Voters got a palpable taste of what it’s like to live in a post-truth world last week as Boris Johnson, characterised by many as one of the most dishonest actors in British political history, swept to power on the back of an overwhelmingly misleading campaign. That’s according to First Draft News, a non-profit organisation dedicated to fighting disinformation which found that 88% of the Conservatives’ political ads on Facebook were “misleading”. This was by far the biggest proportion from any major political party. And as First Draft pointed out:
Facebook recently announced that posts from political organisations and political adverts are exempt from fact-checking, meaning parties and candidates can promote inaccurate claims without scrutiny.
Over 5,000 of the 6,749 different ads the Tories ran contained reference to the construction of 40 new hospitals, for example, while more than 500 promoted the debunked claim that they will employ 50,000 new nurses. In reality, the party’s spending plans allocate funding only for the upgrading of six hospitals and the 50,000 number includes retaining 18,500 already employed nurses. Perhaps this explains why the NHS was in 41% of Tory voters’ ‘top three’ issues, despite the well-publicised fact that Johnson has a history of supporting increasing privatisation of the NHS and his party has been negotiating to open the service up to US corporations.
Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats have been exposed for circulating election propaganda masquerading as local newspapers, while Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson was grilled by Sky News as she attempted to defend her “entirely misleading” graphs that falsely claimed the Lib Dems were in the best position to win.
The money keeps rolling in…
Facebook, meanwhile, seems to have a long history of promoting and helping hard-right candidates. A recent study by the University of Warwick found that, during the 2016 American presidential elections, micro-targeted ads on the platform had a “significant effect in persuading undecided voters to support Mr. Trump, and in persuading Republican supporters to turn out on polling day”. Meanwhile, US advertising executives representing the far-right AfD party reportedly met with Facebook officials at the company’s headquarters in Berlin to discuss how to use the platform to recruit. The campaign of micro-targeting ads was deemed by media expert Noam Chomsky as the crucial explanation for how the party tripled its vote share, with 13% of Germans voting for a fascist candidate in 2017.
While Twitter and Google announced they were refusing to accept any more targeted political ads, Facebook did not follow suit, and has continued to cash in during British and US election seasons. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his decision on a moral basis, claiming that “political speech is important”, and asserting that – from a business perspective – the controversy “far outweighs” the financial gain, thus presenting himself as a crusading martyr for free speech. Many didn’t buy his representation of himself and his company, though. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, grilled him at a House Financial Services Committee hearing, demanding to know why he hadn’t cleaned up obvious fake news circulating like wildfire on his website.
Yet calling for Facebook to regulate itself, leaving it up to the company to determine ‘fake news’ (thereby deciding what its 2.4 billion worldwide users see and don’t see) is a very risky strategy for progressives like Ocasio-Cortez. Because under the guise of ‘fighting fake news’, huge platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Google have already changed their algorithms. While the effect on misleading information has been negligible, the effect on a diversity of opinion has been near catastrophic. High-quality alternative media, where the public can go for a wider range of opinions, has been seriously harmed as media giants de-rank, demote, or de-list them and essentially consider promoting establishment media sources in their place. Across the board, alternative media has recorded huge drops in traffic (and therefore income), seriously threatening their survival.
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Furthermore, Facebook has teamed up with the Atlantic Council, a thinktank connected to NATO, to help it decide what is true and what is ‘fake news’. The Atlantic Council’s board is a who’s who of ex-CIA heads like Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, and Michael Chertoff, as well as US war criminals like Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell. When a group like this is deciding what the world sees in their news feed, we have already reached the point of state censorship. Facebook is also working closely with the US and Israeli governments in deeming who to kick off its platform.
Nationalise the internet?
The greatest threat to press freedom, diversity of opinion, and free elections in the UK (and elsewhere) is not armed thugs or a foreign army; it is slick, faceless megacorporations which, on a whim, can completely change what we see, hear, and read. It’s time the internet was redrawn as a public good rather than a corporate free-for-all. But don’t expect the Tories to do that any time soon. Because they’re benefitting way too much from the status quo.
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