It was preposterous to observe the twist of events when back in the 2009 data speech, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, described internet of things to be an ‘amazing pollinator’ that ‘turns lovely fights into mass campaigns; transforms moans into movements; excites the attention of hundreds, thousands, millions of people and stirs them into action.’ This same power became a major concern for him when millions of people were triggered, provoked and mobilized through this very medium to vote for Brexit.
This is a company that has worked with hacked material, this is a company that will send out videos of people being murdered to intimidate voters, this is a company that goes out and tries to illicitly acquire live internet browsing data of everyone in an entire country.
An ex-Cambridge Analytica employee, whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, made this statement which only goes on to portray the tip of the iceberg which revolved around the Brexit referendum and Cambridge Analytica’s utter ignorance for the law. Cambridge Analytica Ltd. (CA) was a data analysis and mining entity that had played an extremely controversial part in the Leave European Union campaign. They assisted the official Vote Leave campaign and skillfully found a way to circumvent the campaign funding laws. Leaked documents disclosed that the Vote Leave campaign, the official pro-Brexit group, headed by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, paid a hefty 625,000 pounds to a Canadian data organisation named Aggregate IQ (AIQ). In contrast to the two companies’ statements of denying a coordination during the referendum, Wylie testified that CA and AIQ shared data with one another on a persistent basis. “You can’t have targeting software that doesn’t access the database. Cambridge Analytica would have a database and AIQ would access that database, otherwise the software wouldn’t work,” Wylie said.
Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower who worked alongside Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan to reap the data for Cambridge Analytica, told the Observer that they had exploited Facebook to acquire millions of people’s profiles. The unified intention of the company was to form a model which could help them manipulate the targeted audience. The New York Times and UK-based Observer reported that more than 50 million Facebook users had their data harvested by Cambridge Analytica which has been called as the social media platform’s largest data breach till date. It was disclosed that they used the data to target users with customised political advertisements to further Trump’s presidential bid and the pro-Brexit drive.
British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, in her Ted talk, highlights the specific case of Ebbw Vale. Ebbw Vale, a small town in South Wales, had one of the cities with the highest percentage of leave votes (62%-38%) despite the fact that it had several regeneration projects funded by the EU. However, much to the surprise, the residents were of the view that the European Union had done nothing for them. “Take back control”- one of the most widely used slogans in the campaign backed this perspective, and this fire was further fuelled by the supposed problem of refugees and immigrants contrary to which statistics showed that the immigration rates in Ebbw were one of the lowest. All of these facts didn’t add up together and did not provide the whole picture. Eventually, everything that could be found out was insufficient, because everything took place in ‘black boxes’- on Facebook, Google, YouTube. People testified that they saw ads on Facebook like – “76m population of Turkey to join the EU”, and other such statements, which lacked credibility. Such advertisements, feed, and posts were shown to a specifically targeted tiny silver of persuadable people to tilt their votes towards Leave. Facebook, along with Cambridge Analytica was responsible for leaking data from people’s profiles to the groups like Vote Leave who in turn, illegally targeted them. The campaign had sabotaged the opposition with more vociferous and aggressive supporters on all the social media handles leading to the uprising of leave supporters at the grassroot level. They outnumbered and dominated platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook influencing and manipulating ambivalent voters who were made mere puppets in their hands.
On platforms like Twitter it was seen that people, not necessarily knowledgeable about politics, were able to make huge decisions for the future of a country based on hashtags and memes they have seen online. During the time leading up to the referendum in 2016, the number of people supporting the Leave campaign outnumbered the Remain campaign on Twitter by 7 to 1 and the most used hashtags were #Brexit, #Beleave and #VoteLeave. When it comes to this serious political issue, this could be potentially damaging as users are likely to be influenced by whichever message appears most often or most prominent rather than necessarily searching for the true facts.
Social media has changed the face of political campaigning and will inevitably continue doing so playing an indispensable role in the future elections to come all across the globe. It has been a commonplace to hypothesize that social media is a vital medium for distorted facts which restricts citizens to mere echo cubicles. The upside is that we get to participate in it like never before, we comment, we share, we tweet but unfortunately, our favourite social media networks have also slaughtered the essence of fair elections by distorting and shaping the outcomes according to their whims and fancies. It has evolved as a mighty force to aid the reach of political narratives. This election has taught us that the boosting technology is open to all and the messy, multi-directional, bottom up practices of diffusing and absorbing information will play an ever-greater role in processes of public opinion formation– for better or for worse.
Those people who still regard ‘Brexit’ as a conundrum for political thinkers and politicians, it is time to comprehend that the referendum and the current negotiations will persistently act as an element of impact on virtually every aspect of society. Don’t believe us? Well, social media is often looked to as a portrayal of world dynamics, none more so than with Britain’s expected departure from the European Union.
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