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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Feb-18 > Ballot bots

Ballot bots

They’re real, they’re over here and they’re spreading poison.

But they didn’t swing Brexit

The UK is trying to govern 21st-century election campaigns with 20th-century laws and regulations. Election rules in the UK spell out in excruciating detail how spending should be allocated between national and local campaigns on leaflets, billboards and more. They describe how office space should be allocated as a campaign cost and set precise limits on local campaign spending, at a rate of pennies per voter.

The rules are meticulous. But they belong to a pre-internet era and so fail to properly tackle the most important activity of modern political campaigns—engaging voters on social media. In 2015, the Conservative Party spent £1.2m on highly-targeted Facebook adverts. In 2016’s referendum, Vote Leave directly spent £2.7m on targeted Facebook adverts. A further £800,000 was spent on Facebook adverts via third-party campaigners—donations which are now subject to a formal Electoral Commission investigation.

The regulator has in recent times found itself busy, having probed 30 Tory MPs about 2015 spending, it is currently investigating the Labour sub-group Momentum over its activity in 2017’s elections.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s February 2018 issue: John Naughton, James Ball, Yuan Ren, Hannah Jane Parkinson and Houman Barekat outline the ways in which our lives are controlled by big tech giants. Naughton argues that Facebook and Google have created a new “surveillance capitalism” in which they battle to grow user engagement of their products and monetise our lives for their own gain as they do so. The cover package also explores how “bots,” fake social media accounts, influenced the US presidential vote and the Brexit referendum as well as the effects of removing net neutrality in the US. Elsewhere in the issue: Samira Shackle asks what happens to ordinary civilians affected by Islamic State as they attempt to move back to their homes and rebuild their lives; Shahidha Bari asks whether we can continue to appreciate the work of actors, filmmakers and writers who have been disgraced; and Christine Ockrent profiles Michel Barnier.