This week, Mark Zuckerberg made what appeared to be a big announcement: Facebook is implementing new measures to stop foreign actors from intervening in U.S. politics. From using advanced artificial intelligence to detect fake accounts to investing in a security budget the size of “the worth of the company when they went public,” he explained how he intends to make 2020’s election safer from foreign interference than 2016.
Given recent reporting that malicious activity from foreign actors seeking to influence our politics is at an all-time high, Facebook taking this seriously is both important and desperately overdue. But what Zuckerberg fails to mention is that the main threat to our democracy is not foreign, but domestic. What he doesn’t say is that by “erring on the side of free expression”—which in this case means not fact-checking political ads run by Americans—he is making a public admission that Facebook has learned little from 2016 and the role it played in the election of Donald Trump.
Unfortunately, I know firsthand that when it comes to Trump and Facebook, we are witnessing history repeating itself. I worked at Cambridge Analytica, and after leaving the company, I provided over 100,000 documents to authorities to bring out the truth about unethical disinformation campaigns. My former colleagues ran data-driven social media targeting programs for both the Trump campaign and a pro-Trump superPAC backed by the Mercer family, also known as the “Defeat Crooked Hillary” campaign. After the 2016 election, they showed me how they weaponized disinformation to dissuade voters from going to the polls.
Our president was elected supported by campaigns that chose to dance on the line of our legal system, pushing the boundaries of hate speech and disinformation that would normally be considered illegal. Incitement of racial hatred, for example, would land most normal people in jail, but is allowed to proliferate on Facebook and other social media platforms paid for by politicians and their supporters. So I am here to remind you all that, impeachment or not, unless we demand companies like Facebook to enforce our laws on their platforms, Donald Trump will win the 2020 election using the same nefarious, divisive, and effective machinery employed in 2016. And we are currently powerless to stop it.
A year from the next elections, it is already clear this will be the most morally bankrupt campaign cycle in American history: a president mid-impeachment is grappling to stay in power by openly promoting disinformation. His efforts to suppress his political rivals are supported by one of the world’s largest advertising platforms. No one running against Trump will be safe from slander, and Facebook’s “hands off” policy to allow politicians to lie in their ads is already making campaigning even more dangerous. For evidence of this new corporate loophole, look no further than the Trump-sponsored Biden attack ad circulating on social media. Riddled with inaccuracies about Biden’s son’s work in Ukraine, CNN deemed it unacceptable and wouldn’t allow it to air, yet it has found a home on Facebook and Twitter, where it has flourished to the tune of over 5 million views—which will continue to rise due to Facebook’s October 9th decision not to remove it.
Trump’s conspiracy theories are engineered to smear, and whoever is running against him will have to contend with customized attacks, akin to the false narrative on Biden and Ukraine, or for that matter, Hillary Clinton’s emails. After a three-year investigation, this week it was found that Clinton had no criminal wrongdoing in relation to the email scandal, but you probably didn’t catch that since your news feed is focused on Trump, and whatever he has decided he wants the public to believe that day. The sooner other candidates and voters confront this reality, the better.
It’s happening again
While the director of business development at Cambridge Analytica, I learned in graphic detail their methodology of voter manipulation, which was fueled by the stolen data of millions of Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica was the backbone of both pro-Trump and anti-Hillary digital operations, spearheading the record spending of over $100 million dollars promoting lies about Hillary and suppressing Democratic turnout. They used the word “deterrence” to describe people targeted for voter suppression. They sent slanderous materials to people whose data showed they would only ever vote for Hillary Clinton, never Trump. They were targeted, and the Trump team measured success by “decrease in intent to vote for Hilary Clinton.” They promoted fear-based falsehoods demeaning women, Mexicans, and African Americans. Seeing the internal case studies after the election shook me to my core, and now it’s happening again.
Former Cambridge Analytica staff are still working with Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, along with many of the same partners, vendors, and wealthy donors. Completely unregulated and unseen, they’ve had three years to grow their anti-democratic techniques in the darkness. Now with significantly more time and money than 2016, these experienced players are sustaining a full-frontal assault on both Democratic candidates and the democratic process. Their weapons of choice: disinformation and voter suppression.
In traditional politics, voter suppression was more obvious: putting polling booths in far away places, allowing endless lines to convince would-be voters to give up, or even enforcing last-minute requirements of new identification for voter registration. Today, voter suppression takes place digitally, so you can’t see it and call it out for what it is. In these information wars, every candidate’s supporters can be dissuaded by lies, especially because Facebook will help weaponize your data against you. It comes from the Cambridge/Trump 2016 playbook—if your data shows the Trump team that you’re “persuadable,” you’re a target for disinformation. You will receive a deluge of “fake news” that wealthy Trump supporters are paying to barrage you with.
Democrats believe that they can defeat Trump on policies alone, but the truth is that Trump and Facebook will make that impossible—especially because Facebook’s algorithms tend to favor the kinds of extreme disinformation that Trump’s campaign traffics in. It is vital that candidates create plans for dealing with it, and devise strategies for protecting voters. Campaigns need to be proactive, responding to online threats within minutes, not days. Meanwhile, voters who want Trump out of office need to combat misinformation they see on social platforms effectively, to let other users know what’s fake since Facebook refuses to.
Alongside campaign preparedness, I call on our legislators to demand protections for voters from Facebook’s damaging political content that breaks laws we already have: I shouldn’t have to remind anyone that incitement of racial hatred, discrimination, slander, and voter suppression are illegal. I urge lawmakers and others to attend to this as immediately and as urgently as they are the impeachment process.
Laws are not the only fix. Technologists need to provide systems to combat this new cyberwarfare, while our government enforces a more ethical digital landscape, before we lose our ability to have free and fair elections ever again. I condemn Facebook’s irresponsibility in this matter and its willingness to turn a blind eye to voter suppression efforts while profiting from it hand over fist. Free-speech advocates are rightly concerned about policing the digital space, but I urge those at the FCC to find a way to do so using the $5 billion budget they received in fines from Facebook for negligence.
Lawmakers in some states have begun to address these issues, from Senator Mark Warner federally to California Governor Gavin Newsom at the state level, but we have to work together to safeguard our ability to hold free and fair elections. Indeed, no one is going to save us from Facebook or Trump by themselves. We all have to act if we have a hope of putting back together our broken democracy.
Brittany Kaiser is the former director of business development at Cambridge Analytica, subject of the Netflix Original documentary The Great Hack, and author of Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump and Facebook Broke Democracy.