This week I convened an event at Westminster exploring the impacts of Facebook on our democracy. Facebook is the social network turned antisocial network. It was supposed to bring us closer together but now stands accused of stealing our imaginations, fostering social divisions, inciting self-harm and failing to control hate speech and extremism. These are all serious and deeply concerning accusations, but the most destructive singular impact of Facebook is its impact on democracy.
I recently launched a report that catalogues the appalling and destructive behaviour of Facebook, but also includes some important policy recommendations on how to regulate this social media monster. It was therefore fitting that the Facebook and Democracy event took place in the shadow of the House of Commons and that a legislator, a journalist and a whistleblower, who have all played vital but very different roles in facing down Facebook, were on the panel.
Damian Collins MP is the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee (DCMS), which recently completed an 18-month investigation into disinformation and fake news. This concluded that Facebook failed to tackle attempts by Russia to manipulate elections. Carol Cadwalladr is the investigative journalist who last year won an award for her persistence and resilience in pursuing “investigative journalism on subjects such as personal data.” And Shahmir Sanni, the former Vote Leave employee who blew the whistle on how people’s Facebook data was harvested for political campaigning.
A key demand from the meeting was for the setting up of a cross-committee inquiry into external interference in the EU referendum. Another idea welcomed by those attending the event was for a new citizens movement to protect us and our democracy from abuses of personal data, dark money and hidden ads and so make social media work for us rather than for corporations.
It is clear we need both the legislative route and citizen action to challenge giant tech firms. As Shahmir Sanni pointed out, with two billion users around the globe, Facebook has become as integral as water and electricity and needs to be regulated in the same way.
I am now more convinced than ever that the process of leaving the EU must be suspended. In addition to further investigations into the role of social media platforms in the referendum result, we need to know the outcome of investigations by the National Crime Agency into alleged multiple criminal offences by Arron Banks and the extent of Russian involvement before proceeding.
Three years on from the vote to Leave the EU, it is also clear that the will of the people has changed. A majority no longer support Brexit and we need to go back to the people through a People’s Vote.
Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West
10 March 2019