In 2016, we did not know. We were innocent. We still believed social media connected us and that connections were good. That technology equaled progress, and progress equaled better.
Four years on, we know too much, and yet, it turns out, we understand nothing.
We know social media is a bin fire and that the world is burning, but it is like the COVID-19 pandemic. We understand in outline how bad things could get, but we remain hopelessly human. Relentlessly optimistic. Of course, we believe there will be a vaccine because there has to be.
In Facebook’s case, the worst has already happened. We have just failed to acknowledge it, failed to reckon with it and there is no vaccine coming to the rescue.
In 2016 everything changed. As for this year? Well, we will see.
We have already been through the equivalent of a social media pandemic — an unstoppable contagion that has sickened our information space, infected our public discourse, silently and invisibly subverted our electoral systems. It is no longer about if this will happen all over again. Of course, it will. It has not stopped. The question is whether our political systems, society, democracy will survive — can survive — the age of Facebook.
We are already through the looking glass.
In 2016, a hostile foreign government used Facebook to systematically undermine and subvert an election in the US. With no consequences. Nobody, no company, no individual or nation state has ever been held to account.
Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg says Black Lives Matter and yet we know US President Donald Trump used his creation’s tools to deliberately suppress and deny black and Latino people the vote. With no consequences.
Though we know the name “Cambridge Analytica” and were momentarily outraged by Facebook’s complicity in allowing 87 million people’s personal data to be stolen and repurposed, including by the Trump campaign, a US$5 billion fine was paid, but no individuals were held to account.
That is just in the US.
In the UK, there is an even bigger reckoning that has not come. If it was not for Facebook, there would be no Brexit. The future of the kingdom, with its 1,000 years of continuous history, has been set on its course by a foreign company that has proved itself to be beyond the rule of parliament.
Who in the UK understands that? Almost no one.
The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, perhaps, which last week reported its astonishment that no attempt had been made to investigate foreign interference in the EU referendum. Maybe Dominic Cummings, the man who sits in 10 Downing Street by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s side.
Cummings understands the role that Facebook played in Brexit. He wrote about it. In excruciating Cummings detail.
He described the deliberate use of misinformation targeted at unknown individuals in an election operation the scale of which had never been seen before. He deployed more than 1 billion Facebook ads, at a cost of pennies per view, he said.
He does not talk about this now, of course, and though the committee said that media companies “hold the key and yet are failing to play their part,” it also added “DCMS [the British Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] informed us that [REDACTED].”
The fact is that we now know how the platform was systematically abused by the Leave campaigns. We know that loopholes in laws were deliberately exploited, and we know that these actions were proved to be illegal and “punished” by “regulators,” whose “regulations” have been exposed to be not worth the paper they are written on.
Will Facebook be used to subvert this year’s US presidential election? Yes.
Will Facebook be held to account? No.
Are we looking at a system shock that will change the US for ever? Yes.
Because Trump will either win the election using Facebook or he will lose it using Facebook. Both ways spell disaster.
Interviewed by a Fox News reporter, Trump refused to say if he would leave the White House if he lost the election.
The US, the idea of the US, is on the brink and at the cold, dead heart of the suicide mission it has set itself on, is Facebook.
Facebook and the US are now indivisible. Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, these are now the bloodstream of US life and politics. A bloodstream that is sick.
And so the world is sick, because US capitalism has been the vector that has brought this infection across the globe. Algorithmically amplified “free speech” with no consequences. Lies spread at speed. Hate freely expressed, freely shared. Ethnic hatred, white supremacy, resurgent Nazism all spreading invisibly, by stealth beyond the naked eye.
For Trump, the band is back together.
Former Cambridge Analytica head of product Matt Oczkowski has launched a new firm, Data Propria, which had been working with former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, and Trump has tested his limits.
Can he place ads that feature Nazi symbols? Yes. (Taken down, but only after accruing millions of views.)
Can he spread lies about mail-in fraud? Yes.
Can he threaten Black Lives Matter protesters with violence? Yes.
Will he be able to use Facebook to dispute the election? Watch this space.
In a world without consequences, the bad person will be king and an aggressive multinational company whose business model is threatened by the bad person’s opponent is, at best, conflicted; at worst, complicit.
This week, Zuckerberg was forced to deny that he had a “secret deal” with Trump.
“A ridiculous idea,” he said.
It was an uncanny echo of the “pretty crazy idea” he cited in November 2016 when it was first suggested fake news on Facebook might have played a role in electing Trump.
It was not crazy. It was true.
We know this because of the painstaking work the FBI and US congressional committees did in investigating foreign interference in the US election. Work that has not even been begun in the UK.
That was not an accident we discovered this week. It was because of another populist who did not want the truth to come out: Johnson.
Facebook is at the center of this, too. It is Facebook that enables hostile nation states like Russia to attack us in our homes. A geopolitical war being fought in front of our noses, in our pockets, on our phones.
This is Facebook’s world now and we live in it. If you are not terrified about what this means it is because you have not been paying attention.
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