Fourth APPG Evidence Session Highlights the Rising Power of Data and Money in Politics

July 16, 2019

The fourth APPG session on the 15th July featured a lively discussion about prospective ways to mitigate the power of money in politics and potential future avenues to avoid misuse of data and misinformation. There was an even focus on both short and long term objectives. The session discussed both quick measures to take for upcoming UK elections as well as long term strategies to foster more faith in democracy and fix the problems that big money and big data have caused in the digital age. Highlights for each participant and the full audio file are posted below.

Professor Rachel Gibson went in depth about strategies for deterring data misuse and called attention to the need for detection in addition to deterrence itself. She contended that a scale of activity needs to be defined when it comes to subversive online content. She established 3 categories: misinformation (partially untrue information), disinformation (information designed to mislead) and what she calls malinformation (true information obtained unlawfully). Misinformation she believes is inadvertent and inevitable, and statutes already exist to counter malinformation, but disinformation is where future efforts need to be focused. She suggests what she calls a “democratic defense team” that would _“understand machine learning and ways in which computer science can be used_” to find bot accounts and shut them down. She hopes to see the creation of an institution designed to provide factual information to unsure voters in the coming years. This could potentially pave the way for improvements in our education system which will teach people to be more judicious about information they read on the internet.

Doctor Kate Dommett went into depth about the importance of source transparency and data transparency. She maintained that giving citizens in depth information (beyond “paid for by x”) about the financial and political origin of ads seen online would increase people’s awareness of misinformation.  She brought to attention the prevalence of third party actors in recent election campaigns, which is problematic as they are “subject to very limited oversight.”  She believes that the aforementioned sourcing of ads could prevent potential confusion regarding the source of political third party advertising. She also thinks the electoral commission needs to be strengthened in its ability to regulate third party actors, and discussed the possibility of requiring third party organizations to declare a political position. Overall she is concerned about the anonymity of data and the fact that even many well intentioned organizations and political parties do not know where their data comes from.

Sam Power dove into the issue from a political science perspective, discussing the need to reform regulatory practices that deal with campaign finance. He advocates strongly for more transparency and detail in spending reports of political parties that would hold them more accountable to the public. On that note, he suggested a standardized template for campaign accounting practices that would make them easier to interpret and compare. Similarly to others, he believes the Electoral Commission needs more teeth in its ability to enforce regulations, primarily due to a lack of funding. Sam also spoke of a need to modernize practices of the Electoral Commission for the digital age, remarking that “there is a good case for the electoral commission to have a digital specialist unit to confront current challenges.”  Sam believes that money in politics is like water; it always finds a way through. He thinks that lowering the threshold for consideration of donations (currently at 500£) and limiting third party spending is a good place to start, but that there will always be holes in the proverbial dam of money in politics to continuously repair. 

Duncan Hanes of Transparency International defined corruption as “abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”  He believes that money in politics is a central problem in most world governments. He spoke about current problems facing democratic processes in the UK, saying that “our existing controls are insufficient given the ingenuity with which people have sought to test the limits.”  He expressed concern for the large time scale that investigative and enforcement processes take up in relation to how fast the infractions actually happened. Because of this, Duncan advocates for what he calls “a faster feedback loop” to intervene. Duncan’s big suggestion of the day however was the idea that corporate donations to political organizations should be required to  come out of earned corporate profits, and provably so. This, he believes, would prevent shady financial flows from entering into the political sphere simply by way of a corporate donation. Finally, he discussed the problem of timing once more in the context of these infractions against democracy not being limited to campaign time periods, which further complicates institutional ability to counter them. 

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