Facebook and the threat to democracy
The role of Facebook in elections requires greater scrutiny and oversight. It was weaponised during the EU Referendum three years ago.
The UK is on course to leave the EU on 31 October under the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson but significant questions still remain over the legitimacy of the Referendum.
This isn’t a debate about Leave or Remain. It’s a debate about the role of social media within a democratic society spotlighted by the EU Referendum.
The role of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is an ongoing story that has significant implications for democracy. The political consulting firm gathered personal data and weaponised Facebook to influence voter behaviour.
It’s a story that has most recently been told in the new Netflix documentary The Great Hack.
Profiling Facebook users: unethical data collection
Cambridge Analytica worked on behalf of Vote Leave during the Referendum in the UK on 23 June 2016. It used a Facebook app developed by Aleksandr Kogan at Cambridge University to illegally collect personal data from 87 million profiles.
The Federal Trade Commission in the US fined Facebook $5 billion last week for failing to protect user data.
Targeting seven million persuadable voters
The rogue data set enabled Cambridge Analytica to create psychographic profiles and micro target voters via Facebook during the Brexit campaign. Its goal was to influence sufficient persuadable voters to mark a cross for Leave when they entered the polling booth.
In the event the UK electorate voted 51.9% (17,410,742) to 48.1% (16,141,241) to leave the EU. If 634,751 voters had chosen Remain instead of Leave, the UK would not be leaving the EU.
Every Facebook user is presented with different newsfeed content by the algorithm. It curates content from their network and targeted advertising.
The combination of the illicit Cambridge Analytica data set and Facebook targeting enabled it to weaponise the platform.
Dominic Cummings, Campaign Director, Vote Leave, spoke about the campaign at Ogilvy’s Nudgestock in 2017.
“We held back almost all of our budget and dumped it during the last 10 days of the campaign and really in the last three or four days. We aimed it at roughly seven million people who saw roughly 1.5 billion digital ads over a relatively short period of time.”
You can do the maths for yourself. That’s more than 200 ads per person.
There’s no public record of the ads created as part of the Vote Leave campaign. Facebook began publishing a record of ads in an Ad Library from March this year in a bid to counter future criticism over lack of transparency.
Scrutiny of Facebook’s role in the Referendum
In the UK the Vote Leave campaign has faced scrutiny by the Electoral Commission. In July 2018 it found that Vote Leave exceeded its spending limit of £7 million by almost £500,000. It also criticised a lack of transparency in the source of its funding. Vote Leave was fined £61,000.
The integrity of UK elections are governed by law. Evidence of cheating can be scrutinised and overturned by a court. However the Referendum had a special advisory status. Only Parliament could declare it void.
This was tested by a campaign group called the UK in EU Challenge via the courts. In December 2019 the High Court ruled it out of time.
A House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) Committee Report published in February 2018 sought to call Cambridge Analytical and Facebook to account. Both Dominic Cummings and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg refused to respond to a summons by the Committee.
In its report the DCMS Committee recommended that social media platforms be subject to a code of ethics and external regulation. It said the use of personal data for campaigning in elections should be subject to legal oversight.
Carole Cadwalladr is a Guardian journalist who has spent the last three years investigating the role of social media in the Referendum.
Her concern is that without a radical overhaul to the democratic process it won’t possible to have a free election ever again.
“[Facebook connects] people and you are refusing to acknowledge that the same technology is now driving us apart,” said Cadwalladr.
“This is not a drill. It is a point of inflection. Democracy is not guaranteed and it is not inevitable. We cannot let tech companies have unchecked power.”