2018 hasn’t been a good year for Facebook’s global reputation. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal Mark Zuckerberg was hauled in front a senate committee to explain how data illegally harvested through the social network was able to influence the outcome of the presidential campaign.
This month new rules on transparency come into force. Political adverts on Facebook will come with a link allowing us to see who is paying for them and what other adverts they have put out. Anyone wanting to post a political ad will need to provide photo ID. The new rules apply to everyone from presidents to city councillors.
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This is supposedly going to end the proliferation of fake news for political gain. But let me tell you. It won’t.
This week it was revealed that prominent Brexit campaigner Arron Banks who provided millions in funding to the Leave campaign, will face a criminal investigation over the source of the money. Brexit supporters will claim that the allegations are politically-motivated and maybe there’s some truth in that.
But should it transpire that the funds came from Russia as part of a plan to destabilise our country, nobody will be able to ignore it.
Some people argue that social media adverts don’t have the power to swing elections, and that concerns are overblown hyperbole. None of us like to believe we could be so easily influenced.
If that is the case, why did Vote Leave pay £2.7 million to bombard voters with messages such as the claim that Turkey was joining the EU? These were ‘secret’ ads that couldn’t be seen by anyone other than the people at whom they were targeted. The wording was similar to Vote Leave’s public-facing ads but sensationalised.
Turkey is ‘set’ to join the EU became Turkey ‘is’ joining the EU. Had the Electoral Commission been aware of these ads at the time they would have been able to step in to stop the spread of disinformation, but of course they didn’t know. Vote Leave recognised the opportunity and took it.
Facebook has tried to buy back public trust by making it easier for the public to see what data is stored about them. Sadly, this is nothing more than a ploy. The real data Facebook holds is still invisible.
Have you installed the Facebook app on your smartphone? Unless you prevent it, the first thing the app does after it’s installed is to access your contacts. These are immediately uploaded to Facebook’s servers and cross referenced with other Facebook accounts.
Even if you’re not on Facebook it still knows who you are. Any of your friends installing the app who have your phone number saved could have chosen the default settings and allowed your name and number to disappear into the ether.
Facebook doesn’t allow any of us to access this data. They claim it would compromise the secrecy of their algorithms which have commercial value.
It is unclear how this could comply with GDPR, the legislation that recently came into force preventing the misuse of data.
In case you are worried that the forthcoming by-election for Canterbury North might be swung by fake news and illegal digital profiling, let me put your mind to rest. Russia doesn’t seem to be too concerned with destabilising east Kent so has failed to provide millions of pounds to fund an information war.
The digital advertising budget for our Lib Dem campaign is unlikely to creep much past the three-figure-mark.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be concerned about data, propaganda, and who is paying for it. It’s an insidious evil that undermines our whole democracy.