In 2016, a hostile foreign government used Facebook to systematically undermine and subvert an American election. With no consequences
Source: The Guardian
In 2016, we didn’t know. We were innocent. We still believed social media connected us and that connections were good. That technology equalled progress. And progress equalled better.
Four years on, we know too much. And yet, it turns out, we understand nothing. We know social media is a bin fire and that the world is burning. But it’s like the pandemic. We understand in outline how bad things could get. But we remain hopelessly human. Relentlessly optimistic. Of course, we believe there’ll be a vaccine. Because there has to be, doesn’t there?
In Facebook’s case, the worst has already happened. We’ve just failed to acknowledge it. Failed to reckon with it. And there’s no vaccine coming to the rescue. In 2016 everything changed. As for 2020… well, we will see.
We have already been through the equivalent of a social media pandemic – an unstoppable contagion that has sickened our information space, infected our public discourse, silently and invisibly subverted our electoral systems. It’s no longer about if this will happen all over again. Of course, it will. It hasn’t stopped. The question is whether our political systems, society, democracy, will survive – can survive – the age of Facebook.
We are already through the looking glass. In 2016, a hostile foreign government used Facebook to systematically undermine and subvert an American election. With no consequences. Nobody, no company, no individual or nation state has ever been held to account.
Zuckerberg says Black Lives Matter and yet we know Donald Trump used Facebook’s tools to deliberately suppress and deny black and Latino people the vote. With no consequences.
And though we know the name “Cambridge Analytica” and were momentarily outraged by Facebook’s complicity in allowing 87 million people’s personal data to be stolen and repurposed including by the Trump campaign. A $5bn fine was paid but no individuals were held to account.
And that’s just in America. For us here in Britain, there’s an even bigger reckoning that has not come. If it wasn’t for Facebook, there would be no Brexit. The future of our country – our island nation with its 1,000 years of continuous history of which we’re so proud – has been set on its course by a foreign company that has proved itself to be beyond the rule of parliament.
Who in Britain understands that? Almost no one. The intelligence and security committee, perhaps, who reported their astonishment this week that no attempt had been made to investigate foreign interference in the EU referendum. And maybe Dominic Cummings, the man who sits in 10 Downing Street by Boris Johnson’s side.
Dominic Cummings understands the role that Facebook played in Brexit. He wrote about it. In excruciating Cummings detail. He described the deliberate use of misinformation targeted at unknown individuals in an election operation the scale of which had never been seen before. He deployed more than a billion Facebook ads, he says. At a cost of pennies per view.
The fact is that we now know how the platform was systematically abused by the Leave campaigns. We know that loopholes in our laws were deliberately exploited. And we know that these actions were proved to be illegal and “punished” by “regulators” whose “regulations” have been exposed to be not worth the paper they are written on.
Will Facebook be used to subvert the 2020 US presidential election? Yes. Will Facebook be held to account? No. Are we looking at a system shock that will change America for ever? Yes. Because Trump will either win this election using Facebook or he will lose it using Facebook. Both ways spell disaster. On Sunday, interviewed by a Fox reporter, he refused to say if he would leave the White House if he lost the election.
America, the idea of America, is on the brink. And at the cold, dead heart of the suicide mission it has set itself on, is Facebook. Facebook and America are now indivisible. Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, these are now the bloodstream of American life and politics. A bloodstream that is sick.
And so the world is sick, because American capitalism has been the vector that has brought this infection across the globe. Algorithmically amplified “free speech” with no consequences. Lies spread at speed. Hate freely expressed, freely shared. Ethnic hatred, white supremacy, resurgent Nazism all spreading invisibly, by stealth beyond the naked eye.
For Trump 2020, the band is back together. The chief data scientist of Cambridge Analytica, Matt Oczkowski has launched a new firm, Data Propria, which is working with the digital director of Trump’s 2016 campaign Brad Parscale. And Trump is testing his limits. Can he place ads that feature Nazi symbols? Yes. (Taken down but only after accruing millions of views.) Can he spread lies about mail-in fraud? Yes. Can he threaten Black Lives Matter protesters with violence? Yes. Will be he be able to use Facebook to dispute the election? Watch this space.
In a world without consequences, the bad man will be king. And an aggressive multinational company whose business model is threatened by the bad man’s opponent is, at best, conflicted; at worst, complicit.
This week, Mark Zuckerberg was forced to deny he had a “secret deal” with Trump. “A ridiculous idea,” he said. It was an uncanny echo of the “pretty crazy idea” he cited in November 2016 when it was first suggested fake news on Facebook might have played a role in electing Trump.
It wasn’t crazy. It was true. We know this because of the painstaking work the FBI and congressional committees did in investigating foreign interference in the US election. Work that hasn’t even been begun in the UK. That was not an accident we discovered this week. It was because of another populist who didn’t want the truth to come out: Boris Johnson.
Facebook is at the centre of this too. It’s Facebook that enables hostile nation states like Russia to attack us in our homes. A geopolitical war being fought in front of our noses, in our pockets, on our phones.
This is Facebook’s world now. And we live in it. And if you’re not terrified about what this means it’s because you haven’t been paying attention.
This is what Dominic Cummings said about the Vote Leave campaign