Tim Fenton of Zelo Street wrote an excellent article yesterday – see BBC Bias – This Time It’s Blatant, in which he observes how mainstream media coverage of the Information Commissioner’s Facebook fine inexcusably diverted attention from the illegal activities of the Leave campaign to framing the Labour party as the sole miscreants regarding the data analytics/ Aggregate IQ scandal, exposed by Carole Cadwalladr, indicating the subversion of our democracy.
However, the mainstream news coverage of these pressing issues itself reveals that the subversion is very real.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) investigation highlighted the extent to which political parties were using personal data sold on by data brokers without public consent. It was announced that the ICO is expanding its 14-month investigation into data and politics, which has centred on the Facebook data leak, into whether Arron Banks, a major donor to the campaign for the UK to leave the EU, improperly gave pro-Brexit groups data about voters obtained for insurance purposes.
The ICO is also investigating whether Banks’ Eldon Insurance Limited’s call-centre staff used customer databases to make calls on behalf of Leave.EU. The official Remain campaign, Britain Stronger In Europe, is also being investigated over how it collected and shared personal information. The ICO opened its inquiry in May 2017 “to explore practices deployed during the UK’s EU referendum campaign but potentially also in other campaigns”.
Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, said the ICO had been “astounded” by the amount of personal data in the possession of Britain’s political parties. (See The government hired several murky companies plying the same methods as Cambridge Analytica in their election campaign, which details the many subterranean companies that the government employed during the run-up to last year’s general election.)
It’s understood that the ICO sent warning letters to 11 political parties and notices compelling them to agree audits of data protection practices, and started a criminal prosecution against SCL Elections – parent company of Cambridge Analytica, after accusing the company of failing to deal properly with a data request. The investigation also found that Aggregate IQ, a Canadian electoral services company, had “significant links” to Cambridge Analytica, Denham said, and “may still retain” data about UK voters; the ICO has filed an enforcement notice against the company to stop processing that data.
Denham also said the impact of behavioural advertising, when it came to elections, was “significant” and called for a code of practice to “fix the system”.
Despite the scope of the investigations, the only issue mentioned on the BBC site was concerning the Labour party. Fenton observes “By yesterday afternoon, the sole mention of the Facebook and AIQ story on their website was an item titled “New mums’ data illegally sold to Labour.”
Fenton also notes: “Almost as a footnote in the Facebook, AIQ and Vote Leave story, the Guardian noted that ‘As part of its investigation, the ICO also issued a notice of intent to take regulatory action against Lifecycle Marketing (Mother & Baby) Limited, a data broker that provides information to new mothers and the trading name of the website Emma’s Diary, which was used by the Labour party’. Then a familiar player came into view.”
“The perpetually thirsty Paul Staines and his rabble at the Guido Fawkes blog told their readers ‘Labour Party’s Data Broker Fined £140,000 By Information Commissioner’, ending their highly selective analysis with the sneering comment ‘Labour MPs have been tweeting about the ICO report on Facebook data breaches all day. Oddly none have mentioned the above finding. Sure Carole Cadwalladr will be splashing on this for the Observer this weekend’. And there it might have stayed.
“Except for the BBC. By yesterday afternoon, the sole mention of the Facebook and AIQ story on their website was an item titled “New mums’ data illegally sold to Labour”. The framing of the story by the Guido Fawkes blog was accepted as fact by the BBC.”
In response to the ICO’s report, Conservative MP, Damian Collins, chair of a parliamentary committee, who are investigating online disinformation, said it was “essential that the public know whether other organisations harvested data from Facebook.” He said: “This cannot by left to a secret internal investigation at Facebook.
“If other developers broke the law we have a right to know, and the users whose data may have been compromised in this way should be informed.”
We also have a right to know about his own government’s involvement in using data without the public’s consent, but he is curiously quiet on this score.
“We were significantly concerned around the nature of the data that the political parties had access to,” said Steve Wood, the deputy information commissioner, “and we followed the trail to look at the different data brokers who were supplying the political parties.
The important question to ask is what are we being diverted from?
Earlier this year, I followed the trial of the Conservative’s spending on data analytic companies during the run up to the snap general election last year. This is because the Conservatives were, by and large, the biggest client of many private firms that peddle “psychographic targeting”, “strategic communications” and “behavioural change” methods.
Curiously, despite the fact that this information is very accessible on the Electoral Commission’s website, I haven’t seen it reported anywhere. Anyone would think the information was being suppressed.
It was only a matter of time before the powerful tools of digital tracking and corporate surveillance, including techniques designed for manipulating opinions and behaviours, shifted from the realm of PR, product and service marketing to politics and voter targeting.
The markets for personal data have always been markets for behavioural control also. And markets of behavioural control are composed of those who sell opportunities to influence behaviour for power and profit, and those who purchase such opportunities.
While the government’s controversial ‘dark ads’ campaign attracted some concerned commentary last year, in part because it used data and psychographic profiling to manipulate individual traits and characteristics, it seems like no-one is joining the dots, still.
The government paid out vast amounts of money to the following companies for ‘research’ and data collection, ‘unsolicited material to electors’, psychographic profiling, ‘strategic communcations’, and ‘targeted’ advertising services:
Experian, (paid £683,636.34) , Reed Consultancy, (paid £178,558.03), Google Analytics (paid £1,020,232.17), Facebook (paid £3,177,416.68), Twitter (paid £56,504.32), among others, to research, canvass and advertise their party ‘brand’.
And £76,800 was spent advertising through Express Newspapers.
Blue Telecoms were paid £375,882.56 for ‘unsolicited material to electors’ and ‘advertising’. It says on their site that Blue Telecoms is a trading name for Direct Market Solutions Ltd. The company director is Sascha Lopez , a businessman who stood as a local council candidate for the Tories in the 2017 local elections. He is also an active director of the Lopez Group, although that company’s accounts are very overdue, there is an active proposal to strike off on the government’s Companies House page. If directors are late in filing their company accounts, and don’t reply to warnings from Companies House, their company can be struck-off the Companies House register and therefore cease to exist. Other companies he was active in have been liquidated (3) and dissolved (2).
An undercover reporter working for Channel 4 News secured work at Blue Telecoms, in Neath, South Wales. In an area plagued by unemployment and low wages, the call centre hired up to a hundred people on zero-hours contracts. For weeks, they contacted thousands of potential voters in marginal seats across the UK.
Another company that the Conservatives used and paid £120,000 out to for market research and canvassing during their general election campaign is Outra. Jim Messina is the executive director, and the team includes Lynton Crosby.
Messina Group Inc were also paid £544,153.57 for transport, advertising, market research and canvassing. This company uses data analytics and ‘intelligence’ services. The company conducts “Targeted Ads Programs [….] ensuring precise targeting via Facebook, geo-targeting, zipcodes, IP addresses, and other tactics”.
The company also says:
The Messina Group are in a ‘strategic partnership’ with Outra serving as one of Outra’s primary advisors on data, analytics, and ‘customer engagement.’
British electoral law forbids co-ordination between different campaign groups, which must all comply with strict spending limits. If they plan tactics or co-ordinate together, the organisations must share a cap on spending.
Combobulate Limited, which is listed as a management consultancy, earned £43,200 from the Tories for ‘research/canvassing’ and for ‘unsolicited material to electors’. The director is listed as Nicholas Jack Walton Mason, also listed as the director of Uplifting Data. Mason is also listed as Director of Mason Investment Consultants Limited, which was dissolved via compulsory strike-off .
Another similar company, An Abundance Limited, which is listed as a ‘behaviour change agency’, were paid £2,400 for ‘market research and canvassing’ by the Conservatives in the run-up to the election last year.
Populus Data Solutions, who say they provide “state of the art data capture”, were paid £196,452 for research/canvasing and ‘unsolicited material to electors’. This company have also developed the use of biometrics – facial coding in particular.
St Ives management services were paid £3,556,030.91, for ‘research/canvasing,’ ‘unsolicited material to electors’, advertising, overheads and general administration, media and rallies, and manifesto material.
Edmonds Elder Ltd, a digital consultancy, were paid £156,240.00 for advertising. The site says the company also provides services in vague sounding ‘government affairs’ : “We use cutting-edge digital techniques to help government affairs teams make the case for their policy and regulatory positions – harnessing support from communities across the country to ensure a positive outcome.”
Craig Elder is also the Conservative party’s digital director. Tom Edmonds was the Conservative party’s creative director between 2013 and 2015.
Hines Digital who is a partner of Edmonds Elder Ltd, “is a conservative digital agency that builds strong brands, huge email lists, and big league fundraising revenue for our clients, helping conservative campaigns & causes, and companies, achieve their goals.”
It also says on the site that “Hines worked with conservative campaigns & causes in fifteen U.S. states and nine countries.” The company designed the ‘digital infrastructure’ of Theresa May’s leadership campaign launch in 2016, they built her website (but aren’t listed in election expenses.) Hines says:
“That timely initial website launch proved invaluable. Approximately 35% of her overall email list signed up on that first day, a significant shot in the arm on Day One made possible because her team — led in part by our partners at Edmonds Elder—was prepared to capitalize on the day’s earned media through effective online organizing.
Overall, the initial holding page saw a 18% conversion rate on day one — meaning nearly 1/5 people who visited the website signed up to join the campaign. That’s a fantastic response to a site optimized for supporter recruitment.”
And: “We are experts at identifying people online – and targeting them to drive the activity your organisation needs.”
With political adverts like this, which aren’t fact checked and only the person targeted gets to see them:
Walker Media Limited are a digital marketing and media company, they facilitate Facebook adverts and campaigns, among other services. They were paid £798,610.21 from the Conservatives’ election campaign. One of their other social media marketing campaigns listed on their site is for “The Outdoor and Hunting Industry”.
Simon Davis serves as the Chief Executive Officer at Walker Media Holdings Limited and Blue 449. Davis served as Managing Director ofWalker Media at M&C Saatchi plc, a global PR and advertising company, who have worked for the Conservatives before, designing campaign posters and anti-Labour adverts – including the controversial ‘New Labour, New Danger’ one in particular.
There are a few subsidiaries of this company which include “harnessing data to find, engage and convert customers efficiently through digital media.” M&C Saatchi acquired the online media ‘intelligence agency’ Human Digital, whose “innovative approach marries rich behavioural insight with robust metrics.”
There is a whole submerged world of actors making huge profits from data mining and analytics, ‘targeted audience segmentation’, behaviour change techniques, ‘strategic communications and political lobbying, and governments garnering power through paying for these techniques. Much of the PR and lobbying industry is built upon the same territory of interests: financial profit, maintaining power relations and supporting the vested interests of the privileged class. The subterranean operations of the surveillance and persuasion industry and citizen manipulation has become the establishment’s norm, hidden in plain view.
The data mining, analytics and the entire persuasion market exists because large corporations and governments want to micromanage and psychoregulate citizens. However, such intrusive surveillance and micromanagement poses fundamental challenges to our democratic norms and personal autonomy.
With the exception of the exceptional and dilligent work of Carole Cadwalladr and Channel 4, it’s very clear that the mainstream has largely failed to fulfil its vital role in upholding honesty, brokering facts and upholding our democratic principles, and if we cannot depend on journalistic ethics, democracy is in very deep trouble indeed, not least because of the authoritarian government in office.
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