Tuesday 20 August 2019

The Dark Arts of Moulding Public Opinion

A report by the electoral commission has called for the regulation of targetted political messages sent digitally.  In general, the report calls for limits  to the amount of  money spent during election periods, the prohibition of foreign money, and the identification of the senders.  You can see the details here.

Sadly it is probably too late to bring in relevant new laws before a snap general election or even another referendum, but it is vitally important for us,  the public, to be fully aware of what is going on.

A recent article by Peter Pomerantsev tells of a world of "dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, deep fakes, fake news . . .[and] trolls."  I don't pretend to understand what most of these are but they are sent digitally not to the population as a whole, but to carefully targetted audiences.  Without regulation the target does not necessarily know  from whom the message comes, nor who else is receiving it, or an entirely different message.

The result is that the recipient is deceived into believing that there is a consensus of opinion where none actually exists. This perhaps helps to explain the unexpected result of the 2016 Referendum

Apparently the person in charge of targeted digital messaging for the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Referendum was a Thomas Borwick. He claims  

"that the most successful message in getting people out to vote had been about animal rights.  Vote leave argued that the EU was cruel to animals because, for example, it supported farmers in Spain who raise bulls for bullfighting.  And within the "animal rights" segment Borwick could focus  even tighter, sending graphic ads featuring mutilated animals to one type of  voter and more gentle ads with pictures of cuddly sheep, to others."

It's  a world away from "Question Time" the "Today Programme," "Newsnight," election addresses and our Liberal Democrat Focus leaflets. The Tories are said to have earmarked  several millions to digital advertising since Mr Johnson became Prime Minister.

A contributor  to a thread on Liberal Democrat Voice, where a version of this post has already been published, claims that she received lots of these "animal" messages, and that it was clear that thy came from the Leave campaign.  Good, but I am not convinced that this applies to all these mystery messages.

If elections (and referendums) are to be freely and fairly fought we all need to know who is sending what messages  to whom, and, where there is distortion of the truth, have the opportunity to put alternative views.

Without such safeguards I suspect Dominic Cummings, the mastermind behind the pro Brexit campaign and now No 10's Chief of Staff,  will take every opportunity to deceive us again.

 Post script

On a different tack, Ian Dunt, in an article  criticising  the Daily Telegraph on the 13th August for distorting the results of an opinion poll. writes:

 [It's] an example of completely degenerate journalistic standards. But it is also part of a sustained
psychological campaign from across the Brexit-supporting press and government, which is just as
baseless. It's an attempt to convince opponents of no-deal that they are doomed.
In a sense, the whole function of Johnson's government is to entrench a sense of the battle already
being over. Diplomats retreat from Europe. Remorseless countdown clocks are put up all over
Whitehall. Briefings are given to the press of the detailed daily no-deal preparation meetings under
Michael Gove.
And most importantly of all, a sustained information war is being fought to convince critics that it's
too late. MPs already lost their last chance to stop no-deal.
But there is a problem with all this. It is false. MPs have not lost their chance. They can still stop it,
quite easily in fact, and there are several avenues open to them.


  1. Diplomats retreat from Europe (In the red bit). It was mentioned on the BBC news that they will only be attending meetings directly involving the UK. Yes intending to say that the battle is over. An example of your article .Psychological planned warfare. George Orwell's 1984 would be proud-NOT. (maybe Cummings has read it).

    1. Cummings is both intelligent and well read. I'm sure he's aware of all the tricks, including those exposed by Orwell

  2. MPs have not lost their chance. They can still stop it, quite easily in fact, and there are several avenues open to them.

    What they can't do is stop it and then get re-elected.

    1. Who can say? My guess is that most of them would be re-elected. If some lose their seats for the good of the country that is a small price for them to pay.

    2. But then the new government will just re-invoke Article 50 and we'll leave the EU. So they'll have lost their seats for nothing. Just to delay the inevitable for a couple of months.

      Is it really worth it?

  3. It rather depends on the composition of the new House of Commons. Again, who knows?

    1. I suggest that if they thought there was a reasonable chance of the electorate approving of them cancelling leaving the EU, and therefore returning a new Parliament which is content with that, they would already have done so.

      That they have not suggests that they know that the electorate are not of that mind.