Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Dark ads matter
The integrity of our electoral system is about to be tested


With the Business Council of Australia raising $26 million to campaign for big business tax cuts, the ACTU prepared for a major campaign to #changetherules on workplace regulation and GetUp! under attack from an extremely hostile Turnbull government, the next federal election may be the first in which new techniques to manipulate voters through social media could actually sway the result. It has happened in the US and the UK. Is the integrity of Australia’s next election protected? Not nearly enough, some say.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which millions of users’ Facebook data was harvested in a massive privacy breach and used to deliver targeted political messaging and fake news, helping elect US president Donald Trump and win the Brexit vote in 2016, has triggered an inquiry by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. But the commission is only investigating whether Facebook breached the Privacy Act, by using the data of some 300,000 Australians without authorisation. Facebook and Google are also subject to an investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, but that appears to be focused on abuses of market power, rather than electioneering. Nobody seems to be reviewing the electoral laws, for example, to see whether the Australian Electoral Commission has the right powers to prevent manipulation of the next poll.

Yet this week we learnt that the BCA, which met last year with Cambridge Analytica, has set up front groups including a wholly owned subsidiary called Centre Ground, whose directors include former Liberal Party acting federal director Andrew Bragg. In a Senate inquiry last week, the BCA took on notice a question about whether Bragg had met with Cambridge Analytica. Today the BCA tweeted that it was “sorry to ruin the conspiracy theory, we don’t work with Cambridge Analytica”. Whether that also means that neither Bragg nor Centre Ground have done so is not 100 per cent clear.

A fortnight ago The Australian reported [$] that the Liberal Party was being urged to nationally roll out another sophisticated data-mining approach to campaigning, via a program called i360 that was funded by the notorious climate-denying Koch brothers and used in the recent South Australian election, helping to finally oust Labor after 16 years. The import of i360 was an initiative of the Victorian and South Australian branches of the Liberals, and was used to target swing voters.

Two former Greens advisers, Timothy Singleton Norton and David Paris, are on the board of the Digital Rights Watch and wrote this excellent piece [$] for Crikey in March. They pointed out that, notwithstanding the proper outrage at Cambridge Analytica, privacy breaches were occurring at scale at the behest of a host of businesses, charities and advocacy groups, and that in the face of these developments, Australia’s Privacy Act was woefully out of date. Moreover, they observed, political parties are exempt from its restrictions.

It’s more of an evolution than a revolution. The real beginning was the Obama campaign in 2008, and what happened in 2016 is that similarly sophisticated data harvesting techniques are being used by the right.

Singleton Norton tells The Monthly Today that Australian political parties are not sophisticated enough to do the particular kind of manipulation that was evident in the US presidential campaign. This included tactics in which third parties or sub-accounts apparently unrelated to the Trump campaign placed “dark ads” (which can only be seen by the targeted user) into the rust belt – featuring fake news, inflammatory content, or links to commentary – that went unnoticed by the mainstream media on the east and west coasts.

What we will see getting better and better in Australia, Singleton Norton says, is targeting and placement of messages. The information commissioner, he says, is “hideously underfunded” and there is a question as to whether other bodies including the AEC, the charities commission and the privacy commissioner have the regulatory teeth. The government confirmed [$] yesterday that a new data commissioner would be funded in next week’s budget. In March, the Greens tried and failed to get up a motion condemning Cambridge Analytica, and calling for a review of privacy regulations in Australia including the removal of absolute exemptions in the Privacy Act for politicians and political parties.

A spokesperson for the AEC says the commission has no oversight of the content of political messaging, or how voters are targeted. It is only concerned with ensuring proper authorisation across all channels of communication. With both sides cashed up and armed for the next Australian election, a review would be timely.

since this morning

Senior Tasmanian Liberal figures have hosed down talk of losing their grip on power after Sue Hickey broke ranks to become speaker of Tasmania’s House of Assembly.

Western Australian Labor frontbencher Tim Hammond has resigned [$] from politics, citing the family pressures of being a Perth-based federal MP.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane canvasses [$] the Liberal Party’s deep, rich connections with the banks and financial planning.

in case you missed it

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen has given [$] another strong hint that Labor intends to deliver a larger budget surplus sooner than the government’s target date of 2020–21.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors says [$] that a multi-million dollar campaign by the Business Council of Australia to try to lift support for company tax cuts was doomed to fail, thanks to the reputational damage being inflicted on the business community by the banks.

The SMH reports that the chair of an inquiry ordered by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull amid the dual-citizenship crisis says a constitutional provision banning millions of Australians from being elected to parliament is broken and should be overturned at a referendum.

The Australian reports [$] that tensions in Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet have been exposed after Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said there was a “case to be made” about expanding the powers of Australian cyber spies, rebuking Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who earlier claimed there was no need for enhanced security changes.

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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