Bots and Bots of Politicians: Dating Apps and the upcoming EU Elections

By Eoin Cannon
March 8, 2019
15min read
Desktop PC

The starting gun has been fired for the campaigning in the forthcoming EU elections which are to be held in May, Macron has espoused the need to renew and the leader of liberal MEPS has stated that they represent a last chance to fight populism. What will the trends be in relation to social media and their use of personal data in these elections? Will the vote be swung by chatbots in dating apps?

The use of the web by various parties in order to further their political goals.

An increasing feature of recent elections is the controversy which has been attached to the use of the web by various parties in order to further their political goals. While much has been made of the dirty tricks alleged in both the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote, this mostly involves an allegation that a third party is manipulating the data. In the case of the US election 2016 what has been highlighted is the Russian interference by the use of ‘bots’ on Facebook and other major platforms. A bot may subtly (or in some cases not-so subtly) direct the user to certain media with a view to influencing their viewpoint, the way they vote and ultimately the outcome of the election. In this scenario, the third party is seen as the shadowy puppet-master, moulding opinion and sowing discord.

But what if individuals themselves can manipulate their profile in order to push their own viewpoint? This is something that Labour party activists in the UK have used recently in the 2017 General Election.

How does it work?

Using Tinder, the profile owner applies an application which takes over your profile and looks for people to ‘match’. In the Labour party example the parameters were set to target tinder users in a particular constituency. When the recipient of one of these invitations takes the leap and accepts your demure digital advance they then bravely step forward and engage in conversation. But they are not talking to the profile owner, they are talking to a managed love-chat-bot, which is set up not to bring two souls together but promote one political cause.

While the creators of the bot have proclaimed it as being a positive tool for the furtherance of liberal democracy this writer is not so sure. Have we not heard all this before? On one level it is simply a modern means of something quite well established. We all know of people who are never slow to voice their political opinions and quick to express those regardless of the appropriateness of the situation.

The problem with any positive spin which people may put on this device claims is the reliance on deception which is both at the core of the recent controversies in the US and the UK which is also the basis of the love-chat-bot. There is no real way that deception can be legitimately relied upon at election time and more than likely this sort of tactic will sow the seeds of more confusion in the long term. The real question is whether this could become a fixture at election time?

Is it legal?

Aside from all this, it must be asked whether it is legal to use a person’s data in this way. If we say that the person seeking election is the Controller and the profile owner is the Processor what is the legal basis upon which the unwitting recipient is contacted?

Under the Data Protection Act 2018 politicians may contact data subjects directly in the course of electoral activities and Section 39 provides, via Art 6(1)(e) GDPR, that candidates seeking election may use the personal data of the data subject in order to communicate in writing with them for electoral purposes. However, it is unlikely that this can be argued as necessary in the public interest when the basic tenets of fair obtaining and transparency are not present. It is unlikely that the love-chat-bot is what was envisaged by the drafters of the Act but it is clear when read in conjunction with GDPR that this type of electioneering would fall foul of data privacy legislation.

Will it be used in the future?

Regardless of the illegality, the naked deception which is inherent may be off-putting to large parties adopting this approach. That does not mean individual supporters may not try to aid the cause of their own volition, but they are likely to be discouraged. The love-chat-bot is therefore likely to be limited to use by enthusiastic individuals and more radical fringes of politics.

Ironically in light of the attempts which have been made previously by social media giants, self-regulation is likely to be fatal to the lovesick political chat-bot. The dating app owners don’t like it, as it would put people off their product. The love-chat-bot is likely to be so bad for business that they can be relied upon to stamp out themselves with gusto. Imagine the scenario, you talk to an image of your desire with lustful romantic intentions with all the passion you can muster and are left with Jeremy Corbyn. That is what faced Labour Voters in 2017, while this may warm the loins of some recipients it is likely to leave others slightly cold, and willing to try a rival app.

So the love-chat-bot is unlikely to take off. But what is clear is that there is an intersection between technology, elections and data which could well allow for some inventive, intrusive intervention in the upcoming elections. Lets hope it won’t happen, let’s presume it will.

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