Nick Clegg was on the Today Programme this morning to talk about his job with Facebook and its role in facilitating interference with elections and referendums in the UK and around the world.
Clegg says there is no evidence that Russia influenced the result of the Brexit vote using Facebook.
To quote Mandy Rice Davies – Well he would say that, wouldn’t he.
Clegg appears to blame deep-rooted Euroscepticism for the outcome. He also argues for greater regulation of social media and tech firms saying there should be new rules of the road on privacy, election rules, use of personal data and what constitutes hate speech.
Clearly there is no single reason why the UK voted to leave. Pinning all the blame on Facebook, Russia, Cambridge Analytica or anyone else is misleading. However, there does appear to be significant evidence that the last of these had access to a huge amount of personal data, harvested via Facbook, and sought to use it via campaigns to influence people’s voting. The evidence of Russian involvement is not quite so strong as that Russia sought to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election (where it is undeniable), but it is clear that Facebook was used as a platform for illegal campaigning, even if unwittingly.
And it is also clear that whatever happened in the UK referendum, there have been many cases of outside forces seeking to affect national elections via Facebook and other online activity. The Macedonian name referendum and recent Ukrainian Presidential election are just two examples.
Clegg is right that the should be better regulation that reflects the modern world. But he is wrong to imply that there are no rules in existence at the moment. The UK, as most countries, has a vast amount of electoral law that codifies who can campaign and how much they can spend. That these laws were written before the advent of the public internet doesn’t matter. If the law can apply to paper leaflets then, broadly, it can also apply to internet communications.
Difficult though it may be for Facebook, a company that operates in 150+ countries and therefore with 150+ sets of different election laws, it is the responsibility of everyone to obey the applicable law in the countries in which you operate. Facebook’s reaction until now, however, has been to place itself above the law. It has proposed (and is gradually implementing) two significant changes, requiring election related advertising on its site to be clearly labelled as such and reporting on who is paying for political advertising. Both of these changes are to be welcomed, but they are not yet universally applied. And, crucially, they do not accord with the detail of election law in each country. In seeking to apply its own solution, Facebook is thumbing its nose at elections around the world.
It is not just the main Facebook site that is doing so. WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and many other social media platforms also have their problems. Some of these will need new legislation to solve, but most simply require the company behind them to read and adapt to local laws.