LONDON — Boris Johnson and his political rivals are already in an election campaign — whether they like it or not.
The next U.K. general election isn’t scheduled until 2022. But many expect a snap vote to be called in late November, at the earliest, because of the Brexit uncertainty, and both sides in the political stand-off are already in full campaign mode across social media.
Analysis by POLITICO shows they have collectively spent roughly £1 million since mid-June on partisan Facebook ads aimed at wooing voters through tailored messages about Brexit, immigration and other hot-button topics.
This phony war highlights how reliant the country’s political parties have become on Facebook, Twitter and Google to sway an electorate deeply divided over the U.K.’s relationship with the European Union.
It also heightens concerns that groups, both domestic actors and potentially those backed by foreign governments, may misuse such digital information when targeting voters after the British parliament failed to pass new rules to police online campaigning before it was suspended last week.
Security officials are already raising the alarm within the halls of power that Russian-backed groups may seek to sow dissent.
The country’s major parties also have been actively harvesting people’s personal data — through Facebook ads, online polls and digital surveys — to create complex databases of voter intentions and gain an advantage over their rivals.
“The political campaign has begun,” said Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College London. “There’s no doubt it will be a data-driven campaign where people will be targeted very hard with messages around Brexit.”
British regulators, including the country’s privacy agency and Electoral Commission, say the rules overseeing national elections have not kept up with 21st century digital campaigning. Groups can easily sidestep caps on political spending by relying on anonymous online activists to spend heavily across social media.
Local lawmakers also warn that foreign interference — either through direct political messaging on social media, or through funding for U.K.-based groups posting online — may sway the outcome of the upcoming election because of limited information on who’s behind the digital activity.
Security officials are already raising the alarm within the halls of power that Russian-backed groups may seek to sow dissent, as happened during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and last year’s U.S. mid-terms.
Facebook now requires individuals to pass a series of checks before buying political ads in the U.K., but roughly 40 percent of paid-for partisan content falls through that net, according to security analysts’ estimates.
“If we don’t have robust rules for transparency, voters won’t know who’s targeting them,” said Damian Collins, a British MP who chairs the U.K. parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport committee, which is carrying out a lengthy investigation into online disinformation. “It’s a big concern. We should have emergency legislation to mandate transparency in political campaigns.”
The digital election campaign began days after Boris Johnson became prime minister in late July.
His team started buying Facebook political ads targeting older voters, mostly in England, with a message of increased investment in health and education services, according to the social network’s transparency register.
The Brexit Party is targeting mostly elderly voters in Brexit-leaning constituencies in both England and Wales.
The paid-for messages also asked people to tell Johnson what he should focus on as prime minister through an online form that required individuals to submit their email address and zipcode — vital details that could allow the Conservative Party to build a sophisticated online database of voters and their habits.
Such information allows political groups to use social media tools to create so-called “lookalike” online audiences by inputting people’s email addresses into sites like Facebook, which then offer suggestions of other social media users who may have similar interests or political affiliations.
Lawmakers worldwide have been using such tactics for years. But privacy campaigners claim that few, if any, people who are targeted understand how their information was collected and shared with political groups.
Teams behind Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, and Nigel Farage, head of the Brexit Party, have similarly asked Facebook users to hand over their data through online polls and other tactics, according to an analysis of both lawmakers’ social media political ads.
UK NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
The Liberal Democrats’ digital survey openly admits the party will use people’s digital information “to further our objectives.”
Political groups are already using such insight into voter interests.
When Johnson recently traveled to Wakefield in the north of England to give a press conference, the Labour Party bombarded locals on Facebook with ads criticizing the prime minister, according to a review of social media activity by WhoTargetsMe, a group that tracks political messaging on the site.
The Brexit Party, which has offered to work with Johnson ahead of the expected general election, is also targeting mostly elderly voters in Brexit-leaning constituencies in both England and Wales, hoping to drum up a groundswell of support for the potential alliance ahead of the nationwide vote.
Such tactics are not illegal, and build on age-old traditional political tactics like canvassing and leafleting by politicians across local constituencies.
But experts caution that the growing sophistication of so-called online micro-targeting on social media will likely make it difficult for voters to understand what potentially contradictory messages political groups are spreading online.
“Micro-targeting is a concern because it erodes common political discourse,” said Katharine Dommett, director of the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. “It allows politicians to run different campaigns aimed at different types of voters.”