If you’re not an avid reader of the Observer, and if you’re not obsessed with Brexit, or particularly active on social media, you may not have heard of Carole Cadwalladr.
It’s probably fair to say that Ms Cadwalladr divides opinion – between those who see her as a fearless crusader on a mission to expose the dark and shadowy world of big data and social media marketing and the extent to which adverts on Facebook may have influenced the votes for Brexit and Trump, and those who see her as a crackpot conspiracy theorist whose passion for uncovering “the truth” is matched only by her refusal to admit that ordinary people in the UK and the US may actually have known what they were voting for.
I have to admit when she first started revealing information about the ways in which marketing companies were harvesting personal data from Facebook in order to tailor political advertising to individual user groups, I was fascinated. And I will readily admit she has done an outstanding job of exposing the extent to which we put not just our own, but our friends’ privacy at risk when we too readily share private information via social media. She is to be applauded for her determination to hold the big tech companies – particularly Facebook – to account for the ways in which they have violated, and continue to violate, individual users’ privacy.
But where I part ways with Ms Cadwalladr is when she claims, as she did to great applause in her recent TED talk, that the tech companies “broke our democracy”.
No, Carole love, YOU broke our democracy. You, Tony Blair, Nick Clegg, Lord Adonis, Ken Clarke, Yvette Cooper, Anna Soubry, all the other members of the newly-formed Change UK and every other person in this country who has used their public platform to delegitimise the largest democratic vote for anything, ever, have thoroughly broken our democracy and continue to use every chance you get to give it a further kick.
With your one-sided investigation, that focused only on the ways in which the Leave campaign sought to spend their campaign funds, while ignoring all the tricks played by the Remain campaign, you turned what was a valuable piece of journalism into a political witch-hunt. Your obsession with a £750,000 overspend by the Leave campaign, which you continually point to as evidence of Leave having broken the rules, is laughable when contrasted to your utter silence on the government’s decision to stack the rules firmly in favour of the Remain camp, with £9 million of government money used to send a pro-Remain leaflet to all households in the country, and that £9 million being completely ringfenced from other campaign spending so as not to count towards the overall Remain campaign spending limit.
You ask us to believe that voters were unduly influenced by fake adverts they saw on Facebook – yet you don’t for one minute consider just how many voters were unduly influenced by that leaflet, given that it came from the government, whose advice many voters trusted implicitly. How many voters do you imagine read that leaflet, decided “Well, if the government thinks it would be a mistake to leave then who am I to think otherwise?” and simply closed their minds to any further arguments?
The truth is, Carole, you don’t seem to understand democracy. You, and everyone else who has railed against the votes for Brexit and Trump, are so accustomed to living in a world in which you and your friends are able to use your public platforms to set the agenda, that you can’t conceive of a world in which the ordinary man and woman on the street, whose voices are never usually heard outside their own social circles, suddenly have the same level of influence that you do.
You speak in your TED talk of how the people of Ebbw Vale voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, despite the fact that Ebbw Vale has benefited from extensive EU investment in recent years. In your mind, it’s inconceivable that these people, faced with the evidence of what the EU has done for them, would choose to reject such a generous benefactor. After all, as your before-and-after pictures show, thanks to the closure of the coal mines and the steel works, and recent EU investment in new buildings and infrastructure, Ebbw Vale is no longer an ugly industrial area dominated by smokestacks but now, with its shiny new college of further education, sports centre and road improvement scheme, looks like the sort of area even you might be comfortable in. The only possible explanation, in your tortured mind, is that these people must have been influenced by fake adverts on Facebook about Turkey joining the EU.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find the people of Ebbw Vale don’t particularly want a new college or a new sports hall. They quite possibly don’t even particularly want new roads or a new railway. What they want – and what the EU hasn’t provided – is jobs. Statistics available from the Department of Work and Pensions and the Office for National Statistics, show that on measures such as social class, professional status and education level the residents of Ebbw Vale are well below the national average, with roughly 40% of residents having no, or very limited, qualifications. A new college of further education is probably not much use to a 50 year-old who was laid off from his job when the steel works closed and who hasn’t been able to find decent work since. And while none of that is the EU’s fault, asking people to be grateful for services they don’t want, didn’t ask for and can’t afford to use, is not likely to win hearts and minds. Particularly when they find their council tax being used to fund repeated repairs to a new EU-funded lift which has broken down over 250 times since being installed. For an investigative journalist, Carole, you don’t seem to have done a great deal of investigation into what’s really going on in Ebbw Vale.
And can we talk, just briefly, about the actual efficacy of Facebook’s algorithm, in targeting the right adverts to the right people? So much of your theory relies on the idea that the adverts that Cambridge Analytica paid for, were actually shown to the right people. Now I may just be unlucky – though conversations I’ve had with friends on this subject would suggest they’ve had similar experiences – but the adverts I see on Facebook, while often very much in tune with my key interests (skiing, hiking, travelling) are also often wildly inappropriate when it comes to more nuanced ideas. A quick glance at my current Facebook feed shows me an advert for a “bralette” called “Curvy Sweetie” – specifically targeted for ladies with a large bust and small band, and another advert for “Huel”, which is apparently a “perfectly balanced, vegan meal” containing “all 26 essential vitamins and minerals” in powder form. As a lifelong carnivore with a bust that has never been larger than 36B, I’m unsure how Facebook decided either of these adverts was in any way appropriate to me.
I was constantly bombarded with pro-Remain adverts during the referendum campaign (presumably based on Facebook’s algorithm determining that, as a keen skier and traveller, I must, like most of my friends, wish to remain in the EU). Despite the fact that I was constantly posting, and sharing, pro-Brexit messages in my own news feed, I continued to see pro-Remain adverts. Now maybe this is down to the fact that the Remain campaign were not using the same level of micro-targeting and were simply using a scattergun approach to target their message to everyone (after all, they had far more funds to play with than the Leave campaign did). But if that’s the case, and if Cambridge Analytica genuinely were able to accurately determine which specific users would be particularly vulnerable to scare stories about Turkey joining the EU (based, presumably, on identifying users who live in small close-knit communities, who don’t travel extensively, probably with a low level of education, the usual stereotypical characteristics we expect of people who fear immigration) then what is the likelihood that those people were ever going to vote Remain in the first place? Or even not bother to vote at all, given the chance?
You see, this is where the whole theory falls apart. The only way this is a big story about undue influence over the result of a referendum, is if those adverts actually caused people to change their mind from Remain to Leave, or simply to go out and vote Leave when they would not previously have voted at all. But this relies on the assumption that there exists in this country, a large number of people who were sufficiently relaxed about immigration to have been happy to remain in the EU, right up until the idea was planted in their minds, that Turkey may be about to join. And Carole seems to think that many of these people live in Ebbw Vale.
Well I don’t buy it. By all means, Carole, continue to expose the extent to which Facebook, Google, Apple, Twitter, Amazon and all the other large tech companies harvest our personal data and sell it on to other companies. That truly is a scandal that needs to be continually highlighted, and you and the Observer are to be congratulated for your determination in bringing the tech titans to account. But stop with the efforts to use this story as an attempt to delegitimise the vote for Brexit, to suggest that were it not for shadowy adverts on Facebook, the vote would have gone the other way. It wouldn’t, it didn’t and it’s time you and everyone else accepted that.