Hot Press Editor Niall Stokes gives the background to the Cambridge Analytica scandal – and writes an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg asking what Facebook intends to do about advertising and micro-targeting in the upcoming referendum in Ireland.
At long last, the chickens are coming home to roost. I’m talking about the startling revelations of the past few weeks, which have seen billions of dollars shaved off Facebook’s share value.
I’m sure many Hot Press readers are familiar with the facts by now, but it is worth repeating at least the grisly headlines: they are so utterly preposterous that everyone should know.
The Cambridge Analytica affair is, in a sense, the first proper, detailed insight into how irredeemably cynical tech corporations – which typically present a front of being all about ‘community’ and ‘doing no evil’ – are, in their use and abuse of ordinary citizens, and their rights, all over the world. And it is also the most comprehensive revelation of just how pathetically starry-eyed and inept politicians and regulators have been in their approach to the same tech giants.
Indeed, it is worse than that. The brutal reality is that governments – starting in the US, and including Ireland – have actively conspired with Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other tech corporations precisely because they knew that they were, and are still, engaged in the biggest, most invasive mass surveillance operation ever attempted on civilians anywhere in the world.
In the pages of Hot Press, we have previously observed that the extent of modern tech surveillance puts the work of the Stasi in East Germany, and the KGB in Russia, into the halfpenny place. That metaphor is, sadly, grossly inadequate.
Facebook, Google and all the rest are involved in a relatively new business: that of Surveillance Capitalism. Their business model involves extracting every possible ounce of information about you. They track your every step and your every search on the internet. They demand that you let them use your current location at all times. They log your posts on social media and check what you ‘like’, what you say, what is in your photographs – and so on and on and on.
No matter how personal you might feel the information you are putting online is – about the depression you are feeling, about the operation you have just undergone, about the child you recently lost to a miscarriage – they are hoovering it all up, to sell you and your information and your purchasing inclinations and any other details they can filch, to third parties to in turn use and abuse.
Wondering why your insurance premiums are going up? Why that job application went nowhere? Might it be because every piece of data is being mined and used against you?
Unless they are irredeemably stupid, governments and regulators knew where this was heading. They may or may not have predicted just how invasive and extreme it would become. But they could not have missed the intent. And they knew specifically that your every movement could, and ultimately would, be tracked.
Some regulators might have had an inclination to step in, and to stop – or at least to limit – this brand new Mass Surveillance Apparatus. But instead of setting down the rules that would protect the right to privacy, governments and politicians colluded with the tech giants. Why? Because tracking every step you take, every move you make, is the securicrats’ ultimate wet dream.
The way things have evolved, there is nothing that people do that isn’t followed and tracked and recorded digitally. Every step. Every text. Every picture. Every tweet. Every Facebook post. Every taxi ride. Every spin in the car.
A year ago this might have been dismissed as a conspiracy theorist’s melodramatic whinge, but not now. It suited States in general, including Ireland, to have everyone and everything tracked. What ‘mainstream’ politicians missed, however, was that the information, which was being gathered round the clock, could be sold to unscrupulous forces, who would consciously set out to subvert the democratic process and to use propaganda, disinformation and outright lies to win elections. This is precisely what has happened. And it has happened surreptitiously, under the radar.
Facebook is a surveillance capitalist giant. It is also effectively a social media monopoly. What has emerged now is that the information it has gathered on individual citizens, was used as a weapon to undermine the democratic process, in the US presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power.
It has also emerged that Facebook was used in the same devious, dishonest way by the Leave side in the Brexit vote. And rules were broken in the process which in truth should render the results of the referendum invalid.
And guess who made money out of this extraordinary, sometimes illegal adventure? You got it in one: Facebook.
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Facebook has knowingly profited from the subversion of democracy in what are the two biggest English-speaking markets in the world, the US and the UK. What’s more, the company would have merrily continued to knowingly profit from selling information about you, your family and your friends to all-comers, if the truth had not emerged about the activities of a company called Cambridge Analytica.
But they probably will anyway.
The truth about what Cambridge Analytica has been up to, and Facebook’s pivotal role in their sinister activities, has been exposed primarily through the work of the journalist Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer newspaper.
Cadwalladr had chipped away at this story for over a year. She painstakingly followed leads, spoke to people off the record and eventually made the hidden connections between one-time Donald Trump henchman Steve Bannon, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica and its CEO Alexander Nix – and Facebook.
In the middle of all of this too was a man who might yet prove to be the Russian connection incarnate – a lecturer in psychology at Cambridge University, Aleksandr Kogan, who was born in Moldova when it was part of the USSR.
During the course of her investigations, Carole Cadwalladr spoke to a young man by the name of Christopher Wylie, who – it turned out – played a central role in the establishment of Cambridge Analytica. As he became increasingly aware of the most disturbing aspects of the Pandora’s box he had opened, Wylie decided to turn whistleblower.
In an interview with Cadwalladr, which ran over six pages in The Observer, he set out, in clear and explicit detail, how the hijacking of the data of 50 million Facebook users had been central to a covert campaign to win the US Presidential election for Donald Trump; and that similar techniques had been used in the campaign to secure Britain’s exit from the EU. The latter has now been confirmed by a second whistle blower, Shamir Sanni, who was involved in the BeLeave youth pro-Brexit campaign.
At the heart of this bizarre intrigue is one thing, which has so far gone relatively unremarked in most Irish coverage, and that is the carefully orchestrated targeting of individuals to generate advertising revenue for Facebook.
When The Observer put questions to Facebook, in advance of publishing the interview with Christopher Wylie, Facebook threatened to sue the newspaper. Faced with similar questions, Cambridge Analytica also reached for their lawyers. But the plot was getting thicker – and beginning to smell very, very badly indeed.
The Observer had decided to share information and to work on the story with the New York Times and Channel 4. The resulting tsunami of revelations is a brilliant example of what might be called old-fashioned journalism at its best.
Undercover reporters from Channel 4 arranged a meeting with Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica and the managing director of the company, Mark Turnbull. During the course of the ensuing conversation, Nix and Turnbull were caught on camera elucidating how they had manipulated the democratic process in the US election, and elsewhere, with black propaganda. And they also offered sting operations and honey traps, including the use of sex workers, to compromise the opposition, as part of their wonderful services.
Cambridge Analytica insists that it has done nothing wrong. Alexander Nix has been ‘suspended’ from his role. But the noose is tightening. An investigation is being carried out by the UK information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, about the activities of Cambridge Analytica and its ‘sister’ company Aggregate IQ. Some very senior political figures in the UK are now in the firing line.
With all of that shit hitting the fan, it became increasingly obvious to Facebook that there could be no denying that the company had facilitated a serious misuse of its data.
And so, their legal threats having failed, Facebook decided on a course of minimising what had happened. First, they issued a statement in which they insisted that the “entire company is outraged that we have been deceived” by Cambridge Analytica.
This was a pathetic piece of handwringing, which hadn’t a hope of convincing anyone who had grappled with the detail of the story. So loud was the laughter, and so significant the impact on share prices, that Mark Zuckerberg decided belatedly to issue a statement. He also took out full page ads in newspapers.
He claimed that what had happened was not a ‘data breach’, but rather a “breach of trust” – on the part of Cambridge Analytica.
“I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time,” he said. “We’re now taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again… Thank you for believing in this community. I promise to do better for you.”
It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is patronising rubbish. References to ‘this community’ are disingenuous hype. Facebook has one objective, and that is to maximise profits. It doesn’t give a shit about ‘community’. The company’s entire business model is based on data mining. It’s modus operandi is to get as much information as possible about you. And then to target you – or allow others to target you – with ads.
This is the essence of surveillance capitalism: we will watch your every move and then get paid for enabling others to try to shove their products, their services or their ideas down your virtual throat.
Where the Trump election and the Brexit referendum were concerned, Facebook saw the dollars rolling in and said – “Give us more.” Far from being innocent victims of a breach of trust by Cambridge Analytica, they were profiteers: an already hugely wealthy corporation, which made even more money from that flagrant abuse of trust.
So here is where it gets really interesting from an Irish perspective. Facebook enabled covert forces in both the US Presidential election, and in the Brexit vote, to micro-target people with propaganda – and they did nothing to stop it. Will they now do the same in the referendum to Repeal the 8th?
It is important to acknowledge here that this is where regulators across the world, but especially in the US, have betrayed their citizens to the tech giants. It is a classic Faustian pact. We will give you free rein to gather the data. We will enable you to operate outside of, and uninhibited by, any and all of the responsibilities which encumber traditional newspapers, broadcasters and publishers. We will in effect help you to make a fortune at the expense of citizens. In return, when we want information, you will give it to us.
That is the deal. And it is utterly wrong, all the more so because of the deliberately sneaky, creeping process through which all of the tech companies have been allowed to extract information from individuals. How many people have read – or could possibly read – all of the so called terms and conditions which are attached to the harvesting of huge amounts or personal information? Have you read all of the details of Facebook, Google or Twitter’s terms and conditions? Do you know what you have agreed to and what you haven’t?
How has this poisonous intrusion been allowed to happen? If you thought that the Central Bank failed dismally to regulate Irish financial institutions before the banking crash, then think again. They were paragons of engagement, alongside the unique combination of amateurishness, gullibility, leaden-footedness and downright cynicism which has characterised the response of politicians, public servants and legislators to the exponential growth of the giant tech companies.
For a long time, Hot Press has warned that the extraordinary privileges afforded to the tech giants are completely and utterly wrong and untenable.
Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google (and their subsidiary YouTube) were given “safe harbour” status by the US authorities. To a large extent, that has been extended to Europe. The effect is that they have been handed unparalleled power, without any counter-balancing responsibility. It is one of the most pernicious land-grabs in human history. If you have a ‘page’, you are working for Facebook. For nothing. And they can defame you, or allow others to defame you for the privilege. While some judgements in European courts have qualified this, to a very large extent outfits like Facebook and Google are not held accountable for what they publish, in the way that Hot Press, the BBC, RTÉ, Channel 4 or The Observer are.
This means that they can knowingly allow libel to flourish, all the better to multiply clicks and generate more ad revenue; that they can facilitate disinformation and propaganda – and get paid for it; that they can behave effectively like unaccountable transnational monopolies – which is what they have been allowed to become by governments and regulators.
Is it too much to say that they have shown themselves to be charlatans and impostors, hiding behind a screen of ‘community’, while they facilitate lies? While they profit from attacks on democracy? While they open the doors for every unscrupulous would-be demagogue to buy electoral success? Where they place our collective future in the hands of the worst creeps with the deepest pockets? I don’t think so.
In the upcoming referendum, Irish people will be voting on whether to Repeal the 8th Amendment to the constitution. And already it has been confirmed that anti-choice groups have engaged Kanto, a company similar to Cambridge Analytica, which is run by former Brexit strategist Thomas Borwick, to target the most vulnerable and persuadable voters.
With this precise scenario in mind, a couple of months go, Hot Press reflected on Facebook’s potential role in the campaign. And we asked how Facebook was going to ensure that no one could use the platform to spread the kind of vile propaganda on the issue, which had flourished in the Trump election, and in the Brexit vote. Facebook told us that they had plans in development, and asked for time – following which they would talk us through their protocols. We have been waiting – and have seen nothing in the meantime which suggests that they intend to properly monitor the nature and content of advertising (in the way that happens in all other forms of publishing and broadcasting).
We believe that Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech companies should be subject to the same rules as other publishers. They must be held accountable for anything and everything they publish, no matter who puts it into the public domain. They are selling ads on the back of what they publish. They must be forced to take full responsibility for it. That is for the long haul. In the meantime, it is time to ask questions of the founder and boss of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg.
OPEN LETTER TO MR. ZUCKERBERG
Dear Mark Zuckerberg,
A referendum on Repealing the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution is set for May of this year. Unless effective measures are taken to prevent it, social media – most prominently Facebook – will be used and abused in Ireland, in precisely the manner that helped to trigger the ‘Leave’ victory in the Brexit referendum in the UK; and the equally surprising victory of Donald Trump in the US.
It is not enough, we believe, to say – as you did in a recent statement – that you are working to ensure that no data breach of the kind perpetrated by Cambridge Analytica can ever happen again. Because even without the data harvesting in which they, and probably many others like them, engaged, there is the issue of ads which peddle lies, disinformation and propaganda – ads which Facebook facilitates and gets paid for.
Bearing this in mind, I want to issue the following challenge to Facebook:
• Will you please set out for us – and for the people of Ireland – what you intend to do, to ensure that the Irish political system, and in particular the result of the abortion referendum, will not be undermined and distorted as a result of lying, deceitful, deliberately misleading ads targeting individuals and groups, via Facebook?
• Will you also tell us what you intend to do, to ensure that Facebook does not facilitate campaigns of vilification or incitement to hatred against individuals on either side in the debate?
• Finally, can you tell Irish Facebook users what you intend to do to guarantee two crucial things:
(i) that Facebook cannot and will not be used as a means for dangerous outside forces, of whatever kind, to subvert the democratic process here; and
(ii) that no ads purchased from outside the Irish democratic arena will be allowed in relation to the referendum on abortion, in order to ensure that Ireland is not effectively gamed by sinister, unaccountable forces outside the jurisdiction?
As you know, Mark, it should be easy to ensure that deceitful under the radar advertising is prevented.
The old adage applies: “Follow the money.” You know where it is coming from. You know the ads are being booked. You can insist on seeing every one before it is published. You know who is being targeted. You can prevent abuse.
In fact, you could unilaterally refuse to allow any advertising whatsoever about the abortion referendum. Given the extent to which your organisation has been shown to have facilitated black propaganda in the past, that is really what we think you should do.
Are you going to take the money, in the way that you did from Cambridge Analytica or their agents? Are you going to allow the democratic process in Ireland to be subverted, in the way that the US presidential election was? And the Brexit vote?
Are you going to assist the biggest liars, and the most unscrupulous wretches, to win again?
As the campaign is already under way, an urgent response would be appreciated.
– Niall Stokes, Editor, Hot Press
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