In Hot Press, a fortnight ago, we asked a series of questions of Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. Since then, things have unravelled even further for the Social Media Monopoly. So here’s another one: how can the anti-competitive status, free of any form of regulation, which has been claimed by Facebook, possibly be justified when advertising lies flourish there?
At last, people are beginning to waken up to the profound threat which Facebook represents to democracy. That this statement involves no exaggeration whatsoever has become increasingly clear over the past two months. The reality is that it has been this way for a long time. Our politicians and our regulators were just awfully, shamefully slow to see or acknowledge it.
Hot Press first raised this issue specifically in relation to the upcoming referendum on Repealing the 8th Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, back in November 2017. That was when we first asked Facebook what it intended to do to guarantee that the platform would not be used to poison, and potentially to fatally undermine, the legitimate, democratic, political process here.
All we got in response were delaying tactics.
Since then, the extent to which Facebook was used to precisely that effect in the Brexit referendum in the UK has become much clearer, with the revelations in the Observer newspaper about the links between Cambridge Analytica, AggregateIQ, Vote Leave and Facebook.
As a result, over the past fortnight, it has at last been admitted by Facebook that it facilitated the mining of the data of a cool 87 million users of the platform by Cambridge Analytica. Most of these individuals live in the US, and their data was used – or abused – to target voters on behalf of the campaign to elect Donald Trump. A million were in the UK, and their data was used to help drag the UK out of Europe. Some of them are in Ireland. That much alone should set alarm bells ringing among our regulators and legislators.
Lying and Deceitful
Cambridge Analytica used a specific app to gather mountains of information on Facebook users. But there is no reason to assume that they were alone in carrying out an exercise of this kind. Data mining of Facebook users is ongoing. Indeed Facebook exploits its own ability to mine vast oceans of private data to sell advertising. As a Surveillance Capitalist Monolith, that is its business model. It is its reason for being.
Cambridge Analytica were merely scraping around to see how much they could gather independently of Facebook-command. As it turns out, they got a hell of a lot rather easily. Who is to say that there aren’t others who have similarly, surreptitiously, pilfered data? The assumption we have to make is that there are. And some of them may well be a lot closer to home.
Would Facebook not tell us?
The answer to that seems to be: not until they have absolutely no other option. They first knew about the fact that data had been filched, by AggregateIQ on Cambridge Analytica’s behalf, as far back as December 2015. For a long time, Facebook brazenly denied this, as did Cambridge Analytica – until the brains behind the process, Christopher Wylie, stepped forward. He had the documents to demonstrate exactly what had happened. And among his revelations is one that should render – or rather that does render – the result of the Brexit vote fundamentally flawed, if not invalid.
As the man who figured out how the app would work, Wylie was at the heart of the Brexit action. It is very clear from his confessions to date that the Vote Leave campaign, fronted by Boris Johnson (now the UK Foreign Secretary) and Michael Gove, knowingly attempted to circumvent electoral rules in the UK to ensure that they could throw vast wads of money – well over the allowed spend threshold – at those voters who were most likely to be spooked into supporting the Leave campaign.
Because they exist below the radar and are not subject to the usual advertising standards regime, characteristically, campaigns of this kind are knowingly lying and deceitful. Certainly, the Leave campaign in the UK was.
What is quite clear too is that, if all of this had not been forced into the public domain, as a result of the diligent reporting of Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer, then a similar sordid, heavily (and possibly illegally) funded, push would have been made in that black hole of disinformation, in the Abortion Referendum in Ireland.
Indeed, that clandestine push is almost certainly already underway. We know that the anti-choice mob have hired the services of Kanto, a company run by the former Brexit strategist Thomas Borwick. His brief was, and doubtless remains, to use Facebook data to target the more suggestible people with extreme advertising. And there is evidence already, collected by the Transparent Referendum Initiative, that the weight of money poured into Facebook ads is far higher on the anti-choice side.
As ever, Facebook is the real winner, playing the role of a confederacy of profiteers, sucking up every euro they can out of the erosion of Irish democracy.
Sinister Unaccountable Forces
Regular readers of Hot Press will be aware of how deeply destabilising this kind of advertising can be. That, after all, is what was intended by the likes of Steve Bannon – architect of Trump’s victory via his Cambridge Analytica links and, more recently, advocate for a push to the far right in Europe.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that the very existence of this shadowy arena facilitates the campaigners most capable of utterly unscrupulous, dishonest, scare-mongering propaganda. We have pointed out here, on the basis of experience, that at least some elements of the self-styled ‘pro-life’ movement – the anti-choice movement – will say and do anything to achieve their ends. They have a history of threatening those who oppose their views: in the past, they have directly intimidated pro-Repeal politicians, journalists and activists; and they are experts in hate mail and in stirring up fear.
They have, even in the public aspect of the current campaign, deliberately used emotive distortions that spit in the face of current scientific knowledge. So what are they capable of saying and doing in Facebook ads which they assume will never be seen except by the people towards whom they are targeted? There is no reason to doubt that they are capable of publishing virtually anything, of whatever vileness, or deceitfulness, they deem most likely to be effective.
Is it not astonishing that the authorities here, as elsewhere, have allowed this grotesque netherworld to take on a life of its own? Is it not bizarre that, even now, the Irish government are mute and uncomprehending, as if they have no role to play in defending the democratic process in Ireland? Is it that they have bowed the knee to the World’s Most Powerful Wealthy Tinpot Dictator, in the shape of Facebook boss, Mark ‘Answerable To Nobody’ Zuckerberg?
The dismal failure of our politicians to react notwithstanding, the media has started to become restive. Since Hot Press was published a fortnight ago, asking a series of questions in an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the Irish Times has published an editorial insisting that Facebook must be made accountable. RTE has also been following the story with far greater purpose.
Facebook has not, at the time of writing, answered our questions. They have instead tried, in their US HQ, to begin a process of papering over the cracks. “We didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse,” Mark Zuckerberg admitted in interviews in the US. “That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, hate speech, in addition to developers and data privacy.” These were among the issues raised by Hot Press.
Zuckerberg has also outlined some tweaks that Facebook intends to put into effect, which will make it just a little bit harder for developers to harvest data from unwitting users; and which will also give more control to users over their privacy settings.
This is all very well, but it is a mere daub of paint applied to the great wall of China. In particular, it does absolutely nothing – now, when every hour counts – to guarantee that the Irish referendum will not be turned into another playground for forces of an essentially anti-democratic, lying, propagandist modus operandi, that are determined to undermine the electoral process.
As we have already said in Hot Press, Facebook can – and should – refuse all advertising of a political nature that is directed at Facebook users in Ireland, at least until the amendment to Repeal the 8th has taken place. And it must be absolutely clear and firm in its resolve in relation to this.
Because, when you think about it, there is no other way for Facebook to ensure that it will not (any longer) provide the means for sinister, unaccountable forces to bend the Irish democratic process to their twisted intent.
In Hot Press, we have also challenged the ’safe harbour’ status which has been accorded to social media platforms, which allows them to remain unaccountable for what they publish – including false and misleading advertising. They are media businesses. They are publishers. Thy live off advertising. They cannot, we believe, be allowed to operate without the responsibilities which attach to that role. Europe must act now to make this the law.
On a related issue, I want to ask another question of the European Competition Authority. But it is one which the Irish government, and in particular the Department of Communications, also have to answer. All Irish media companies are required to operate under stringent advertising standards. At times, this makes advertising far less attractive.
So here’s the question: is it not clearly anti-competitive that social media companies and search engines – currently estimated to gobble up 45% of all advertising spend in Ireland – are allowed to operate, within their jurisdiction, as advertising sales houses and publishers that are completely untrammelled by the restrictions which apply to other media, in relation to the content and presentation of ads.
The best example is in the political sphere: the kind of lies peddled on Facebook political ads could never be allowed on the likes of RTÉ. But it is pervasive: in advertising terms, right now, social media is the equivalent of the wild west. People can say almost anything to target different groups. And they make a fortune as a result.
This blatantly discriminatory, anti-competitive advantage is a major factor in sucking advertising away from ‘traditional’ media. And so, Hot Press is asking the European Competition Authority why nothing has been done about it. We are asking the Department of Communications the same question. And we are asking Mark Zuckerberg: how he can justify occupying what is a bizarrely privileged position, where he can take the bad money and run?
We await answers from all three organisations. But we won’t be holding our breath...
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