MPs warning over how voters’ online data can be misused

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MPs have warned about how voters’ online data can be misused after it was revealed hundreds of thousands of pounds has been spent influencing local politics on Facebook.

A total of 40 ads placed by sitting MPs have broken the website’s transparency rules.

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While there is no suggestion of wrongdoing in placing ads online, experts have warned that they be misleading especially if the funding is not attributed.

Last week we revealed Facebook users are being targeted with thousands of adverts seeking to influence their opinion of politics.

And this week in the second part of our investigation we found that The Information Commissioner’s Office is now looking into the government over data concern related to its ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign.

The concerns refer to how users’ data is gathered when they visit government websites.

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Wakefield MP Mary Creagh (below, right) said she had written to the Information Commissioner’s Office over allegations the government was “secretly planning to process citizens’ data in a manner not clearly communicated to users when interacting with UK Government websites”.

The watchdog confirmed it had contacted the government over the issue.

Ms Creagh was one of a number of MPs to flag up how data can be misused.

She said: “Facebook ads allow quick and easy access to many people, but there are concerns that our laws have not kept up.

“The Electoral Commission found that Vote Leave broke its spending limits during the EU referendum campaign.

“The man who ran that campaign, Dominic Cummings, now sits in Number 10 at the heart of government.

“The Government’s £100m ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign is being used by ministers to centrally collect the personal information of millions of people, without their consent

“After I raised concerns about this secret data tracking with the Information Commissioner, she has launched an investigation.”

Dewsbury MP Paula Sherriff said proper regulation was needed for online adverts after Facebook removed a Conservative Party advert “misused” the platform by changing a figure on education spending.

A headline underneath a BBC logo said £14 billion would be spent on schools but the actual story put the figure at £7.1 billion. Ms Sherriff (right) said: “I use social media as an increasingly effective way of keeping local people informed of the work I’m doing.

“While it is just one device among many, there’s no question that here in the UK, social media has become a major tool for political advertising and that this will be widespread in any upcoming General Election campaign.

“However, I am concerned about the need to ensure the proper regulation of digital campaigning.

“For example, we’ve seen the Conservative Party plumb new depths in recent weeks, doctoring a BBC headline on school spending, and joining those more murky political movements who spread online falsehoods and fake news.”

Though she welcomed changes on Facebook that require advertisers to publish their source of funding, she said there needed to be more oversight outside of social media websites themselves.

She said: “In an election campaign, spending on social media must be reported like all other media, but, even after the Cambridge Analytica and Brexit scandals, that have led to Facebook’s steps to publish the source of its adverts, there remains a lack of regulation of content, and that must not be left solely to the judgement of the same social media platforms being paid to publish the message.

“Voters should also be warned of unbranded ‘news’ pages, whose funding sources are unknown, which blur the lines of political advertising and amongst other things, throws open the risk of foreign interests investing in UK election campaigns.

“If we are to restore trust in politics and politicians, reform is needed to bring electoral law up to date and in line with modern digital campaigning techniques.”The data revealed on Facebook ads showed Calder Valley MP Craig Whittaker spent around £1,800 on Facebook advertising, which was one of the higher figures.

He has been approached for comment.

Less than £100 was listed as being spent by Ms Creagh and spending was listed in the data for Ms Sherriff.

Hundreds of individual MPs, elected officials and local authorities have placed nearly half a million pounds’ worth of promotions on the site in less than a year.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social media giant last year began publishing details of who places – and pays for – adverts promoting political or social issues.

Spending on these ads, often targeted to specific groups, has totalled more than £6.4m since last October.

Under new rules Facebook introduced in October 2018, anyone placing a political advert must declare who paid for it.

Our investigation identified around 300 ads on the pages of local politicians and councils which were run without these disclaimers - including 40 placed on behalf of sitting MPs.

There is no suggestion that any of the adverts had been deliberate attempts to deceive constituents. They were all found and removed by Facebook.

Dr Pete Woodcock, head of division at the University of Huddersfield’s Department of Behavioural and Social Sciences said the method was increasingly popular with politicians because it was a way to speak directly to the electorate rather than through conventional channels.

He said: “The fancy and controversial element in that is by use of data you can start targeting certain demographics on Facebook.

“On Facebook if it is not clear where the funding for an advert has come from it becomes a question of whether we can see it as trying to give us a specific message or whether it is an impartial piece of news - then we’re in fake news territory.

“The big problem for me is the likelihood of having an echo chamber where people communicate with one another and only see opinions they already agree with. That makes people more extreme in their views and that is the worry.”

Morley and Outwood MP Andrea Jenkyns spent an estimated £1,000 on Facebook adverts.

Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper spent an estimated £200.

Wakefield MP Mary Creagh spent less than £100.

No data was available for Hemsworth MP Jon Trickett.

Calder Valley MP Craig Whittaker placed more than £1,800 worth of Facebook ads.

The figures show no spending on Facebook adverts for Halifax MP Holly Lynch.

Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin spent less than £100.

No spending was listed for Paula Sherriff.