- 25 Feb 19
Facebook co-operated with malign forces to undermine the democratic process during the Brexit campaign in the UK, and the US Presidential election. Now, with European elections due soon, action must be taken to prevent a repeat across the continent.
Hot Press was the first publication in Ireland to properly raise the alarm about the role that social media was capable of playing in the Irish political arena. We were concerned at the time about the kind of covert, and deliberately misleading, advertising that might attempt to sway opinion in the run-up to the abortion referendum in 2018. The possibility of a deliberate attempt to manipulate the democratic process in Ireland by anti-choice organisations, with huge resources, based in the US, loomed large.
With that in mind, we asked what safeguards were in place to ensure that false, misleading or malicious ads would not be enabled by social media and search engine giants; what controls existed in relation to the source of ads; and had any limits been placed on the amounts that might be spent on referendum-related advertising?
We didn’t get any answers. But in the final weeks of the referendum campaign, as pressure mounted, Facebook finally banned ‘foreign’ ads relating to the abortion referendum. And Google went a step further, banning all referendum-related advertising.
All of this took place against the background of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. What was gradually revealed by Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer newspaper, in a series of reports, over a period of months, was stunning. Social media surveillance enables companies like Facebook to compile an intimate picture of the state of mind, activities, associations, tastes and preferences of its users. In her ground-breaking reports, Cadwalladr established that detailed Facebook data of that kind had been illegally used by the Leave campaign, to target voters in the Brexit referendum with bespoke ads.
Many of these ads, on Facebook and other platforms, contained flagrant lies and outrageously misleading anti-EU scare-mongering, designed to force a Leave result. In the process of this sinister, covert pro-Brexit campaign, electoral rules were broken. Money had been falsely channelled through disparate groups to create an illusion that separate entities were involved. It amounted to electoral fraud on a grand scale.
Where was the money – and the muscle – coming from to organise and pay for the ads? That too turned out to be a can of worms. The Observer uncovered all manner of subterfuge and dubious dealings, involving Leave.EU founder Aaron Banks, his companies Eldon Insurances and Rock Holdings and the Leave.EU campaign itself. Leave.EU and Eldon Insurances have subsequently been fined £120,000 by the UK Data Commissioner. But those fines relate only to a small aspect of the abuses that occurred during the campaign.
At this stage, no one in their right mind doubts that similar abuses occurred during the US Presidential race, in which Donald Trump was elected. The issue currently being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller concerns – among other things – Russian interference in the US election. The finger of suspicion in the UK also points to Russia, though the precise extent of Moscow’s role in the Brexit referendum is not yet known.
What we can say, for sure, is that Facebook was both the key platform – and the biggest financial beneficiary – of the entire tainted process in both elections.
This is why the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee in the British parliament has now declared, in a new report, that Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself, and must be subject to what has been characterised as “sweeping new legislation.” This committee is no bunch of radical, Utopian, anti-capitalists. The chair of the committee is the Tory MP Damian Collins. He has described the scale of Facebook’s deception in relation to electoral manipulation and data breaches as ‘breathtaking’.
That Facebook has been used to disrupt elections across the world is stated conclusively in the report. But what is crucial is that they have also been profiting from it, by taking advertising revenue for what the committee calls ‘dark ads’, from any and every twisted charlatan who is willing to pay for them.
WRITS WOULD FLY
When the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica’s use and abuse of Facebook data was uncovered, Facebook issued a series of statements saying how shocked they were that people’s data had been stolen. However, previously unpublished documents have been provided to the UK parliamentary committee by Six4Three, a US-based software developer that became involved in a legal dispute with Facebook. These confirm – according to the report – that the abuse of individuals’ data is at the heart of Facebook’s modus operandi.
As revealed by the Huffington Post, Six4Three has accused Facebook of using its own apps to read text messages, track precise locations, and listen to conversations, using the microphones found in smartphones, to gather information about people. This is denied by Facebook. But then the truth has never seemed particularly important to Mark Zuckerberg’s outfit.
For a long time, they hid behind the fiction that they are just a ‘platform’. “We are a tech company, not a publisher,” they claimed, over and over again. Likewise, Twitter. However, all of that changed abruptly, with Facebook’s defence in the Six4Three case last year, when lawyers for the tech giant confessed that Facebook is indeed a publisher and that the company makes editorial decisions, which are protected by the First Amendment.
Which is what Hot Press said at the time of the abortion referendum: Facebook is a publisher. Twitter and other social media companies are also publishers. Even without Facebook’s u-turn, the evidence has been mounting steadily. Recently, here in Ireland, the well-known Irish broadcasters, Miriam O’Callaghan, Ryan Tubridy and Pat Kenny have been targeted by individuals or groups with a hostile agenda. A Facebook post about Miriam O’Callaghan gave the impression that the broadcaster had been fired from RTÉ. A similar story appeared about Pat Kenny, which claimed that he had been in a fight at the Newstalk offices and that he had been arrested and escorted off the premises. To illustrate the story, photos had been doctored to depict him with a battered and bruised face. Fake ads have been created, using the names Miriam O’Callaghan and Pat Kenny, to sell beauty products and erectile dysfunction drugs respectively. Well, if there are ads running, someone paid for them. And Facebook knows who. It accepted the ads and the money is now in Facebook’s bank account. In response, Miriam O’Callaghan is suing Facebook. And why shouldn’t she? If Hot Press or the Irish Independent ran the same ads, we would expect writs to fly. So why should it be any different with social media? Why should they enable grotesque falsehoods about people to be disseminated?
And take money for the privilege? It is utterly absurd that they have been able to maintain the fiction for so long. But it seems that their attempts to hide may finally be running out of road.
Social media companies are being sued with increasing regularity, and they are paying compensation for libel and damages. Most often, these settlements are subject to confidentiality agreements, to minimise the risk of contagion. However, the courts are no longer taking a lenient view. There is an increasing awareness that the resources are there for these companies to do their jobs properly, and to prevent the publication of material that is false or libellous.
As one libel lawyer said recently: “if they can’t stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.” They sell advertising on the basis of the material that is uploaded to Facebook. They profit from every little piece of it. With that privilege comes a responsibility. Like every other publisher, they have to put in the hard yards. They have to be able to stand over the content around which they sell advertising. They have to stop libelling people. They have to prevent hate crimes.
Why should Pat Kenny, Miriam O’Callaghan – or anyone else, whether in public life or not – have to put up with appalling lies being told about them?
New laws may be necessary to nail the reality that social media and internet companies have to take full responsibility for what they publish – or allow to be published. And also to ensure that Facebook cannot and will not again collude in the subversion of democracy, whether in the UK or Europe.
There are European elections coming up. As we saw with the attempt to burn down the hotels in Roosky and in Inishowen, a small cadre of Irish Fascists are getting more aggressive. They will be supported in their campaign by alt-fascist groups internationally, for whom fake news is a speciality. It has worked in the UK; in Hungary; in Italy; in Brazil; and it is beginning to work in Spain.
Are they going to be allowed to use Facebook date to stir up hatred in Ireland? Are they going to be allowed to subvert democracy here? The time to act, to prevent the European elections being hijacked by sinister forces, is now.