Cadwalladr at TED — a dangerous message, not truth to power

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The Remain campaign in Cambridge, 2016

Has social media destroyed democracy? Has it removed the possibility of any future, informed democratic vote as Cadwalldr claims?

No, and it is dangerous to make this claim.

I’m not saying that no crimes were committed by the brexit campaigns and others — this has been already proven. But the claims made about the level of influence of these campaigns, and any direct evidentiary link between the campaigns and actual votes is being exaggerated. It cannot be used to invalidate the vote, and it is wrong to put the blame onto the new media.

Similar claims were made throughout history as the ordinary common people got access to new media, from moveable type and the first mass publication (even internationally) of political pamphlets, to the invention of radio.

What we saw is the exploitation of the new media, this is true, and this was enabled because of the monopolies that have been created, in precisely the same way monopolies ruled and continue to rule all mass media and internet access in the US and elsewhere in the world. Far more people were reached and probably influenced by mass media coverage than online, and a lot of the time this coverage was delivered directly into the homes of the target voters at no cost to the end user.

The most damaging weapons that were exploited by these campaigns were the creation of myths surrounding the EU and immigration, and a nostalgic, nationalist identity. These were linked, and in the minds of the voters, to belong to that identity meant that Brexit had to be supported, even in the face of counter evidence. And once again, like so many times in history, this was backed by seemingly unlimited finance.

These tactics aren’t new, and social media was not the primary vehicle for these messages.

Nevertheless, social media and the illegal use of personal data meant that people could be profiled and targeted as never before. But this cannot be used definitively to invalidate the referendum — for a start, the causal link between these illegal campaigns and actual votes cannot be established. There is no legislation in the UK that could overturn the result of an advisory referendum, as it has no constitutional standing in any event. The Conservative Party was found to be guilty of a massive overspend in the last general election, and yet that result still stands. Electoral law is in desperate need of reform so that actual criminal charges rather than paltry fines can be handed down, and if these cases are proven elections can be overturned.

But overturning electoral results cannot be taken lightly and new legislation cannot be a knee jerk response. What we have to consider is that people have voted in good faith, and have every right to see that vote enacted. Such legislation could be wide-open to abuse, with legitimate governments being overturned by an arm of the state. In the US, there is a loot of debate currently about the possibility of impeaching the president, but it should be noted that this isn’t in the form of overturning a verified election — it is concentrated on his behaviour and fitness for office.

The Remain campaign didn’t lose as a direct result of criminal behaviour on the part of their opponents and this is impossible to prove conclusively. They lost as the number of legitimate (note, no electoral fraud took place, no fake votes, no wrong counts, etc) votes for Leave was greater than those for Remain. There is any number of factors to be considered as to why this happened, from an ineffective campaign to the biased coverage an overwhelmingly right-wing mass media, not to mention the failure to get out the vote for Remain. If the parliamentary decision to leave the EU is to be overturned at some point in the future or if another referendum is conducted, all these issues need to be properly addressed and the Remain campaign must not sit back again thinking that the arguments have already been won — when in truth, they have never properly been made. Myths, once established, cannot be overturned by simply repeating facts.

There is another risk coming from Cadwalldr’s statement, which could lead to the further regulation, censorship or control of social media. Again, there must be checks and balances, and I am not a free-speech absolutist. The same laws that apply to print media and public discourse must apply to social media content — in fact most of them do, and can be enforced. Hate speech and other such content should be strictly controlled and removed, and the platform cannot be used for the live broadcast of terrorist acts. At the same time, who is the arbiter of that content? And how can we differentiate between the live-streaming of police brutality against a peaceful protest and violent insurrection against a legitimate government? Should internet companies acquiesce and follow the repressive demands of gulf states and China and by doing so repress freedom of expression and fundamental human rights?

Internet and social media have provided us all with an easily accessible public forum where we can make our voices heard to a potential audience that the 18thcentury pamphleteers could only dream of. By throwing the blame for the abuse of democracy at the new platforms — and not the old enemies of monopoly, commercialism and big money — we put that democratic voice at risk of blanket censure.

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