Just seven or so years ago, social media was regularly framed as a democratizing medium that could, through the free circulation of information on Twitter and Facebook, foster grassroots movements capable of toppling corrupt regimes. Yet, on Wednesday night at the 10th annual Women in the World summit at New York’s Lincoln Center, that promise seemed like ancient history. Now social media is just as regularly connected with stories of election interference, radicalization and even mass murder streamed live from New Zealand.
“Thousands and thousands of views while YouTube and Facebook did nothing,” said Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter for the Guardian and the Observer who was one of three trailblazing journalists interviewed onstage by Kara Swisher, co-founder of Recode. ”I was so outraged,” she said. “There are things that we could have done there.”
What has happened to pervert social media and what exactly we can do about it are Cadwalladr’s focus as the reporter responsible for telling the story of Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower. In 2018, Wylie revealed how personal data was collected and exploited to influence public opinion on issues such as Brexit. Cambridge Analytica’s massive data harvesting had been reported in 2015 but, Cadwalladr said, “Facebook was just able to brush it off.” Wylie, however, could not be brushed off so easily. “Here was somebody who had been there, had overseen some of this harvesting, had the documents, had the receipts for it.”
Just before the Guardian ran Cadwalladr’s reporting (collectively called the Cambridge Analytica Files), Facebook threatened to sue the paper. The Guardian published anyway. Last month, a U.K. parliamentary inquiry accused Facebook of being a “digital gangster” that considers itself “ahead of and beyond the law.”
“The whole thing with the tech platforms is they are just not accountable,” said Cadwalladr.
Maria Ressa — who, along with murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and several other journalists, was named “Person of the Year” by Time in 2018 — has a more complicated relationship with Facebook. “I drank the Kool-Aid,” she admitted to the summit audience. In 2012, she founded Rappler, which soon became one of the most influential news outlets in the Philippines. But Rappler, by necessity, began life as a Facebook page. “Ninety-seven percent of people on the internet are on Facebook, which means Facebook is our internet,” Ressa explained.
In 2016, the very medium she was using to “build communities of action” was weaponized by President Rodrigo Duterte when he started employing social media as a tool for propaganda, largely through astroturfing. “When you say a lie a million times it is truth, it becomes a fact,” Ressa said. With Duterte’s encouragement, “patriotic trolling” has become a major problem in the Philippines.
Since the beginning of last year, Duterte’s government has attempted to shut Rappler down by revoking its articles of incorporation. Ressa has posted bail eight times and was most recently arrested in March, when she was met at Manila airport by officers in “full swat gear.”
“We’re living in a war zone, it’s information warfare,” Ressa said. “And it is meant to use hate, to incite hate, to stifle us.”
Hate is being used against women in particular, said Barkha Dutt, a contributing columnist with the Washington Post and a well-known television journalist in New Delhi. In Dutt’s experience, the relationship between politics and social media can quickly turn personal as men pummel women with online abuse.
“We have to understand that what we benignly call trolling is actually an instrument to silence independent, opinionated women,” she said. A few months ago, after a large-scale terrorist attack in Kashmir, right-wing mobs began targeting students. Dutt went onto Twitter to point out that the response was inappropriate. “The moment I put that tweet out, within 48 hours, I received 1,000 WhatsApp messages, including nude pictures, penis pictures, threats to rape me, threats to shoot me and abuses that I cannot even repeat here.”
“I actually want to say we need to be a lot angrier,” Dutt later added. “Because it will be used against us anyway. We may as well go to battle, right?”
When Kara Swisher eventually steered the conversation to what might be done to fix social media platforms, restoring some sense of equilibrium, all three journalists offered a range of ideas: suspending video uploads during a crisis like the New Zealand massacre; banning political advertising so propaganda is no longer an issue; even assembling an international watchdog, like an Interpol for technology.
But Cadwalladr had a simpler request. “Britain is the first country that has tried to hold Facebook to account for what has happened in one of these elections, and it’s just ignored us,” she said. ”Show us that there is just a shred of accountability, and then we’ll take it from there.”
Additional reporting by Anna Hall.