Monday 16 September 2019

Cardinal Zuckerberg has been caught out

Online sneering at the old 'mainstream media' was fun, but then came the Facebook scandal, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Mostly, journalism is about day-to-day stuff. Sometimes it's about the big things. An example of the latter was the Boston Globe's 2001 campaign on child sexual abuse.

The newspaper had a struggle to print the truth about the persistence with which Cardinal Bernard Law protected Catholic priests who were sexually abusing children in Massachusetts.

The cardinal enabled criminal priests to continue offending.

The Globe's stories forced the cardinal's resignation. Pope John Paul II promptly promoted him to a Vatican position.

The excellent movie about that struggle, Spotlight, won the 2016 Oscar for Best Picture. It didn't aim for heroism and hype, instead it created suspense out of the undramatic business of reporters piecing together a story.

Mostly it showed the Globe's Spotlight team, moving tentatively through a moral quagmire, under legal and political threat, trying not to make any drastic mistakes.

These are the mantras of risky journalism: A) "People ought to know about this"; and B) "Please don't let this blow up in our faces".

In Ireland, two years before the Boston Globe investigation, Mary Raftery's groundbreaking RTE series States of Fear set the agenda for the years of Irish State inquiries into child abuse that followed.

Those were big stories, on very big issues, that had a major impact on their societies.

Powerful forces had for decades cynically worked in secret to preserve a corrupt social structure that caused great pain to many.

The revelation of the truth, in Boston and in Ireland, greatly damaged that corrupt structure and affected the balance of forces within society. It also vindicated the hopes of the abuse survivors, many of whom had despaired of ever having their stories heard.

In recent days, in the work of the Observer newspaper and Channel 4 News, we've seen another revelation of a corrupt social structure. This time, it concerns the crookedness of Facebook, the 'free' all-chums-together 'social' media.

Facebook has been caught negligently concealing the activities of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a company that's essentially a tool used by right-wing forces funded by American billionaire Robert Mercer.

CA has sought to influence the voting outcomes in a range of jurisdictions, from the UK to Nigeria, from Argentina to Washington.

The scandal also raises issues of the old media versus the new media.

Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the Facebook hierarchy are the equals of the cardinals and bishops of the Catholic Church. Like them, what mattered most was protecting the institution that gave them their wealth and power, whatever the cost to others.

The irony is obvious. Facebook is the jewel in the crown of the online media that has done so much to undermine the much-derided 'mainstream media'. And the Observer newspaper, which is as fuddy-duddy as they come, put in the long, risky hours and months to reveal the truth about CA and its collaborators and protectors, among them Cardinal Zuckerberg.

Online services feed off the old media and simultaneously weaken it economically, draining off its advertising income. There's no point crying about that. The technology won't be disinvented, and it offers terrific speed and wider access to countless millions.

The old media, too often complacent and admiring of wealth and power, did much to alienate its own customer base.

These are merely technologies - one, apparently on the brink of redundancy, one apparently offering a brave new world.

But the current scandal is far bigger than the cliche of a decrepit old media and a brash, swashbuckling new way of doing things. It's also about how governments are elected, how the truth is buried and how citizens are manipulated.

Facebook and the like offer a 'free' product. Millions of people enjoy it - using it to keep in touch with friends, to show off photos and share interests, to promote business. The product is riddled with trigger points that reveal the users' interests, views, fears and aspirations.

Facebook is not a social media business, it's a surveillance business. Its business model is to entice users with online access, then collect as many detailed profiles as possible. It then sells that information to advertising corporations - which can in turn sell their customers access to audiences most likely to be influenced by their advertising.

Cambridge Analytica took this to a new level. Using Facebook data from tens of millions of people, it catalogues users' emotions. This enables it to identify swathes of voters and create messages that play on their fears.

In the US presidential election in 2016, the Trump forces identified the areas most populated by people convinced that America is under threat from a liberal alliance of homosexuals, Muslims and fluidly-gendered individuals who want to take their guns away.

Robert Mercer backed the slightly nutty (and easily controlled) Ted Cruz in that election. When Cruz was thrashed in the primaries, the billionaire Mercer switched support to the even more nutty Donald Trump.

The campaign methodically went about playing on the fears of vulnerable voters sympathetic to Trump. One of the more garish efforts was an online revelation - just before voting day - that Democrats indulged in paedophile rituals in the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant.

Mad? Yes, but it worked. The Trump base went wild online. The claim that Hillary Clinton literally eats children might seem like a crazy satire, but it secured the votes of the downright stupid - of which there are hordes.

One idiot turned up at the Washington restaurant firing a rifle, demanding entrance to the notorious basement (the restaurant doesn't have a basement).

A lot of less exotic stuff went into that election, and it worked. A tired, compromised Clinton was a lousy candidate. With CA's help, even the idiotic Trump won by a small margin.

Mercer had already loaned the services of CA to Nigel Farage, to help out on the Brexit campaign - with the usual tales of how EU mandarins go to bed chuckling about how they control us all.

And the EU, complacent, arrogant and primarily concerned with wealth and power, did much to alienate its own political base.

At the climax of Spotlight, the movie about the Boston Globe revelations, the makers toy with cliches from countless old movies - the presses rolling, the trucks fanning out across the city, the pile of newspapers landing on a pavement, truth winning the day.

These aren't just romantic images to cheer up old hacks. The Spotlight and Mary Raftery stories had an impact because they reached mass audiences - people who loved the Church, as well as people suspicious of its power.

The mass audience got the news at the same time, everyone knew what was going on, and everyone knew that everyone else knew.

That's why there had to be consequences.

Facebook etc needs a fragmented base, with a myriad of small audiences getting 'news' tailored to their fears and aspirations.

This isn't just a commercial problem for the declining traditional media, it's a political problem for us all.

Social media opens up the field to anyone with online access. It's fun and enlightening, challenging and full of potential. But the exhilaration of everyone having the ability to shout half-true or downright silly 'news' is short-lived.

The complacency and failure of the online world - so far - to create a mass audience for credible, sturdy sources of information that can be tested and verified leaves the field open for the cynical forces behind the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal.

Sunday Independent

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