Public mind manipulation

There’s a report out today  calling for the regulation of targeted political advertising.  I heard this  in a BBC review of the papers, but it isn’t mentioned in theGuardian and  can’t find it on the Internet, so I don’t have the details.

However, this is a serious matter and regulation is urgently needed.  Sadly, it is probably too late to bring in relevant new laws before a snap general election or even another referendum, so it is vitally important for the public to be fully aware of what is going on.

A recent article by Peter Pomerantsev  in the Guardian 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 targeted audiences.  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 recipients are deceived into believing that there is a consensus of opinion where none actually exists.  Maybe this helps explain the narrow lead for Leave in the 2016 Referendum

Apparently, the person in charge of targeted digital messaging for the Vote Leave campaign i was a Thomas Borwick. According to Pomerantsev:

 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 (sic) 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, indeed,  Focus.  the Tories are said to have earmarked several millions to digital advertising since Mr Johnson became Prime Minister.

I’m sure that younger readers of LDV are well aware of the above, but it’s mostly news to me

“Free speech,” which implies an equal access to means of communication by all concerned, is an essential component of democracy.  Dominic Cummings, the mastermind behind the pro Brexit campaign and now No 10’s Chief of Staff, is out to deceive us again.   In the limited time available, what can we do?



* Peter Wrigley is a member of Spen Valley Liberal Democrats and blogs as

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • They use it as a fishing expedition. Look for peoples interests and try to engage them. Once hooked, well it is difficult to unhook them because you effectively have to say “they fooled you and took you for a mug” and no one likes thinking themselves as a mug. Our resident Brexi’s and Lexi’ are prime examples, espcially the Lexi’s who are going along with a hardright agenda rather than admit they got played for fools. So on they trot hoping against hope for their own personal Brexi or Lexi, and hoping against hope no one remembers what they once said, for that would be embarrassing.

  • Tony Greaves 10th Aug '19 - 12:30pm

    This is a very important issue. All political parties including ours send different messages to different electors on the same subjects. They may not be lies, just different emphases or selective bits of policy (eg a different education message to supporters of grammar schools than to supporters of comprehensives or to people just wanting more money spent on schools). In my view this is all very dodgy, very dangerous and fundamentally wrong.

    Or of course the messages from some parties may be serious distortions or complete lies. (Not ours I trust).

    It’s clearly not possible or desirable for messages to be vetted for approval in advance (and anyway who would do it?) One answer might be to require parties during elections to publish immediately all messages sent out to electors, other than individual responses to enquiries from particular electors; and even in relation to the latter where responses are basically standard templates, those templates to be published. To apply to all means of communication.

  • The leave campaigns did lie. But it is all for “The greater good” or so they believe, a dangerous belief and one that should be unmercifully ground into the dust; but that isn’t “nice”, well I’ve made it clear where “nice” gets you.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 10th Aug '19 - 1:45pm

    You mention the Leave campaign adverts about animal welfare. I was evidently among those who were targeted, as I saw several of these adverts on Facebook. I think I was probably among the group who received the pictures of cute animals, rather than the more horrific, graphic images.
    I feel strongly about animal welfare, and I had previously posted on social media about animal welfare issues. So the Leave campaign evidently felt the best way to convert me would be through animal welfare.
    I have to say that I don’t really see what was wrong with these adverts. It was always made clear that they were from the Leave campaign. And the claims made in the animal welfare adverts were true. Several referred to the fact that EU membership made it impossible for Britain to ban the export of live animals for slaughter. This is true. The “free movement of goods” makes such a ban impossible, as, sadly, live animals are regarded as “goods”. It is also true that the EU does indirectly subsidise bull fighting, by giving subsidies to farmers who raise bulls for this purpose. I see nothing wrong with the Leave campaign pointing out these facts.
    I was perfectly well aware at the time that I had been targeted, and that this targeting was based on my previous social media posts. I assume that most people were aware of this. So there was no deception, and no more manipulation than with more conventional campaigning methods, such as leafleting. After all, Lib Dem election campaigns often involve “targeted” letters – for example sending very different letters to previous Labour voters, and previous Conservative voters, emphasising very different things.
    I would imagine that the Remain campaign used similar targeted adverts on social media.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland

    Surely the point is that the EU is like any other constituted body with governance roles in “the western world” has political structures and people (MEPs, political party groups, lobbyists etc) involved. So it is entirely misleading to encourage people to “vote leave” rather than to encourage them to vote for a party or parties that wish to see an end to (say) bullfighting.

    It seems that the success of the two Leave campaigns in 2016 – and where they are still supported even now – was through the entirely inaccurate notion that the EU is a monolithic body, with no democratic or alterable policies and strategies. There must be among us many who dislike profoundly some of the things this or previous Governments have done, but we blame the party or individual(s) for that not Westminster as a whole – no such thing as Leave.Westminster.UK!

  • A sense of panic is now gripping the UK meat industry as exporters see our Government frighten continental buyers with uncompromising threats of a no-deal Brexit.

    The message that the UK is serious about leaving with no deal may not have convinced European politicians yet, but it has convinced continental retail buyers who are refusing to agree long term supply contracts with UK meat exporters.

    If this continues, we could be witnessing the start of a structural and long-term decline in our nation’s farming capacity and heritage. Sounds dramatic? Well, it will be.

    Well done my brave Lexi’s and Brexi’s, well done.

  • Ignoring the disastrous economic consequences and the loss of vital environmental, workers’ rights and even animal welfare protections — if that comes to pass — Britain will become an independent member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

    A barrier to trade
    As a member of the WTO, it’s as likely — if not more likely — that live animal exports will increase rather than decrease. The WTO governs the conditions, rules, and regulation of trade between countries and governments. There are currently no grounds to restrict trade, as a member of the WTO, based on animal welfare objections.

    Oh dear oh dear Cath, you didn’t quite vote for what you think you voted for. Still cheer up not many Brexi’s or Lexi’s did.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 10th Aug '19 - 7:49pm

    Frankie, the animal welfare adverts didn’t actually succeed in converting me to Leave – I voted Remain.
    Tim 13, my point was not really about whether or not the animal welfare issues were a strong enough reason to leave the EU. My point was that the adverts were not some sort of sinister deception, as Peter Wrigley suggests. It was made completely clear that these were adverts from the Leave campaign. On this particular issue, the claims were factually correct. It was perfectly reasonable for the Leave campaign to mention these issues. There is not really anything sinister about targeting particular campaigns to particular groups of people.

  • You may recall that someone tried to take Boris Johnson to court for lying during the Brexit campaign. Part of Johnson’s defence was that the “claims” were stated publicly and it was for the opposition to refute them.

    One problem with micro-targeted social media ads is that the opposition doesn’t get visibility of them in time to challenge them, and that undermines the democratic process.

  • Tony Greaves 10th Aug '19 - 9:47pm

    It is interesting but disappointing that people here ae getting diverted by their pet (???) subjects instead of facing up to the fundamental question raised by Peter of how political campaigning can be made more transparent and less dishonest.

  • I suspect what we really have is one of Britain’s beloved moral panics whereby the great and good are convinced that the not so great and the good must be protected from some new(ish) technology or some such on the grounds that they are not sophistimicated like a what a gentlemen is.
    What I find interesting is that the Pro EU camp is always trying to find pathologies and causes for the leave vote because the idea that not everyone wants European unity is so inconceivable to it.
    I also suspect that in the pre-internet age, of the 1980s and 1990,s a referendum on Europe would have resulted in a bigger loss for Europhiles, which is why the Major government never dared put Maastricht to a public vote and why despite promising referendums one wasn’t held until the Conservative Party felt sufficiently electorally threatened.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 11th Aug '19 - 7:41am

    Nick Baird, I was seeing frequent animal welfare adverts from the Leave campaign for weeks before the referendum. I would imagine that the target group for these adverts was large, as many people are concerned about animal welfare and post on social media about this issue. I’m sure the Remain campaign must have been aware of the adverts.
    Indeed, I remember people on the Remain side responding to the animal welfare arguments – for example saying that there was no guarantee that we would be able to ban live exports after Brexit – although I am not sure whether this was in response to these specific adverts.
    As I mentioned in a previous post, targeting is also often used in more conventional campaigning, such as leafleting or letters.

  • You can’t stop this type of deception unless you treat the internet like TV and regulate it ( best if luck with that ). You can rebut the lies and deceptions used, but you need to be quick on your feet and not paralysed by the need to be
    “nice”. Even then some are beyond rationality ( as so ably demonstrated by our Brexi’s and Lexi’s) and will swallow any amount of delusion. It is a necessity to understand they are that delusional, tinfoil really is their attire of choice, many wish to live in an era that never existed and quite a few wish to live in “their little village, for people like them”. Once you realise that, it rather frees you from any desire to be “nice” to them, if only because “nice” makes no difference, it only emboldenes them and wastes your time.

  • They didn’t rebut the lies by pointing out WTO was likely to make things worse. Now that is down mainly to the ineptitude of the remain campaign, clueless about the people outside their Westminster bubble. Tis an important lesson to learn, but one I fear our leadership still hasn’t. Remember the SPAD obsessed Clegg period brought you 2015, even though many average members had been screaming turn back for years, I’d caution against ignoring those outside the bubble because you’ll screw it up again if you do.

  • James Murray 11th Aug '19 - 10:23am

    Come on Tony Greaves, it is a well-known and very effective ACLC campaign technique to use those who sign petitions on a particular issue during campaigning year to have their interest noted.

    AND then pre-election to be sent bespoke letters geared to appeal to ‘that type of person’.

    Facebook and other social media are just a more sophisticated form of that profiling.

    Yes, make it illegal not to mention the pre-election post is an election communication but only if has the name of the candidate.

    The rest of it is just focused advertising and those raised on social media are well used to detecting such marketing.

    Jim Murray

  • James Murray
    Very true.

  • Philip Moss 11th Aug '19 - 1:16pm

    There lies the problem, individuals feel strongly about one item or another, the secret is to make that the most important and not to get them to look at all in the round.
    Very little seems to have come from Central Office regarding our Leader accepting donations from people involved in fracking and advising on tax avoidance. Jo has in fact spoken against both activities, so why take donations from such sources? If gives others
    quite rightly a reason to attack us. If I had known I would not have voted for Jo.

  • Philip Moss 11th Aug '19 - 1:19pm

    There lies the problem, individuals feel strongly about one item or another, the secret is to make that the most important and not to get them to look at all in the round.
    Very little seems to have come from Central Office regarding our Leader accepting donations from people involved in fracking and advising on tax avoidance. Jo has in fact spoken against both activities, so why take donations from such sources? If gives others
    quite rightly a reason to attack us. If I had known I would not have voted for Jo.
    I have been told that I have already said this, a nonsense as my wife a Labour supporter has only just mentioned it to me, is this trying to prevent negative comments about Jo?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Aug '19 - 1:24pm

    As often, in the posting here, Catherine Jane adds much to a measured and realistic debate, more of it from her might get me again on here more!

    I continue here, as ever, and also carry on being a little sceptical about the supposed horrors of Facebook.

    Frankie alludes to tv. We regulate tv to such an extent that we force us all to pay a compulsory licence to see any broadcast on a channel not just the BBC, which I very seldom watch but must pay for.

    I do doubt the powers in all organisations, sometimes. I trust the leaders of the BBC no more or less than the leaders of Facebook. The former include assorted with a title before their name, the latter , with a Clegg at the end of theirs. Neither are custodians of one great truth.

    I want a regulated but loose market. I also want that on the public side too, which is why , as well as being tyranny, a forcing people to pay a licence to see tv, is far worse than allowing people to glimpse an advert on social media.

    Liberals , are more inconsistent than ever.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 12th Aug '19 - 7:02am

    Frankie, you are incorrect in suggesting that WTO rules would prevent Britain from banning the export of live animals for slaughter. New Zealand is a member of the WTO, and has ended the export of live animals for slaughter.
    Lorenzo, thank you

  • Antony Watts 12th Aug '19 - 1:44pm

    Oh come on Catherine Jane Crosland. The EU permits the transport of live animals, OK. But it is the UK government that can block it if it wants to. Aks them to stop it.

    The EU is facilitator not a dictator.

  • @Antony Watts & Catherine Jane Crosland. The EU permits the transport of live animals, OK. But it is the UK government that can block it if it wants to. Aks them to stop it.
    Just emphasis the point: The EU permits the transport of live animals with the full consent of the UK government.

    However, I think something is missing from this discussion, the images sent out – where they actually representative of exports under current welfare regulations, or like the images used by the anti-abortion lobby intended to shock etc., but bear no relationship to the reality of the situation in this country.

    @frankie – You can’t stop this type of deception unless you treat the internet like TV and regulate it ( best if luck with that ).
    Well as a member of the EU we stand a good chance of enhancing Internet regulation, but only if we free ourselves from the shackles of being the US’s mouthpiece in the EU. Currently, the only role for the UK outside of the EU, is to continue to be the US’s poodle and obstruct things that the US thinks aren’t in it’s interests.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 12th Aug ’19 – 7:02am:
    New Zealand is a member of the WTO, and has ended the export of live animals for slaughter.

    New Zealand banned live export for slaughter in 2003. The UK’s legal position was explained in a Westminster Hall debate in 2017…

    ‘Hansard: Leaving the EU: Animal Welfare Standards in Farming 24 January 2017’:

    The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice)

    […] It is the case that much of the current regulation relating to farm animal welfare and the welfare of animals at the time of slaughter is governed predominantly by EU law. […]

    There have been disputes about the degree to which reliance can be placed on animal welfare standards in trade negotiations, but equally, there are legal precedents and case law to support the use of ethical bans on certain practices and the reflection of animal welfare in trade agreements. I do not believe that anything along the lines that we would propose will cause any difficulty whatever with WTO rules.

    Antony Watts 12th Aug ’19 – 1:44pm:
    …it is the UK government that can block it if it wants to.

    Only after we’ve left the EU…

    While we are in the EU, it would be against free movement rules to place an ethical ban on the export of live animals, but once we leave the European Union, we will be free to do so, if that is the decision of the UK Government; there will be nothing to stand in our way.

    Currently, the UK government is restricted in what it can say about animal welfare…

    While we are in the European Union, it is literally unlawful for us to express an independent view without first getting permission from the European Commission. That will change when we become an independent country again; we will be free to make the case internationally for higher animal welfare standards…

    The EU is facilitator not a dictator.

    The EU is very much a dictator, in this and countless other matters. That’s the main reason why we are leaving – to regain our freedom as an independent self-governing democracy.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 12th Aug '19 - 7:36pm

    Anthony Watts, EU membership does prevent Britain from banning the live export of animals for slaughter.

  • @Jeff – Nice quotes, however remember EU law etc. is only law because the UK government agreed to it becoming law in the first place. The “The EU” is just a deflection: Westminster if it had wanted x could have influenced “the EU” to specify x.

    So another example of political mind manipulation…

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