Dark Money Deep Data

Democracy dies in darkness. Podcast of a debate organised by Byline. (45 minutes).

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Peter York Mary Fitzgerald Carole Cadwalladr James Patrick
23 October 2017

Last week openDemocracy published the latest results of Adam Ramsay and Peter Geoghegan’s investigation into the mystery source of a £435,000 donation to Theresa May’s allies, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which was spent on lavish pro-Leave campaigning in the weeks before the EU referendum.

The DUP now props up Theresa May’s minority government in parliament and the £435,000 – a much larger sum than the DUP has ever spent on an electoral campaign in its history – attracted particular controversy because almost none of the cash was spent in Northern Ireland. Yet the donor secrecy laws which apply to Northern Ireland, and not the rest of the UK, mean that citizens aren't allowed to know who gave all this cash.

Adam Ramsay and Peter Geoghegan have been tirelessly following this story, which took a bizarre twist a few months ago when Channel 4 News doorstepped Richard Cook, chair of the secretive group that channelled the money to the DUP (watch it here). Their investigations also led to the discovery last month that MPs in Theresa May’s Tory party are using taxpayers cash (via their expense claims) to fund a hard-Brexit lobby group operating inside parliament.

May’s government has now announced it will end donor secrecy in Northern Ireland, but has rejected calls to backdate the law to 2014, so that the source of the DUP donation could be revealed. Government and DUP sources have denied that this is ‘protection’ for the DUP as part of their £1 billion deal to keep the Conservatives in power.

But there is far too little resource being spent on investigating these pressing issues – from the under-funded Electoral Commission to the few journalists who are making it their business to find out more. Stories in Buzzfeed, Private Eye, and a Financial Times investigation into the overlapping businesses of ‘King’ Arron Banks have helped shed light on some of the questions that need to be asked. The resource is paltry compared to the scale of the task.

openDemocracy published on this subject because it helps to ask deeper questions about the strength of our democracy. 

For more of the background, we invite you to listen to this panel discussion – Dark Money Deep Data – that on September 20, 2017 brought together Peter York, Carole Cadwalladr, Mary Fitzgerald and James Patrick  –  all journalists involved in shedding light on some of modern politics’ murkiest corners – whether it is uncovering secret funding on the Brexit referendum; establishing clear connections between wholesale voter targeting on social media and the US far right; or shedding new light on illegally-traded data, commercial hostile-bot capability, and weaponised info wars. 

Mary Fitzgerald

02.20 Business consultant and cultural commentator Peter York sets the scene explaining how advertisers have long sought to understand consumer behaviour, the better to segment markets and target messaging.

16.00 Carole Cadwalladr, a features writer on The Observer, has published a series of articles revealing the secret links between leave.eu and the Vote Leave campaigns, and their connections to the US billionaire Robert Mercer.

29.30 Mary Fitzgerald, openDemocracy’s editor-in-chief, managed the team behind revelations that the DUP spent more money campaigning for a leave vote in Great Britain than they ever had on an election in Northern Ireland.

38.45 James Patrick, whose book Alternative War was launched at the event, spoke about the linguistic commonalities in social media alt-right campaigning in both Britain and the US, and Russian investment in targeted Facebook advertising, which is now being investigated in the US by the Mueller enquiry.

Peter York:

“I do know where the dark arts derive from and I do know that new technology has completely changed things irreversibly and very recently too. So don’t ever listen to people who say, “ Oh fake news has been going on since the Romans!” New technology has enabled persuaders to mess with individual and collective minds to a really unprecedented degree and to do it in secret...

‘Psychographics’ is the business of understanding people in terms of their personalities, their concerns, their attitudes, rather than just the pretty crude but useful idea of demographics, age, class, gender, income, geography – all important in their way. My employer back then was interested in understanding very sophisticated market segmentations – another bit of ‘newspeke’ – that grouped people usefully as targets – targets for new product development, for branding or for messaging on the basis of what went on in their heads...

Computers helped us do this grouping in terms of analyses that showed us relationships, clusters of attitudes that went together…  You hated x and you loved y.  The objective was to make people easier to target with appeals that worked emotionally as well as rationally, things that played on their fears and aspirations…

PR was much less developed then: everybody in the world didn’t work in PR, and it was very imprecise and very imperfectly Orwellian…

The reality remained by today’s standards fantastically imprecise. We longed to be the ‘real hidden persuaders’ that people called ‘awful’ and ‘spooky’ – but we couldn’t do it….

New technology has completely liberated and weaponised those sorts of vested interests, those commercial and political players, by making it possible to target precisely online. Psychographics has been taken up by Facebook which analyses you by your likes. It gives a fantastically accurate picture of a person and then offers you up to advertisers on a plate and also all sorts of new organisations which hold all sorts of information about everyone: individuals, small groups – and huge groups, very precisely and very quickly!  It comes fantastically persistently. Bots don’t sleep...

And it is unseen. They do it very secretly, unaccountably but plausibly.”

Carole Cadwalladr:

“ This is being taken very seriously in America. There are something like 17 agencies looking at this and the FBI investigation is coming down with a lot of focus on what happened with the data. These are all live questions that are being investigated right now in America, but they are not being investigated in Britain. It is a bizarre, weird absence that we in the UK do seem to be in denial about the fact that our democracy has been subverted by outside actors and billionaires and potentially foreign nations. We don’t know. In America they have got Facebook in front of a committee and they ask them questions… That is a private company unaccountable, unregulated...

An American academic, Jonathan Albright had been studying the ‘fake news’ eco-system. He said this isn’t teenagers making up little stories: this is a whole network which has taken over our whole news and information system and is literally strangling it. Cambridge Analytica wasn’t some little data start-up in Shoreditch. It was actually this British military firm which had been working in places like Iraq and Ukraine for thirty years and using technology which had been paid for and developed by the military to subdue civilian populations, and out of this same company, using the same technology they were now using it on the electorate definitely in America and so they said before, in Britain. Eventually Leave.EU said – they did work for us but we didn’t pay them…”

“It took me quite a long time to get the bottom of this and to stand this up… we know that Aggregate IQ is connected to Cambridge Analytica. We know that Robert Mercer who is the owner of Cambridge Analytica also owns the IP of Aggregate IQ. We know that it is illegal for campaigns to coordinate but here were the two major Leave campaigns working with the company owned by this one US billionaire… We have UK electoral law about managing the money and having an even playing field, and there is really good evidence that it wasn’t an even playing field… 

But we are pawns in a game that we don’t really understand. Politics is supposed to be about having a debate. It is about consensus. We agree on the results of the election in that case. But this is so fundamentally different. We don’t know how people were targeted and we have no way of finding out… Our news and information system and our democracy is broken. This needs an emergency taskforce.”

James Patrick:

“In Sweden, domestic extremism comes from the right wing and that made me start to have a broader look not only at the narratives across Europe related to refugee movements and local crime which we had actually seen in Brexit, but also the way that fake news and disinformation works...

You could look at this and you could see a certain pattern across Europe: ‘immigration is bad; immigrants are bad; crime increases with immigrants.’  You could look at this and it was always coming from certain quarters. In Sweden you could actually see that it was always coming from the Sweden Democrats who were the far right local party and you could identify that they had long term funding links with Russia… Marine Le Pen was loaned £9 and a half million by a Russian bank which then folded… You can trace her narrative and her connections to Nigel Farage, to the Sweden Democrats and everything else…

Then I looked at the messages we had on twitter through the Brexit referendum… and then I looked at the US and the messages were so similar that you couldn’t get away from it. I looked at Cambridge Analytica who came up again and again, and they just had money churned at them…

What’s happened is that you can’t just go to a country and say, “Right I want all rightwing people to vote this way”. You have to use companies like Cambridge Analytica for ‘a pre-assessment’… and you farm out what they learn to an outside interest, and you use that outside interest to tweak what they were seeing… .” 

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