Since starting the project last year, we’ve worked in and around several countries’ elections, collected millions of ads and been part of a story that has caused Facebook (along with Twitter) to make some promises about how they plan to deal with targeted political (and other) ads. We’ve talked to some regulators about how they might get started in this area. We partnered with the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, Buzzfeed, Tactical Tech, the LSE and others to get our data and findings out there.
In 2018, we want to do more of that. We’re hoping to launch in Ireland, Italy, Hungary, Brazil, Belgium and Israel. We’re going to cover the UK local elections. And we’re interested in seeing what’s happening in the US ahead of the midterms this November. There are other interesting elections out there (here’s looking at you, Russia) that might be worth examining, on the off chance (yes, the off chance) that foreign political interference works both ways.
We’ve agreed partnerships with Oxford Internet Institute (to build a cohort of US-based users whose data will be analysed through until the midterms in November) and the University of California (who will look at the data from the 2017 UK General Election and use it to tell the story of the political and electoral strategies of the parties).
In sum, we’re happy with what we’ve been able to do so far and we’re excited of what we’re going to do in the future. We’ve created an innovative project, in an important and underexplored area.
But, as the 2018 starts, we do need to acknowledge some of the challenges of continuing our work.
First, we don’t have much capacity to take our technology forward. It works, in that it collects data, but the three other areas we want to spend time on – the publishing platform for our data, the experience for our volunteers and the expansion into other networks beyond Facebook, are hard to achieve without more developer hours. The partnership with Oxford will help us do some more work on this front, but the roadmap is long and there are only so many hours in a day.
Second, we want to create more content to serve the part of our mission that is “helping people understand how they’re being targeted by political social media ads” This isn’t something we’re currently capable of doing very much of. At the easiest end of this, we should write and talk about our data more. We should publish more of it and make it easy to search and analyse. We should be able to work out how to do more of this (e.g. our first newsletter is going out as I post this). Further out, we’d like to explore ideas that will help people understand targeting better. How can we visualise and map the data we’ve collected? Would it be helpful to build a simulation or game to model how different actors are trying to achieve their political goals? And plenty more.
Finally, we’d like to find a coherent way to affect policy that will create transparency and a level playing field around digital political ads. We’ve chatted with some regulators in the UK and abroad. Some people in government are interested in what we do. We’ve talked to some independent research projects that will produce recommendations about needed reforms in due course.
We’ve also found allies in transparency organisations and investigative journalism, who are all (as things stand) as or more capable than us at exerting pressure on the relevant powers. We will work to develop a more coherent point of view, and we’re reading, listening and thinking constantly to pull together the different strands of what that will ultimately come to be.
[Of note perhaps is that we’ve had no contact with any of the platform companies. We’ve not sought it (though we’re occasionally minded to) and they’ve not sought us. If you’re reading this: “Hello Facebook! Should we talk?”]
The background to each of these challenges is that we lack the things everyone lacks – money and time. And the truth is we lack both, in pretty significant quantities.
Here are some things we can do to try and fix that:
1) Keep going as we are, doing our best to make progress in evenings and weekends, working with willing partners doing the same. We’ll stay small, independent, and somewhat flexible. This might be a good thing for us.
2) Seek some funding. There are foundations that support the work and growth of projects like ours. We are talking to some of them already. This will likely turn us into more of a ‘proper’ organisation. It might reduce our flexibility, as we commit to a specific set of objectives, but it will give us some of the time and skills we need to make change happen.
If you’re just well off and want to fund us. Send us an email?
3) Crowdfund. We have no real sense of whether people would be willing to support us, or what would be realistic to raise. A promising model might be something like Patreon, but we’ve not explored it in any great depth so far. Anywhere between £500 (to pay our server bills) and £50,000 (to pay for a fully fledged team of product developers, advocacy and policy experts, communications specialists and relevant professional help) a month would be helpful.
4) Find some sort of business model. One model might be to make our data available to people interested in international peace and stability, such as regulators, election monitors or intelligence agencies. (Though the latter perhaps already have access to similar data by other means.) This is based on the assumption that the data we’re creating serves some sort of private or public good.
If you work at a relevant government agency and think we can make a contribution to democratic harmony and international peace and security, let’s talk.
5) Sell up. We’re a company (we needed to set some sort of entity up to get started) and we have some IP of a sort. We also have the experience of having built the software, built a user base of over 10,000 people, generated a large data set, and have grappled with some of the ethical and policy issues of advertising in elections.
If Facebook wanted to buy us, could we say no given the chance to help them become a better company at this sort of stuff? (If that were to happen, we’d need some pretty cast iron assurances that we would have a proper role to play, and wouldn’t end up like Nelson ‘Bighead’ Bighetti from Silicon Valley).
And what would you, dear reader, think of us if we did that? Regardless, it’s not on the table.
6) Issue an ICO. We set out to fight big data with big data. So why not fight weak tech ethics with weak tech ethics? Because, that’s why.
The options we’re most actively considering are 2) and 4). If you think you can help in any of the ways described above – skills, time, money, ability to influence the debate and outcomes, please send us an email. We’d love to talk.
Also published on Medium.