Last week at the Def Con Hacking Conference in Las Vegas chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov discussed artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, electronic voting machines were hacked into, and the US army taught hacking skills to children. Plus a group called the Online Privacy Foundation unveiled research on whether 'dark ads' on social media can sway political opinion.
Targeting voters through social media, and customising the messaging based on publicly available data is a recipe for underhand political advertising. It allows for messaging that's not fit for a party political broadcast to be targeted to an audience in swing areas. For example, in the recent UK election, Conservative attack ads warning voters against 'Corbyn's death tax' were served to voters in the marginal constituency of Delyn in Wales.
It also allows ads to be customised for different personality types. In the primaries for last year's US presidential election, Ted Cruz's campaign targeted temperamental personality types who dislike commitment with the message that showing your ID to vote was as easy as buying a case of beer. A different type, the 'stoic traditionalist' with fewer commitment hang-ups, was served ads that said showing ID to vote was part of the privilege of living in a democracy.
How are profiles like stoic traditionalist built? It's a case of inferring personality types based on the information freely available according to Chris Sumner, research director and co-founder of the Online Privacy Foundation. "People's choice in music, for example, can provide clues into what their personality is like, and how they may behave in certain situations," he says. "It doesn't always follow that someone always behaves in that way, but over a population it gives you better than average odds. And in some cases, it is very predictive of how someone is going to behave. If someone likes dance music and hip hop, it's less likely that they're going to be a conservative voter or somebody with traditional tastes."
Sumner's research originally looked at clues as to what users liked on Facebook and what that says about their likely personality traits. The research took on a political component when he started looking at how users interact with automated bots, how psychographic profiling could be used, and astroturfing - online activities that look like grass roots campaigns, but are, in fact, fake.
The Online Privacy Foundation's latest study sorted voters into a high authoritarian group and a low authoritarian group. "We mapped people on a scale of openness versus conscientious which correlates with authoritarianism very strongly," he says. "Based on existing research we were able to say geographically which places were likely to be higher or lower for authoritarianism."
And the results correlated uncannily with real voting patterns. "When we applied our model to predicting the EU referendum result, 78pc of the places that were predicted to vote leave did actually vote that way and vice versa," Sumner says. "There already, you can build up a Facebook target audience of ads that you might want to apply in one place versus another. In Basildon, you might want to target ads that appeal more to people with authoritarian tendencies, as oppose to people in Hackney who you'd target with ads that appeal to people who are less authoritarian. You can do the same with age and interest."
The upshot is that these targeted Facebook ads, if smartly used can make a subtle difference. But could they sway an election?
Sumner isn't so sure. "All you want to do as a political advertiser is make sure that more of the money that you spend on advertising hits the target that it needs to than the default level," he says. "Let's say the engagement or click through rate is 0.5pc, if you can increase that by 1pc you can potentially have a noticeable impact. People have asked whether this can sway an election, I think the answer we've provided is that it's unlikely, but it can certainly contribute."
So do we need some form of regulation in this area, given the lack of transparency and the increase in online spending for political campaigns? The Vote Leave campaign in the UK Brexit Referendum reportedly spent 98pc of its £6.8m budget on digital media - and the majority of that on Facebook. The UK's Information Commissioner seems to think so and has launched an investigation into how political parties target voters on social media. "Transparency and regulation is an important step," Sumner says. "But I think how you do the transparency and who it's transparent to, are different questions."
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