New allegations have come to light this week about the extent to which unregulated political advertising on Facebook was used to influence the EU referendum.
The Observer reports that £4.7m was spent by pro Leave groups with Canada-based AggregateIQ to harvest data about Britons on Facebook and then target them with personalised adverts.
AggregateIQ appears to be closely linked to Cambridge Analytica, the political campaigning firm funded by US billionaire Robert Mercer which helped get Donald Trump elected.
The Observer reports that military psychological warfare technology is being covertly used by thse firms to influence the democractic process in both the UK and US.
Meanwhile, tonight BBC Panorama is set to report that Facebook advertising was a key influencer of the 48 to 52 per cent vote last year in favour of Britain leaving the European Union.
Political strategist Gerry Gunster, from Leave EU, told Panorama: “You can say to Facebook, ‘I would like to make sure that I can micro-target that fisherman, in certain parts of the UK, so that they are specifically hearing that if you vote to leave you will be able to change the way that the regulations are set for the fishing industry’.
“Now I can do the exact same thing for people who live in the Midlands who are struggling because the factory has shut down. So I may send a specific message through Facebook to them that nobody else sees.”
The Observer reports that Cambridge Analytica paid people on Facebook to take a personality quiz which also allowed their Facebook profiles, and those of their friends, to be harvested.
Tamsin Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy at New York University told the paper: “This is military-funded technology that has been harnessed by a global plutocracy and is being used to sway elections in ways that people can’t even see, don’t even realise is happening to them.
“It’s about exploiting existing phenomenon like nationalism and then using it to manipulate people at the margins. To have so much data in the hands of a bunch of international plutocrats to do with it what they will is absolutely chilling.
“We are in an information war and billionaires are buying up these companies, which are then employed to go to work in the heart of government. That’s a very worrying situation.”
Electoral Law expert Gavin Millar QC has called for a public inquiry into the “highly disturibing” use of Facebook advertising for political means.
Will Moy of FullFact told Press Gazette that “dark ads” on Google and Facebook were a bigger concern than fake news stories during the election.
He said: “It’s possible they [political parties] are running adverts that aren’t true and there is no way of seeing the advert unless you have been targeted. If you aren’t targeted by them you don’t even know they exist so you can’t even fact check them.”
Such adverts do not appear to be regulated by the Advertising Standards Agency, Ofcom or the Electoral Commission.
Facebook made around a £1bn in advertising revenue in the UK alone in 2016, equivalent to the entire national newspaper market.
Press Gazette’s Duopoly campaign seeks to highlight concerns about the dominance of Facebook and Google, which are set to take 71 per cent of UK online advertising by 2020.
A spokesperson for Facebook told Press Gazette: “People come to Facebook to connect with friends and family and share the things they care about — photos, videos, news and memories. In the political process, Facebook’s goal is to make it easier for people to get the information they need to vote and have a voice. We know that people are more likely to vote when they are reminded to do so and see that their friends have voted – and we’re proud of the work we’ve done on this. We encourage any and all candidates, groups, and voters to use our platform to engage in the elections.”