All ads are propaganda

Social media and the Brexit referendumPropaganda, lies, fake news

"Anna Soubry" - "Will my right honorable friend agree that this is not what leave voters voted for."

Anna Soubry got too colorful in the British Parliament after half an hour. What can now be expected from Brexit is probably not what its supporters once voted for, she said.

Before Prime Minister Theresa May left for the EU summit in Brussels, where she met with the other heads of state and government on Wednesday evening and presented the status of the Brexit negotiations from a British perspective - again without a breakthrough - she answered questions from MEPs in London.

On the benches in Westminster there was a heated debate about which trade relations with the European Union were possible, what the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland should look like and how long a transition phase offered by the EU could be endured until the United Kingdom one day really behind the EU lets himself. Anna Soubry, the Conservative MP from Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire, burst into this back and forth with her criticism.

Anna Soubry proposed a new Brexit referendum (picture-alliance / dpa / Yui Mok)

"They were told it would be the easiest deal in the history of trade deals."

The new relationship with the EU had been sold as the simplest deal in the history of trade agreements.

"What we now see is complete chaos and a total mess."

Instead, there was absolute chaos, Soubry scolded and concluded with the demand: If the government and parliament could not guarantee a proper exit from the EU, the population should be asked again.

"Take it back to the people and have a people’s vote!"

Brexit supporters reject another vote

A minority opinion, but one that has come up more and more recently. The government’s difficulties in reaching a Brexit deal with Brussels are contributing to this, as is the increasing certainty that much of what the "Leave" campaign promised was wrong and that a slim majority agreed to leave the EU questionable and sometimes illegal methods were fought for. The critics hope that another vote will straighten this out. The response from Brexit supporters and the government is always similar:

"The people were given a vote. The people’s vote happened in 2016, and the people voted to leave."

Prime Minister May replied in the House of Commons that the people had their vote in 2016 and voted for the exit. This democratic decision cannot be disregarded by another vote.

May and the Brexit proponents are entangled in a contradiction here: On the one hand, the referendum is presented as an irrefutable and binding decision by the people - which at least it was not legally. Such a referendum only serves to obtain an opinion.

If, on the other hand, the argument is put forward that violations of the electoral law could call the validity of the Brexit vote into question, it is hastily pointed out that the referendum was not a legally binding election and therefore cannot be questioned because of possible legal violations.

To this day there are allegations against the Brexit camp

Serious allegations have been raised against the Brexit camp to this day. The cases in which the legal situation is reasonably clear are still the most tangible: The two exit campaigns are said to have spent significantly more than allowed on their election campaign and also disguised this excess. So far, so clear. Another accusation is even more serious: The Brexit camp is said to have misused data on a large scale, manipulated voters, lied and ultimately undermined the democratic electoral process.

Directly across from the venerable Westminster Palace is Portcullis House, a sober office complex made of stone and steel. The atrium is spanned by a curved glass roof. Fountains splash underneath, large ficus trees provide shade. Many MPs from the British House of Commons have their offices here. And here the body that has uncovered a number of dark machinations around the Brexit referendum meets regularly: the parliamentary committee for digital, culture, media and sport.

Damian Collins examines the effects of fake news on the referendum (picture-alliance / dpa / Julien Warnand)

Its chairman, the Conservative MP Damian Collins, and the other members have been investigating for a year how disinformation and fake news have affected the referendum - and even more so, how they threaten much of what a democratic society is based on.

"What we're looking at is how information and news is disseminated online, and what role data plays in it."

Damian Collins and his colleagues have pestered 61 witnesses with a total of 3,500 questions in 20 hearings so far. They want to publish their final report with concrete recommendations to politicians this month. In their interim report at the end of July, they already came to the conclusion that, literally, "democracy and our values ​​are exposed to a number of dangers".

Social networks used for propaganda

In long sessions and with many persistent questions, the committee members revealed how social networks such as Facebook in particular were used to spread false reports and propaganda with the greatest possible success. The analysis of millions of user data played just as important a role as the targeted addressing of people who were considered to be particularly receptive.

"It's about the way in which disinformation can spread in politics and the media, especially through social media. It's not about an election, but probably about meddling in many elections, partly by foreign actors like the Russians, I think we weren't aware of how sophisticated the techniques are and how our data can be stolen and used to target us in political campaigns, "Collins told Channel 4.

Dark ads in social media are used for the election campaign (Yui Mok / PA Wire / dpa)

Above all, the use of so-called dark ads on Facebook, translated as dark or secret ads, has raised the question of how user-oriented online advertising can be reconciled with the requirements of a democratic election campaign.

Dark ads or dark posts are ads that are only visible to the sender and the recipient defined according to certain criteria. A Facebook user sees them in the midst of messages, status reports from friends and other messages that come in on their Facebook page. However, they are not visible to other viewers. The senders of such dark ads - like the strategists behind the two Brexit campaigns, for example - can address different groups of users with customized messages depending on their preferences.

"A problem with dark ads is that they remain hidden and can only be seen by the respective recipient. This allowed false claims to be made, some of which were even contradicting each other. It was very difficult to determine this or to compare them with other statements. "

Says Martin Moore, who heads the Center for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College, London, and who has studied how electoral strategists spread their view of things. More than two years after the 2016 referendum, the UK Parliamentary Committee got Facebook to reveal some of the Brexit proponents' hidden ads.

They are peppered with half-truths and outright lies about the intentions of the EU and the supposed benefits of leaving. There are curiosities like the rumor that the EU wants to ban tea kettles. The claim that Britain could save £ 350 million a week through Brexit also appears in different forms. The full extent of dark ads is still not known, says Darren Lilleker, communications expert at Bournemouth University.

"We are also not aware of all the allegations made in these advertisements. What was said, in what context it was said. Has the limit of what we call hate speech been reached? The allegation of alleged mass immigration from Turkey, for example, was supreme problematic."

Racially motivated misinformation

Above all, this racially motivated misinformation stands out among the published dark ads that Facebook has made available. Including the false claim that the EU is granting visa-free entry to 76 million Turks, illustrated by a map with thick red arrows pointing from Turkey to Great Britain.

The Brexit strategist Dominic Cummings boasted two years ago that the "Vote Leave" campaign he led had sent around a billion such targeted ads, especially in the last week before the vote.

According to media researcher Martin Moore, the aim of these ads was not to convince voters of the content. It was all about getting those who were believed to be potential Brexit supporters to the polls.

"The central aim of the Brexit campaign was to ensure that certain groups vote that would otherwise not necessarily vote. They had identified a group of young white men from the working class who are actually not interested in politics, but rather in than against Brexit. "

And these men, as the Brexit election campaigners had gathered from their data analysis, would be lured mainly with fear of more immigration, their fear of a loss of sovereignty and their rejection of high payments to the EU. The simple answer to these fears was included in the ads or the websites linked to them: Brexit.

There were also many protests against Brexit (picture alliance / dpa / Sean Dempsey)

It cannot be said whether the bill worked out just as well. What is clear, however, is that three million more voters took part in the 2016 Brexit referendum than in the general election the year before. In principle, there has always been the possibility of addressing voters personally and discreetly, says communication researcher Darren Lilleker. Among other things, however, the dimension in which this is happening is new.

"In the past, election campaigners would knock on doors. They could tell what they wanted without there having been any media control. But that can now happen online, with a much larger number of contacts - and again no control of what was said And maybe social media gives lies more credibility. After all, they were published, so they must be true. "

Social media give lies more credibility

And it is extremely difficult to put a stop to this massive influence on voters, says Lilleker.

"How do we regulate this environment, how do we stop people from spreading lies? The problem is that anyone can place ads like this. And it can be true or a lie, nobody checks that as long as someone pays."

Dark ads are not the only phenomenon of the Brexit referendum. Already in the British general election in 2015, the conservative Tories, among others, used them on a larger scale. German parties have also made use of advertisements for special target groups, including the Greens. But they made sure that their dark ads are verifiable for others by publishing all the ads they placed.

Facebook has now introduced a similar solution. On the profiles of political groups, all ads that they place, including the dark ads, are now available. In the UK, the ads are to be published in an archive in the future. Political actors must also provide proof of identity. It should also be disclosed how many users have seen an ad and how much money was spent on it. The UK is the third country to adopt these new rules after the US and Brazil.

The group is thus complying with demands from the digital and media committee in the British Parliament, among others, to control the spread of such messages more closely. But that's not all, says Martin Moore from King’s College in London.

"There's another problem: these ads are also opaque because there are so many of them. When a campaign is showing not just thousands or millions, but over a billion targeted ads, it quickly becomes difficult to compare, understand, who receives them and why and to hold the senders responsible if these advertisements turn out to be incorrect or contradicting. "

Mass makes it difficult to review the messages

This mass therefore makes it difficult to check the messages that have been spread. With the publication of dark ads, another problem has not yet been solved: the massive collection of voter data.

"Welcome to this further session of the digital, culture, media, sports select committee inquiring into disinformation and fake news."

Among the highlights of the UK Parliamentary Committee's investigation into fake news and disinformation were visits by Alexander Nix - the former head of the now bankrupt data analytics company Cambridge Analytica.

Nix accepted the invitation three times, like here in June of this year. The scandal over the evaluation of 87 million Facebook user data by Cambridge Analytica and the company's role in the US presidential elections had already come to light. Thanks to whistleblower Christopher Wylie. He also accused the company Aggregate IQ, which is employed by the "Vote Leave" campaign, of having worked with data from Cambridge Analytica and of working closely with its parent company.

Now the Brexit was linked to one of the biggest data abuse scandals of our time and the British parliamentarians became investigators in a case with global entanglements, foreign influence and political manipulation.

The principle of democratic decision-making is threatened

According to Martin Moore, the fact that data from voters is collected en masse and made available to campaigners willing to pay threatens the principle of democratic decision-making.

"Until now, voters have privately decided which candidate or party is best suited to their ideas. With the campaigns now collecting massive amounts of data and associating certain voters with specific information, they know more about the voters than the voters about them."

Legislators around the world are concerned with how this should be dealt with. The German Network Enforcement Act, NetzDG for short, obliges providers such as Facebook, Twitter or Youtube to delete obviously illegal content - with mediocre success. The British government also wants to oblige the social networks with new laws to change the way they handle data.

But researchers are also working on new ways to better deal with the consequences of data analysis, dark ads and more or less covert political influence on the Internet. And for this they use data for their part.

"With all this data you can of course, this is our daily business, try to understand human behavior and if you have understood it you can also try to predict it. And of course that opens up a whole lot of possibilities for all sorts of strategic actors in advertising companies to political actors. "

Martin Emmer is a professor at the Institute for Journalism and Communication Studies at the Free University of Berlin and founding director at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society, the so-called German Internet Institute. This researches how society is changing as a result of digitization. What has recently emerged in activity from companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is just the beginning, in Emmer's view.

The crisis in Ukraine from 2014 is a first striking example of the success of a covert communication strategy in Germany, according to Emmer (AFP / Anatolii Stepanov)

"At the moment we are trying to develop methods in various projects on how to better evaluate data and communication data, how we can, for example, more quickly understand topic careers in public."

The researchers want to understand how moods and opinions prevail in public discourse when they are influenced by the Internet. As the first striking example of the success of a covert communication strategy in Germany, Emmer cites the crisis in Ukraine from 2014.

Russia influenced sentiment in the Ukraine conflict

Politicians and the media were initially surprised that broad sections of the public understood and supported the Russian approach in Ukraine more and more. It was only slowly that it was discovered that this was also being promoted by targeted Russian influence in social networks. Scientists want to be better prepared for something like this in the future.

"We just have a large project that is funded by the Federal Ministry of Research, where we want to try in the area of ​​hate speech to use self-learning algorithms to recognize more quickly which forms of hate and incivility arise in order to be able to explain more quickly and better how such dynamics come about and ways to find ways of how to deal with them better in a public discourse. "

The project is also designed to help managers of social media companies counter hateful comments in their comment columns. The hope is that in the future it will be possible to follow in real time how certain problematic topics and moods become stronger online before they gain the upper hand. However, this no longer has any influence on the damage caused by false reports, hate speech and dark ads in the Brexit referendum.