Facebook’s recent crackdown on the use of so-called dark ads in Britain was one of the most visible signs to date of the growing concerns about online manipulation of voters.
In October, the social media giant announced it was changing its policy on advertising, after finding itself at the centre of inquiries into the role of online political advertising in the Brexit referendum.
UK advertisers wanting to advertise on Facebook now must confirm their identity and location, and reveal the source of their advert’s funding. Users will gain access to information such as how much an advertiser has spent, the number of people reached, and other ads it has deployed.
In a blog post, senior Facebook figures Richard Allan and Rob Leathern said: “We see this as an important part of ensuring electoral integrity and helping people understand who they are engaging with. While the vast majority of ads on Facebook are run by legitimate organisations, we know that there are bad actors that try to misuse our platform. By having people verify who they are, we believe it will help prevent abuse.”
Too little too late?
While these changes are welcomed and certainly a step in the right direction, it does seem to be too little, too late. Earlier this year, Facebook estimated that now suspended tech firm Cambridge Analytica had collected data on up to 87 million users worldwide. The vast majority (70 million) were US users.
Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie claimed that the company leveraged that information to target voters during the 2016 US election, helping Trump win the presidency.
“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles and built models to exploit what we knew about them to target their inner demons,” he told the Observer in March. The firm used the data to micro-target voters with tailored advertisements, some of which were purposefully designed to mislead.
In March, Wylie told a UK select committee that similar techniques had been used during the EU referendum. Many people have since argued that this interference delegitimises the outcome of the referendum, as the peoples’ right to make a free and informed choice had been taken away.
Facebook appeals against fine
The official leave campaign, Vote Leave, spent over a third (£2.7m) of its campaign allowance on using a data firm called AggregateIQ (AIQ), which had close links to Cambridge Analytica. Wylie described the former as being “almost an internal department” of the latter.
Although this raised some eyebrows, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) found no evidence to suggest that they were acting as anything other than two separate legal entities. Furthermore, the ICO did not find evidence to support the claim that Vote Leave processed personal data without the consent of users.
However, in its report to Parliament, the ICO did find against Facebook for exposing UK users to such a risk. It concluded that although Facebook provided policies for developers to follow, “it did not take sufficient steps to prevent apps from collecting data in contravention of data protection law”.
In fact, it “uncovered evidence…to show that there was a close working relationship between Facebook and individual members of the research community”. The ICO issued a £500,000 fine to Facebook (the maximum penalty available to it under the previously applicable legislation), which the social media company is now in the process of appealing.
So what next?
It is clear that the British public cannot rely upon Facebook alone to safeguard the democratic process against “bad actors”.
Even its latest blog post featured a subtle disclaimer. “While we are pleased with the progress we have seen in the countries where we have rolled out the tools, we understand that they will not prevent abuse entirely,” it said. “We’re up against smart and well-funded adversaries who change their tactics as we spot abuse.”
Parliament evidently has a role to play in removing the incentive for tech firms to look the other way. The introduction of GDPR 2018, which would have allowed the ICO to fine Facebook £1.25 billion and not just £500,000, was a good start. However, not everyone believes that tech giants such as Facebook can be tamed.
Author, screenwriter and journalist Peter Jukes said: “The tech companies are to blame. It’s technocratic. The dream – we’ll be connected by computers and all live harmoniously. Instead, there are huge unaccountable monopolies. Facebook will not give over their data to the British Parliament. They will not tell us what happened. I say break down the tech monopolies as soon as possible”.
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