Last week I convened an event at Westminster exploring the impacts of Facebook on our democracy. Facebook is the social network turned antisocial network. It was supposed to bring us closer together but now stands accused of stealing our imaginations, fostering social divisions, inciting self-harm and failing to control hate speech and extremism. These are all serious and deeply concerning accusations, but the most destructive singular impact of Facebook is its impact on democracy.
The power of Facebook has become the power of the corporation. Creativity has been enclosed, privatised and funnelled into the pockets of a small number of shareholders. Corporate Facebook has marketed our innermost desires, coerced us into signing away our rights to privacy and even stolen our personal data, selling it to marketing men. It has then hidden the mechanisms for doing these things behind a wall labelled ‘intellectual property’.
The event at Westminster coincided with the launch of my report examining the role of Facebook in abuses of personal data for political purposes and for the manipulation of electoral outcomes. It was fitting that the event took place in the shadow of the House of Commons and that a legislator, a journalist and a whistleblower, who have all played vital but very different roles in facing down Facebook, were on the panel.
Damian Collins MP is the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee (DCMS), which recently completed an 18-month investigation into disinformation and fake news. This concluded that Facebook failed to tackle attempts by Russia to manipulate elections. Carole Cadwalladr is the investigative journalist who has relentlessly pursued the Bad Boys of Brexit and last year won an award for her persistence and resilience in pursuing ‘investigative journalism on subjects such as personal data.’ And Shahmir Sanni, the former Vote Leave employee, blew the whistle on how people’s Facebook data was harvested for political campaigning.
We need to make social media work for us rather than for corporations
A key demand from the meeting was for the setting up of a cross-committee inquiry into external interference in the EU referendum. Another idea welcomed by those attending the event was for a new citizens movement to protect us and our democracy from abuses of personal data, dark money and hidden ads and so make social media work for us rather than for corporations.
It is clear we need both the legislative route and citizen action to challenge giant tech firms. As Shahmir Sanni pointed out, with two billion users around the globe, Facebook has become as integral as water and electricity and needs to be regulated in the same way.
There is clear evidence that dark money paid Facebook to manipulate the outcome of the EU referendum back in 2016. With a strong likelihood that Article 50 will be extended and that ultimately a People’s Vote will be the way out of the parliamentary impasse, we urgently need to ensure that Facebook and other social media platforms are free of micro-targeted adverts that tell us, for example, that ‘the EU blocks our ability to speak out and protect polar bears’ or ‘wants to kill our cuppa’. Future referendums and elections must be protected from such misinformation and propaganda.
The proposed regulatory measures in our report include standard default ‘no sharing of personal data with other organisations’ privacy settings; all political advertisements to include information on the sponsor, the amount spent on it and the basis on which any targeting was carried out; and a requirement by social media companies to verify the identities of all their users before accepting them onto their platforms to prevent automated posts by non-human agents.
In its early days Facebook’s mission statement was ‘Move fast and break things’. Unfortunately, it seems that one of those things is democracy itself. But, as politicians, we must not allow the astonishing power and speed of this (anti)-social network to intimidate us. We must rise to the challenge of regulating Facebook so that it realises its potential to connect a flourishing human community, rather than becoming a playground for rich and secretive manipulators. The very future of democracy depends on it.
Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England