Towards the end of 2015, the internet overtook TV as the main source of news for most people in the UK, according to research by the Reuters Institute. For the people who sought to undermine the democratic process during the Brexit campaign, effective use of social media was crucial.
Several factors helped enable this. One was a complete lack of scruple as to the type of content Brexit campaigners created and shared. As Arron Banks of Leave.EU observed: ‘The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.’
The key emotions the Brexit campaign played on were fear of immigrants and resentment at the (false) idea that Britain’s independence had been compromised by its EU membership. To stoke these emotions, the campaign and its supporters shared inflammatory and often completely false material about immigrants and the EU, often in the form of social media memes.
This included videos depicting refugees as ‘vicious snakes‘ and of a woman being raped by a figure representing the EU – messaging that echoed that of Leave.EU’s infamous ‘Breaking Point‘ poster, which was compared to Nazi propaganda – by the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Brexit campaigners’ use of social media was leveraged by the existence of a well-developed ‘alt-right‘ social media network that connected various branches of the far right worldwide and greatly amplified messages promoting Brexit. Facebook, Twitter and Google showed little interest in the fact that far-right networks were spreading disinformation and propaganda, and only started to take half-hearted measures to curtail such activity in 2017, after the death of an anti-fascist protestor at a neo-Nazi rally in the US drew attention to it.
Extensive analysis has been done on the key nodes in these extreme right networks and the sources of the material that they shared. One site emerges as having more influence than all others: Breitbart, the ‘online news’ operation funded by US hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and headed until recently by Steve Bannon.
Many of the stories produced by Breitbart and others were designed to stoke fears of immigration and to present the EU as an evil conspiracy to undermine British sovereignty. As the anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate has described: ‘Posing as news providers, these fake news media outlets use such content as clickbait: extraordinary claims are more likely to encourage click throughs and social media sharing, which in turn generates more advertising revenue.’ Such content was widely shared on social media by influential individuals in the Leave campaign, such as Nigel Farage (who at the time of writing has over 1.2 million Twitter followers).
It was also shared by an army of social media bots and ‘sockpuppets’ controlled by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a so-called ‘troll farm’ based in St Petersburg, Russia. Set up by a close associate of Vladimir Putin and designed to promote Putin’s domestic and foreign policy objectives, the IRA used an array of fake social media accounts purporting to belong to UK and US citizens to promote messaging that would help both the Brexit and the Trump campaigns.
The true extent of the Russian social media campaign in 2016 is still hard to gauge accurately, not least because both Facebook and Twitter have made only perfunctory attempts to investigate it. It is known, however that thousands of tweets from IRA fake accounts were posted on the day of the referendum, using hashtages such as #EUref, #BrexitInOut, #BritainInOut and #BrexitOrNot . The effect was to create the impression that there was a groundswell of pro-Brexit sentiment on social media – and people are more likely to support a cause that they perceive as popular.
One whistleblower from the St Petersburg troll farm has described the type of content he was instructed to create: ‘It was mainly stoking up online debates about the bad impact of immigration on working-class whites, and moaning about Brussels deciding everything, proud Brits ruled from abroad.’ This perfectly matched the toxic messaging of Brexit campaigners in the UK, some of whom are now known to have been colluding with Putin’s regime.
Another key factor was the way these messages were targeted. Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ were key players in this, using personal data, illegally harvested from Facebook, to build psychometric profiles of millions of individual voters so that messages could be honed that would appeal directly to them. Political advertising in mainstream media is strictly regulated but the same does not apply to advertising directly through a social media user’s news feed – and of course, such ‘dark’ ads are not visible in the same way as a TV or newspaper ad.
We still have little idea of the volume or content of these individually targeted messages, because they were not publicly visible or declared to the Electoral Commission. Following repeated questioning in the European Parliament, Facebook stated that they are working on a protocol to release this information to the UK parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chaired by Damian Collins. This information is vital to discover how the referendum result was achieved since, as Andy Wigmore of Leave.EU has commented, ‘we used AI to target specific groups – it worked because we knew who to hit.’
The Russian social media support operation for Brexit may also have known who to hit. In July 2015 the UK Information Commissioner said that Cambridge Analytica’s illegally harvested Facebook data had been accessed from Russia. There is thus a very real likelihood that Russian social media efforts were actively coordinated with the UK Brexit campaigners sponsored by Putin.
The Information Commissioner (ICO) report into its investigation of data abuses announced that it was fining Facebook the maximum possible fine of £500,000. It also revealed that the ICO is investigating allegations that Arron Banks’ company Eldon Insurance Services Ltd shared customer data obtained for insurance purposes with Leave.EU and that the data was then illegally used to target voters during the referendum campaign.
Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham commented:
‘We are at a crossroads. Trust and confidence in the integrity of our democratic processes risk being disrupted because the average voter has little idea of what is going on behind the scenes. New technologies that use data analytics to micro-target people give campaign groups the ability to connect with individual voters. But this cannot be at the expense of transparency, fairness and compliance with the law.’
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