act now to defend Wales against the digital threat to our democracy

Individual audiences can be targeted very accurately through social media.

David Clubb

“Our data are our stories. When our data are manipulated, distorted, stolen, exploited, or misused, our communities are stifled, obstructed, or repressed, and our ability to self-determine and prosper is systematically controlled”  – The digital defence playbook

The story of the 2010s can – to a significant extent – be told by the exploitation of private data, unwittingly harvested from individuals, to allow falsehoods to be directly targeted at those most susceptible.

From the perspective of the citizens of Wales, the biggest systemic impact of the decade was Brexit. It will likely be the biggest impact, potentially eclipsing even the extraordinary social impact of coronavirus, for decades to come.

Techniques became available through the 2010s which allowed advertising to be targeted to an astonishing level of detail; never before was so much campaign material directed with such accuracy at those sympathetic to simplistic messages.

During the Brexit campaign, people hostile to immigration were targeted with (false) images of Turkey joining the EU. The EU was even accused of wanting to “kill our cuppa” – whatever that means.

A false dilemma advert for the Brexit campaign, presumably targeted geographically or by origin of the individual viewing it. Note the £350 million figure again, ‘spent’ in hundreds of different ways during the campaign depending on the advert recipient.

While we have yet to know in what way the impacts of Brexit will play out for our families and communities, we do know that the methods of campaigning deployed with such devastating impact during the Brexit referendum are likely to be refined and re-deployed in future elections and referendum campaigns.

So what does that mean for us here in Wales?

 

The threat to Wales

At the moment any existential threat to Wales’ democracy seems fanciful. The increasing powers of the Senedd have been endorsed in consecutive referenda.

Public levels of confidence in our legislative body are extremely high compared with attitudes towards Westminster, an attitude which has been bolstered by a visible difference in how the rules governing behaviour during the coronavirus outbreak were implemented in Wales compared to England.

However, those of us who are strong supporters of a powerful and independent Senedd would do well to consider what could happen if and when the attention of the masters of manipulation social media turn to elections in Wales.

Should they wish to create or support a campaign to dismantle the Senedd, can any of us assert with confidence that our institutions are invulnerable? Could a package of misinformation, targeted to trigger the innermost hopes or fears of millions of users of social media in Wales, result in the activating of large swathes of our hitherto non-voting population agreeing with messages such as:

  • “Better funding Welsh schools or an expensive talking shop (referring to the Senedd)”?
  • “More nurses in Wales’ hospitals or an expensive talking shop”?
  • “A strong Welsh culture and language or an expensive talking shop”?
  • “A new transport system or an expensive talking shop”?

(It will be interesting to see how the Conservative party’s Welsh branch, supported with digital marketing expertise from party headquarters honed during the 2019 General Election, performs in the 2021 Senedd elections.

My hunch is that they will considerably overperform against current polling, and that the change will happen in the month or two prior to the vote, concomitant with a digital campaign.)

In other words, the conditions are potentially ripe for individuals or organisations wishing to turn back the devolutionary clock in Wales.

The solution?

A threat this complex, well-resourced and intangible is not easy to manage. With little prospect of protection for our elections – and the way that campaigns are managed – from a UK Government which is demonstrably dismissive of devolved institutions, the answer will lie within Wales itself, and will require a strategic and long-term approach, coincidentally the sort of approach mandated by the Act for the Well-being of Future Generations.

Very briefly, some elements of defence against the current dominance of social media by corporate giants might be:

  • Education; this needs to start early – ideally before children have become comfortable with the idea of ‘sharing’ their personal data without an understanding of the value of that data, and of the potential consequences from so doing. However the education needs to go far beyond schools, and into civil society. Agents of education will be needed in many different spheres of public life.
  • Promotion of platforms which provide similar functionality but which respect privacy and data, and do not allow advertising or the sale of user data. There is an ethical, open source alternative to many existing social media platforms, and good resources describing how to subscribe to them (such as software)
  • The adoption of ethical alternative platforms by the institutions of Welsh Government and governance, in order to demonstrate their understanding of the issues surrounding existing structures, and to visibly support the fledgling open source platforms with the gravitas of their institutions

Unless the users of corporate social media platforms vote with their feet and start really ‘taking back control’, we will end up feeding the digital corporations with the revenue and data which enables them to exert almost unrestricted power and influence over our democratic processes.

And, ultimately, over our democratic institutions themselves.

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