Democracy Disrupted: Data Privacy, Social Media & Election Interference

Democracy Disrupted: Data Privacy, Social Media and Election Interference – Summary of Data Protection Forum speech

On March 5th, 2019 our Data & Privacy Director, John Tsopanis spoke at the Data Protection Forum event in London. His talk – ‘Democracy Disrupted: Data Privacy, Social Media, and Election Interference’ is presented here in article form.


When discussing social media, it’s important to understand that it is a visual media; a visual media that has the power to evoke powerful emotions in the individual, groups of individuals, tens of millions of individuals whose relation and opinion of the world is formed by the content they consume. So, when we talk about the scale of political disinformation campaigns we are attempting the impossible, trying to articulate the psychological impact that billions of messages are having on the psychology of tens of millions of individuals. The scale of influence is critical; according to data from Nielsen, Americans spend an average of 10 hours and 39 minutes consuming media across their devices every day. Specifically, five hours per day are spent on mobile devices. What we see on our screens is now the overwhelming driver of political opinion and consensus.

UK Parliament DCMS Fake News Report

UK Parliament’s DCMS report into fake news, disinformation and interference into Brexit concludes that data privacy rights were violated by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica during the Brexit referendum, and tens of millions of people were microtargeted with political disinformation as a result. The DCMS conclude that the institutions that are designed to protect us from this type of abuse are not fit for purpose nor appropriately funded. The DCMS have called for urgent action to safeguard our democracy from microtargeted political disinformation campaigns, funded by countries like Russia, that aim and are succeeding at fracturing the British political consensus into gridlock.

The DCMS acknowledge that the GDPR has been a necessary first step in establishing privacy rights for British citizens, but more protections are needed to safeguard citizens’ online safety given the privacy violations that have already occurred.

The DCMS report summarises as follows:

“We have always experienced propaganda and politically-aligned bias, which purports to be news, but this activity has taken on new forms and has been hugely magnified by information technology and the ubiquity of social media. In this environment, people are able to accept and give credence to information that reinforces their views, no matter how distorted or inaccurate, while dismissing content with which they do not agree as ‘fake news’. This has a polarising effect and reduces the common ground on which reasoned debate, based on objective facts, can take place. Much has been said about the coarsening of public debate, but when these factors are brought to bear directly in election campaigns then the very fabric of our democracy is threatened.

This situation is unlikely to change. What does need to change is the enforcement of greater transparency in the digital sphere, to ensure that we know the source of what we are reading, who has paid for it and why the information has been sent to us. We need to understand how the big tech companies work and what happens to our data.

In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices. While the Internet has brought many freedoms across the world and an unprecedented ability to communicate, it also carries the insidious ability to distort, to mislead and to produce hatred and instability. It functions on a scale and at a speed that is unprecedented in human history. One of the witnesses at our inquiry, Tristan Harris, from the US-based Center for Humane Technology, describes the current use of technology as “hijacking our minds and society”. We must use technology, instead, to free our minds and use regulation to restore democratic accountability. We must make sure that people stay in charge of the machines.”

Data Privacy and British Democracy

The problem British democracy faces has two core components:

The first is the need to safeguard personal privacy and restrict the ability for personal data to be harvested, profiled and leveraged at scale by unknown actors. The GDPR has given individuals the rights to access and erasure which offer a solution for the individual, but if the organisations conducting the microtargeting are unknown and/or criminal it is very difficult for the individual to exercise these rights. What is needed is greater capacity for enforcement.

The suggested solution from the DCMS is to impose a 2% levy on big data and social media companies and ring fence that into funding the ICO’s enforcement work. This will allow the extension of powers offered to them under the GDPR which will enable them to identify, investigate and take down dark data and disinformation operations at scale. It is the international scale of operations working against British democracy through the vehicle of unregulated social media that has overwhelmed our current domestic regulatory bodies and our politics. Therefore, an urgent boost to the resources of the regulators is needed to tackle this problem at source.

The second problem is tackling disinformation. The DCMS has called for the following:

“There is now an urgent need to establish independent regulation. We believe that a compulsory Code of Ethics should be established, overseen by an independent regulator, setting out what constitutes harmful content. The independent regulator would have statutory powers to monitor relevant tech companies; this would create a regulatory system for online content that is as effective as that for offline content industries.

As we said in our Interim Report, such a Code of Ethics should be similar to the Broadcasting Code issued by Ofcom—which is based on the guidelines established in section 319 of the 2003 Communications Act. The Code of Ethics should be developed by technical experts and overseen by the independent regulator, in order to set down in writing what is and is not acceptable on social media. This should include harmful and illegal content that has been referred to the companies for removal by their users, or that should have been easy for tech companies themselves to identify.

The process should establish clear, legal liability for tech companies to act against agreed harmful and illegal content on their platform and such companies should have relevant systems in place to highlight and remove ‘types of harm’ and to ensure that cyber security structures are in place. If tech companies (including technical engineers involved in creating the software for the companies) are found to have failed to meet their obligations under such a Code, and not acted against the distribution of harmful and illegal content, the independent regulator should have the ability to launch legal proceedings against them, with the prospect of large fines being administered as the penalty for non-compliance with the Code.”

The scale of disinformation on social media platforms is the current largest threat to British democracy. It’s one that data privacy professionals have yet to truly understand, primarily because the 20% professional class are rarely the targets of micro targeted disinformation campaigns due to their inferred socioeconomic status. This perfect storm has meant that our privacy legislation now lags significantly behind the technology that needs to be regulated and there is an overcompensation needed to correct course.

Cambridge Analytica, Disinformation and Brexit

Cambridge Analytica were responsible for delivering the Trump and Leave.EU Brexit social media campaigns.

‘Today, in the United States, we have close to 4000 to 5000 data points on every individual. So we model every personality across the United States, some 230 million people’ – Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, October 2016

See 6:40-11:07 for Channel 4’s undercover reporting of Cambridge Analytica’s political disinformation tactics:

The integrity of the information supply is the cornerstone of a free and functioning democracy

“A democracy needs good quality information, and fair distribution of that information in order to articulate, aggregate, and defend its own national interests. Without it, democracy falls.” said Professor AC Grayling, moral and political philosopher, and author of over 30 books on ethics, philosophy and the history of human rights. He also went on to say:

“In a mature democracy, citizens must be free to choose the information they consume, and to be able to easily identify and trust the source of that information at the point of consumption. The ability for citizens to do this, to opt out of illicit messaging from untrusted sources, is what we might consider exercising our right to privacy. Without these freedoms, we cannot meaningfully escape unwanted influence, and in a truly Orwellian sense, our vulnerability to psychological manipulation by unknown individuals and organisations makes us all less free”.

Foreign Interference in Brexit

The DCMS, along with tackling data privacy violations and disinformation, has also called for an urgent investigation into Russian interference into Brexit. The aim is to investigate the source of Mr Aaron Banks’ £9m donation to the Leave.EU campaign; the largest donation in British political history – the source of which is still unclear.

What is clear is that the disinformation networks that were operating during the Brexit referendum are still active and more effective than ever. The prevalence of known Kremlin Twitter and Facebook accounts amplifying pro-Brexit politicians (e.g. Conservative members of the “European Research Group” known as the ‘ERG’) and pro-Brexit social media pages like Leave.EU and Westmonster are deep cause for concern for British citizens. Leave.EU alone generated 661,000,000 impressions on Facebook and 221,000,000 impressions on Twitter in 2018.

The full nature of this relationship must be investigated by an Independent Counsel similar to the USA’s Mueller Enquiry, an enquiry that is investigating the Trump Organisation’s ties with Russia, and revealed to the public as a top priority.


Britain needs to take back control of its politics and to do so it needs to take back control of its data, give the necessary regulatory bodies the investigative and enforcement powers needed to conduct investigations at scale. It should create new institutions that are fit for holding social media companies accountable for disinformation campaigns run through their platform.