So enjoyed participating in the panel on Facebook and Strengthening Democracy in a Digital age on 21st February with Prof David Carroll, Claude Moraes MEP, Commissioner King, Tom Scott & Molly Scott Cato MEP – really lovely to see Julie Ward MEP there too! Much gratitude to them for including me in such an important conversation. The event followed closely after the publication of the UK Parliament’s report, which I discuss in my earlier post. This European Parliament event organized by Green MEP Molly Scott Cato was a deeply important and urgently needed policy conversation which also launched an important new report on Facebook by Tom Scott. There is another upcoming event in the UK – held in the House of Commons on Tuesday March 5th in the Attlee Room, 07:30 – 09:00. An impressive panel will include Carole Cadwalladr, Damian Collins MP and Shahmir Sanni.
“You make cars – you belch out fumes. …We legislate for cleaner air. The influence industry is entirely unregulated – and its externalities are deeply damaging – particularly as they obscure, mislead and make it harder to tackle other international problems. We’ve incentivized this model and international legislation is needed to change it.
Beyond the necessary proposals for tackling Facebook’s abuses of data, it will mean regulating the influence industry and changing how NATO and our own Governments oversee information warfare. Explosive growth of social media like Facebook opened the door to big data analytics, psychographics, and the techniques of surveillant advertising. But SCL drew on military and intelligence methodologies, and growing access to social media data, to enable Cambridge Analytica to develop a surveillant and coercive influence capability for expansion in commercial and political, while SCL was providing similar methods for Western governments’ national security. Policy has actually encouraged companies like SCL’s business model – a globally expanding model of surveillant, data-driven propaganda for sale. It might be that taking ethical contracts SCL wouldn’t have been able to offer as competitive a product.
Government contracts go to companies who are able to quickly deploy globally already having experience, contacts and data – how do they obtain this? Commercial and political work – some legitimate, some nefarious. Our governments didn’t ask enough questions.
Perhaps no-one appreciated just how bad this was. But they should have. If we don’t change policy, ensuring transparency and strong oversight in government contracting and licensing or regulation in the influence industry we will perpetually reproduce this unethical model. Transparency alone is not enough – as evidenced by SCL CEO Nigel Oakes comments in my evidence, notoriety can even drive up business – blatant breaches should be met with real penalties and fines that hurt.
It is a dangerous business model for Western governments, as proven by SCL, it plays a role in destabilizing fragile democracies in the global south, heightening inequality with subsequent impacts on public health, economies, migration. And makes our security and elections vulnerable too, something to remember as the European elections approach.”
I am now working on a book called ‘Propaganda Machine: the Hidden Story of Cambridge Analytica and the Digital Influence Industry’, which will give a fuller account of the rise of this unethical company, how it was enabled, and what we must do about it.
It was a really fascinating discussion and I was very touched by Julie Ward MEP’s kind words about my research after the event. It’s been a difficult year and it was lovely to hear such words of support from someone who works so tirelessly to empower people and challenge the powerful people trying to abuse our democratic process.