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Latest 11 November 2022

Astroturfing: who can you trust?

On Saturday 5th November, the National Trust, beloved by many across the country and internationally, will decide on its new council members.

The very core of the charity is at risk from an opaque right-wing website trying to influence who will take these seats. We want the group – Restore Trust – to come clean about who is behind them and their use of their members’ data, which could be illegal.

Restore Trust – far from restoring trust – is one of many organisations we believe to be an astroturfed site. Astroturfed sites claim to be grassroots but their funding is not transparent, often intentionally so. It can be difficult to know who is behind them, or how they’re run. Campaigns like Restore Trust are having an increasing influence on our institutions and public debate and often pop up in anti-’woke’ and anti-progressive spaces.

How are they using public data?

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Like many organisations today, collecting and analysing personal data is an important part of how these campaigns achieve their goals. Restore Trust’s privacy policy says that they collect ‘behavioural data’ about people who visit their website in order to ‘understand their audience’.

We instructed expert data rights agency,  AWO, to examine how Restore Trust’s website works, and see whether it’s in line with data protection law. AWO used some basic cookie analysis to show Restore Trust’s website places trackers in the browsers of people visiting its website, allowing them to send data on those visitors to Google, Twitter and Facebook. This could allow Restore Trust to retarget visitors with campaign material while they use social media.

But Restore Trust isn’t open about who exactly is behind this analysis and targeting. Their privacy policy refers simply to ‘Restore Trust’, which doesn’t exist as a legal entity. Not giving the identity of the person or company responsible for data processing is against the law. And AWO found other legal problems with how the Restore Trust website works, too.

Ravi Naik, Legal Director, AWO, said:

“Asking questions about ‘data controllers’ and ‘cookies’ might seem dry and technical. But it’s about the nuts and bolts of how these campaigns influence our democracy. That makes our data rights a potentially powerful tool for challenging these campaigns and those behind them.”

What we’ve done

We asked AWO to write to Restore Trust on behalf of our Legal Manager and National Trust member, Ian Browne, asking for a full explanation of who is behind their data analysis and targeting, and why they carry it out. The letter also points out potential breaches of data protection law and asks Restore Trust to explain itself. And it lodges an objection to any Restore Trust data processing that’s done for the purposes of direct marketing, which legally means they have to stop that processing.

If Restore Trust’s reply isn’t satisfactory, we will explore steps towards court action to get them to comply with data protection law.

Rights under threat

The rights that Ian has used to take this action are currently under threat. The Government is considering reforms to data protection law that would make it significantly more difficult to exercise them. This in turn would make it harder to know about – and challenge – the methods that organisations use to influence how you think on controversial issues.

Establishing who is behind Restore Trust’s data analysis and targeting, how it is carried out and why might provide a route to understanding who is actually running and funding its campaign. The law entitles us to this information. And where analysis of data seems to be done in ways that don’t comply with data protection law, it should be challenged. Campaigns that seek to influence our public debate shouldn’t get an unfair advantage by being allowed to break privacy law.

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Dark money in politics

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Dark money in politics