Last year’s Orwell Prize winner, British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, has done a stellar amount of research on what actually caused Britain to vote to leave the European Union. And the stories she has written based on this research should be required reading for anyone who has an interest in modern politics.
Brexit, as it is now called, has led to serious problems for Britain, the repercussions of which will likely be felt for many years to come. Taken at face value, the ‘leave’ vote painted those British citizens who ticked that box as xenophobic dimwits. But Ms Cadwalladr found that many, if not all of them, would have been influenced by suggestive ads eased into their Facebook feeds, filled with information that was not just incorrect, but outright lies in some cases.
She referenced this in a TED Talk she gave this month, where she spoke of returning to her hometown after several years and seeing a number of developmental projects all financed by the European Union. She could not reconcile what she was seeing with the feedback she received from people she spoke with who accused the EU of ‘doing nothing’ for them and who said that they were ‘fed up with immigrants and refugees’. She later learned that they had garnered all of that, not from anything that was actually happening around them, but from advertisements that inexplicably appeared in their Facebook feeds.
It is now well known that the now-defunct firm Cambridge Analytica harvested, bought or otherwise garnered the data of millions of Facebook users and using algorithms and what not, formed psychological profiles of them which they were then able to use when targeting them with specific ads. It is public knowledge that this same pattern was used in the US 2016 elections, which led to a Trump win.
Ms Cadwalladr’s investigative feature, first published in 2017 titled, “The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked” was an exposé detailing Cambridge Analytica’s role in the ‘leave’ vote. But more than that, her research revealed links between Cambridge Analytica’s principal, US billionaire Robert Mercer and an interesting group of people. These included British politician and leader of the new ‘Brexit Party’ Nigel Farage, US President Donald Trump and former Trump bestie and strategist Steve Bannon among others. There were also links to Russia, where Cambridge Analytica had done work and where some of its staff had worked for Russian entities.
Ms Cadwalladr also referred to a project Cambridge Analytica carried out in Trinidad and Tobago in 2013, when it was called SCL Elections. This was before the company was bought up by Mr Mercer and the project was sort of the guinea pig the American billionaire used that convinced him to buy the company. According to the report, T&T ministers had hired SCL, “to capture citizens’ browsing history en masse, recording phone conversations and applying natural language processing to the recorded voice data to construct a national police database, complete with scores for each citizen on their propensity to commit crime.” The T&T government had strongly denied this when it was first brought to light. Ms Cadwalladr’s report also mentioned that the company had done work in Antigua.
Last year, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the US Congress as well as the European Parliament’s Conference of Presidents in sessions that were heavily hyped but basically produced nothing much. Mr Zuckerberg apologised for his company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and promised to fix the issue with the instituting of new privacy regulations, some of which are now in place. He also undertook to have Facebook take more responsibility as regards, “fake news, foreign interference in elections or developers misusing people’s information” and said this could be done through new technology and hiring extra staff.
He made no undertakings with regard to specific ads targeting certain people and he wouldn’t; advertisements are Facebook’s lifeblood, not the ‘connecting people’ slogan it runs with. Mr Zuckerberg would not be worth US$71.9 billion without the advertisements. Therefore, those with the intention to subvert would only need to change their tactics.
Suffice it to say that all of this paints a gloomy picture for egalitarianism in general. One can’t help thinking that if great old democracies like the US and the UK could be so devastatingly manipulated, then the rest of us really don’t stand a chance.
In the post-World War 11 era, when mutual distrust between former allies the US and the Soviet Union led to what was called the Cold War, espionage was covert, a cloak and dagger affair. But these are overt ops, where on a public forum like Facebook one could virtually lose one’s soul. It just seems like there is a great puppeteer somewhere out there jerking all of our strings. The answer is not to eschew technology as it has its benefits, but to find to way back to where we use it rather than the other way around.