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Harry Carr

Director of innovation, Demos

Public apathy is the most powerful enemy of tech regulation

Four years ago, Trump was elected under a fog of accusations and outrage. In November, it’ll be time to do it all again. His 2016 march on the White House left commentators wondering: if Barack Obama had been the first to really leverage the promise of technology in political campaigning, perhaps Trump was the first to wield its dark side.

Committees in the Commons and the Lords and the Electoral and Information Commissioners have in the past year or so raised the alarm, not to mention voices in the media, in civil society and even in technology itself. Our electoral laws are not fit for purpose.

The ability of Big Tech to understand and sculpt political messaging for the electorate – and crucially to be able to communicate with specific groups of voters with specially crafted advertisements, which are not accessible by other voters who may be put off by the same messages – is an unprecedented and dangerous power. And yet it is currently subject to far lighter regulation than traditional campaigning mediums like television ads and leaflets, our laws left un-updated from a time when the use and misuse of digital campaigning was in the realm of science fiction, not established fact.

We are at the mercy of the platforms. That Big Tech now plays a pivotal role in our democracies is lost on few, and for the most part, we seem to be ready for change. Whether they are headlines about Russian interference, or whispers about the dangers of Big Data and profiling, the power of technology to shape our politics is now a mainstream worry: the public overwhelmingly back greater regulation of the role of Big Tech in politics. Eight in ten now favour campaigns having to openly publish all advertising materials used and how much they are spending in digital campaigning.

Eight in ten, but not everyone.

The shape of regulation, and who should be leading the way, remain topics of division. And it seems the fight to convince sceptics is against public apathy and nihilism, rather than principles of free speech or faith in democracy.

That’s the key finding of a new report from Demos and the Open Rights Group exploring public attitudes around data driven political campaigning. We used Polis, an open-source tool which allows participants to submit their views in their own words, and to vote as to whether they agree or disagree with each others’ statements – with this project pioneering the use of the tool with a nationally representative sample for the first time. It also maps out how opinions interact, and how different groups of views hang together.

Who, then, is not on board with regulation? Just over half of people think there should be less red tape stopping politicians saying and doing what their voters want, and say authorities shouldn’t control what politicians are allowed to say.

But there is more to it than just an irritation with bureaucracy. This group of regulation sceptics, who over-indexed among working class Britons and Leave voters, were remarkably in favour of abolishing political campaigning altogether. More than two thirds of the group agreed to the following statements, submitted by their peers:

  • “Political campaigning shouldn’t exist. The parties should publicise their policies for voters on information portals. No social manipulation.”
  • “Political campaigns are a waste of money, and websites or online platforms unrelated to politics should not allow politics content.”

Doing this would likely mean more regulation, not less, but it would be wrong to discount this simply as a contradiction. The voices of these regulation-doubters help us understand where they are coming from.

The anti-regulation group were most likely to be distrustful of both politicians and regulators alike. They want change, but don’t trust the powers that be with making it happen. The vast majority agreed with the statements “I don’t trust any of the politicians or their departments to keep my data safe, nor use it for the right purposes” and “I don’t trust the people who regulate campaigns to be unbiased”.

They were also the most convinced that political campaigns have no impact on their voting behaviour, with around seven in ten agreeing with each of the following – again all submitted by participants:

  • “With targeted campaigns I have the ability to figure out an opinion towards it by myself and so it doesn’t bother me too much”
  • “I don’t take much notice of political campaigns, rather I depend on my gut feeling”
  • “I don’t pay much attention to political campaigns as they do not influence my voting intentions”

In other words, regulation of data driven political campaigns is unnecessary bureaucracy itself. Instead, let’s abolish political campaigning wholesale. This is anti-regulation not on grounds of  freedom of speech or faith in the political system, but through a strong feeling of being fed up. Fed up with the political sphere, fed up with regulators, and fed up with the media.

To win the argument for regulation, sceptics must be convinced of the dangerous power of data driven political campaigning. Most opponents of regulation are convinced that politicians and Big Tech are not to be trusted – but they also think the same is true for regulators, and that none of it really matters anyway. The challenge is to persuade them that it does matter – that the power of Big Tech represents a far graver threat to democracy than the untrustworthy politicians that have always been fixtures of our lives – and to distinguish between political actors and those looking to hold them to account.

Many of the issues around regulating Big Tech are extremely difficult to legislate for, and require radical new ideas to deal with unprecedented new problems. Regulation of data driven political campaigning is not one of them. The same principles as have governed political campaigning for decades can be updated to apply to the modern world: records of online political adverts should be collated and published for everyone to see; political campaigns should have to report how much they are spending using digital advertising, what they are spending it on, and how they are funded; and those who break electoral laws should face harsher penalties rather than a slap on the wrist. The vast majority of the public support each of those changes. An issue will be that whoever has just won an election may feel they have an advantage of the way the system currently works.

November is coming. As we look across the pond, we might allow ourselves a little hope as Biden leads Trump in poll after poll. But let’s not get too excited. There are plenty of voters who are still fed up, still sceptical that this political system offers them anything. That same feeling that many realised (too late) was behind Trump’s election, that many blamed (too late!) for the Brexit vote, is still alive and well. Many politicians have found success in promising to reinvigorate their democracies: to take back control, to drain the swamp, to get back to the things that matter. If our findings are anything to go by, many of those for whom this sounded like the change they wanted remain outside our democratic fold.

Harry Carr is director of innovation at Demos