Social media’s societal erosion
Disinformation has ‘broken’ democracy
This is the second in a series of articles on Big Tech’s damage to democracy, public safety and consumers
In 2018, British journalist Carole Cadwalladr exposed how the outcome of the Brexit referendum was engineered through a massive Facebook campaign. The social media giant accepted ads that spread disinformation, smears, inaccuracies and fear, in the form of both ads and “news” content pushed into users’ feeds, on behalf of the Vote Leave campaign.
She ferreted out the now-defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie, who became a whistleblower, and described how their psychometric targeting tool, and access to tens of millions of Facebook accounts, was deployed against people who were deemed to be “persuadable.”
Her revelations also exposed that the same dirty tricks that skewed the Brexit vote affected the 2016 presidential election in the United States, the French election and votes in other countries. The furor led to hearings, the shuttering of Cambridge Analytica and Wylie’s testimony in front of numerous legislatures around the world, but Facebook’s business model hasn’t changed. It is a social media site that profits by publishing targeted ads based on the personal information of its users.
Cadwalladr pulled no punches about Big Tech when she did a TED Talk in front of a crowd of tech executives last year.
“The Brexit vote demonstrates that liberal democracy is broken and you (Facebook, Google, Twitter and the tech industry) broke it,” she said. “Spreading lies in darkness paid for with illegal cash from God knows where. It’s subversion and you are accessories to it. Now it’s a crime scene.”
Her exposés led to parliamentary hearings in Britain and an investigation by the National Crimes Commission. Facebook did not co-operate: its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, refused to appear at a parliamentary hearing and the company rejected calls to release information about the viscous Vote Leave campaign, including its archive of ads and posts, as well as who was responsible for funding it.
“It is not about left or right or leave or remain, (it’s) about whether it’s possible to have a free and fair election ever again,” Cadwalladr said.
Her research began after 63 per cent of the electorate in her hometown in Wales voted to leave the European Union, even though tens of millions of dollars of EU funds had gone toward infrastructure and social improvements there.
“I met a young man who said he voted to leave because the EU had done nothing for him,” she said. “He was fed up with it. People all around town told me the same. They wanted to take back control. Most were fed up with the immigrants and yet this area had one of lowest rates of immigration in the U.K.”
The reason was that “a fire hose of disinformation” was unleashed to locals through Facebook, she said, bombarding them with “lies,” such as one stating that Turkey was about to join the EU and send a tsunami of migrants to Europe.
“There was no archive of ads or what had been pushed into people’s news feeds,” she said. “There was no information on how much was spent on these ads and by whom. Facebook knows, but refuses to give information to the U.K. Parliament and Zuckerberg wouldn’t appear. The entire referendum took place in darkness because it took place on Facebook… Some people say it was only a few lies, but this was the biggest electoral fraud in Britain in 100 years, a once-in-a-generation vote that hinged on a small percentage of the electorate.”
Her research linked what happened in Britain with U.S. President Donald Trump’s election campaign. Cambridge Analytica was owned by Trump supporter Robert Mercer and advised by Trump guru Steve Bannon, who is close to Brexit Party Leader Nigel Farage and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, both of whom supported Brexit.
“Brexit was the petri dish for Trump’s online campaign. The same techniques were used,” Cadwalladr said.
Ironically, Britain has now embarked on its destructive exit from the European Union, while recent polls reveal that a majority of the
THE ENTIRE REFERENDUM TOOK PLACE IN DARKNESS BECAUSE IT TOOK PLACE ON FACEBOOK
country would prefer to stay. There are also profound economic consequences to the decision. “Japanese car manufacturers that came here to replace the lost coal mining jobs have left and the damage is profound,” Cadwalladr said.
And Canadians are not immune from such dangerous and deceiving social media campaigns. Russia and others have undertaken similar online campaigns in Canada and the U.S., in order to stoke environmental hysteria and opposition to resource development, according to Congressional investigations.
Indeed, little has changed since Cadwalladr’s explosive revelations came out, and ironclad guardrails to protect democracies against social media do not exist yet.