So­cial me­dia’s so­ci­etal erosion

Dis­in­for­ma­tion has ‘bro­ken’ democ­racy

Calgary Herald - - NP - DIANE FRAN­CIS

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


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.

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