AI, social media and the political process

Valuable Data, Priceless Privacy, PL&B’s 37th International Conference, finished the day before the UK’s general election; was in the middle of France’s election; and four weeks before the Olympic Games in Paris. So inevitably sessions covering the political process and surveillance had a particular resonance this year. AI and its impact on everything, including the role of Data Protection Authorities and Chief Privacy Officers, permeated several sessions.

Colin Bennett, Emeritus Professor, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, set the scene by stating that privacy is an essential component of the political process. The secret ballot is the basis for fair voting. The Data Protection Authorities in the UK(1) and France(2) have published guidance to explain how data protection laws apply to political parties and to the democratic process. By contrast, Canada’s privacy laws do not cover political parties. Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Philipe Dufresne, explained to the conference that he and his predecessors have pressed for this change in the law.

In the UK, all election expenditure by political parties has to be accounted for by law, but spending by individual supporters cannot be monitored in this way. In previous years, when most expenditure was on print and other traditional media, accounting was possible. Now with money spent on social media, such calculations are only partial.

The organisation Who Targets Me is dedicated to monitoring election spending and has produced a detailed analysis of the major parties’ spending on social media.(3) Its takeaway from its analysis in the first week of the UK’s election campaign is that “parties used geography to target their ads most of the time, employed voter and supporter data lists (when they have them) and seemed quite trusting of Meta’s ability to find audiences for their ads via ‘Lookalikes’.”

By contrast:

  • Google “does not allow Custom or Lookalike Audiences for political ads, so political parties can only use postal districts, age and gender for ad targeting” and
  • TikTok does not allow spending on political advertising campaigns.

Does that mean that there is no political content on TikTok? No. Media reporting of political speeches and other events mean that there is plenty of coverage of events from the different political perspectives.

Bennett concluded by identifying implications of parties using AI in elections:

  1. Easier and quicker aggregation and predictive modelling of polling data and social media data to identify issues, swing constituencies and persuadable voters, in particular, the use of sentiment analysis and opinion mining
  2. Increasing speed of campaign communications and responses/counter-responses with increased negativity
  3. Reduced costs of ad content creation, allowing more precise micro-targeting in combination with existing voter analytics databases and methods; and
  4. Increasing use of synthetic images, videos and text during and between campaigns, such as deep fakes and satires to diminish the image of political opponents.(4)

Banning of political advertising on social media might superficially seem an attractive option, but it means that candidates would have to rely on organic reach. “This rewards generating engagement and going viral with sensationalist, outrageous content and interactions that defy the norms of political behaviour.”(5)

Regulating AI

John Edwards, the UK’s Information Commissioner, said that the ICO has so far taken the lead in the UK in regulating AI. He has “challenged an AI company to explain what goes on in the black box.” His words echo those of Who Targets Me on their website: “Paid political adverts on social media are cheaper and more targeted than any other political communication in history. We therefore think it’s vitally important that the way they’re used is well-understood.”(6)

AI powered surveillance needs DPA engagement

DPAs everywhere are likely to give advice to the police and anti-terrorism forces on AI directed CCTV surveillance in the public domain.

In France, the CNIL, the DPA, has created a model on regulating AI managed CCTV systems at the Olympic Games, explained Sophie Nerbonne, Director for Economic Cooperation at the CNIL. CCTV cameras will be augmented by AI used for specific purposes. In the event that the cameras detect any of eight events, such as the presence or use of weapons, the system will alert a person who will decide on follow-up action.(7)

New government in the UK

The UK’s new Labour government had announced before the election its broad intentions in the AI area under the heading Driving Innovation. It states:

“Labour will create a new Regulatory Innovation Office, bringing together existing functions across government. This office will help regulators update regulation, speed up approval timelines, and co-ordinate issues that span existing boundaries. Labour will ensure the safe development and use of AI models by introducing binding regulation on the handful of companies developing the most powerful AI models and by banning the creation of sexually explicit deepfakes.”(8)

The 132 page Labour manifesto has nothing on the future of the Data Protection Act 2018 nor on the Trade Union Congress AI Bill to regulate AI in the employment context.

Full video recordings of all the sessions at the conference will be on our website as soon as possible. If you did not attend the conference, you can register for access to the videos.

We will monitor the new government’s next steps in the data protection and related area in future editions of PL&B UK Report and at our future events.


Best regards,

Stewart Dresner
Publisher, Privacy Laws & Business

  1. ICO website search results on UK Political Process
  2. CNIL - Early legislative elections: the CNIL continues its actions to protect voters' data
  3. Who Targets Me - How did UK parties target their ads in the first week of the campaign?
  4. BBC - This wasn't the social media election everyone expected
  5. Who Targets Me - Will TikTok’s political ad ban help Trump become president again?
  6. Who Targets Me 
  7. CNIL - JOP 2024: CNIL's questions and answers on your privacy and freedoms
  8. Change - Labour Party Manifesto 2024

July 2024

News & Blogs

July 2024 Report Contents