Lawrence Dodd lives in one of Britain’s most fiercely fought voting districts, and he has been peppered almost daily with ads from the country’s major political parties on Facebook. About a month ago, he tried to find out why. Mr. Dodd, a maker of musical instruments in northern England, joined an experiment. He and around 10,000 others volunteered their data, allowing researchers to monitor in real time which political ads were showing up in their Facebook news feeds as Britain’s election approached. Their goal: to shed more light on how political campaigns are using Facebook and other digital services — technologies that are quickly reshaping the democratic process, but which often offer few details about their outsize roles in elections worldwide.
Facebook has criticised a new German law that would force social media companies to pay up to €50 million (£43 million) if they fail to remove hate speech and false news, saying it will encourage paranoid tech companies to delete legal content in order to avoid the hefty fines. In March, the German government proposed legislation to fine social media companies if they fail to remove slanderous or threatening online postings quickly. The plans were approved by Germany’s cabinet in April but they are yet to come into force. Now Facebook has responded to the new law, which is being referred to as the “Network Enforcement Act” or “Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz” in German (NetzDG, for short). The Californian tech giant issued a statement over the weekend explaining why the draft law “is not suitable to combat hate speech and false news.”
On November 9 at around 8.30 AM., Michal Kosinski woke up in the Hotel Sunnehus in Zurich. The 34-year-old researcher had come to give a lecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) about the dangers of Big Data and the digital revolution. Kosinski gives regular lectures on this topic all over the world. He is a leading expert in psychometrics, a data-driven sub-branch of psychology. When he turned on the TV that morning, he saw that the bombshell had exploded: contrary to forecasts by all leading statisticians, Donald J. Trump had been elected president of the United States. For a long time, Kosinski watched the Trump victory celebrations and the results coming in from each state. He had a hunch that the outcome of the election might have something to do with his research. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned off the TV. On the same day, a then little-known British company based in London sent out a press release: “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win,” Alexander James Ashburner Nix was quoted as saying. Nix is British, 41 years old, and CEO of Cambridge Analytica. He is always immaculately turned out in tailor-made suits and designer glasses, with his wavy blonde hair combed back from his forehead. His company wasn’t just integral to Trump’s online campaign, but to the UK’s Brexit campaign as well. Of these three players—reflective Kosinski, carefully groomed Nix and grinning Trump—one of them enabled the digital revolution, one of them executed it and one of them benefited from it.