Facebook says its platform wasn’t used to manipulate the Brexit vote

Facebook says its platform wasn’t used to manipulate the Brexit vote

Facebook’s head of global affairs said Monday there is “absolutely no evidence” that the social network was manipulated by outside interests to affect the outcome of Britain’s Brexit referendum. Nick Clegg, who is also a former deputy UK prime minister, said two extensive data analyses had shown no interference in the months ahead of the 2016 referendum, according to Reuters.

Brexit opponents have long cited concerns that Russia may have spread inflammatory content on social media, which could have stoked anti-EU sentiment ahead of the referendum. This vulnerability was detailed in a US Senate report last year, and concerns led to an inquiry by the UK’s Electoral Commission in 2017. 

UK officials have said since then that they’ve failed to turn up any evidence of manipulation, and Moscow has denied any attempt to influence the referendum. 

“We ran two full analyses of all the data we have in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, following exactly the same methodology as we did after the FBI notified Facebook of outside interference in the 2016 US presidential election,” Clegg said. 

Clegg also addressed accusations that political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, which was at the heart of a scandal over Facebook’s handling of user data last year, used its ill-gotten data to influence the Brexit referendum. He said the firm did not use its data to affect the vote, and moreover, that no data from UK voters was involved in the Cambridge Analytica incident more broadly. 

Instead, Clegg said that Euroscepticism in Britain has been brewing since long before social media came to have the influence it has today. 

“Social media has something which is qualitatively new, which is scale and speed. What is not new is people coming up with bonkers ideas, or fake ideas, or indulging in extremist or populist points of view. That was not invented 15 years ago. Populism, extremism, conflict and division in society, particularly when you have, as we have had since 2008, profound economic and social shocks to society, I think people sometimes confuse symptom with cause.”

He did not address questions over whether Facebook’s model inherently promotes attention-grabbing populism over moderate views, even without outside influence. Academics have said this has been a key factor in the rise of populism around the world, according to The Guardian

Clegg has, however, rejected that view in the past, even before he began working for Facebook, saying social media only offers a new venue for old problems. He wrote in 2016:

“Populists know how to appeal to emotions in a way reasonable, measured liberals almost never do. So the politics of moderation needs to pack a bigger emotional punch. That’s our problem – not Mark Zuckerberg’s.”

Photo: World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]