‘Facebook should be nowhere near politics’ and electoral laws allowing dark ads to go unregulated must be examined, investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr warns

A “moratorium” on political advertising on Facebook must be demanded if the next general election is to be free and fair, the award-winning journalist who uncovered the Cambridge Analytica scandal has urged.

Speaking at the 2019 Byline Festival, Carole Cadwalladr – whose investigative journey covering the story was featured in the hit documentary The Great Hack – said unregulated political “influence operations” being run on social media platforms is one of the biggest threats to our democracy and that “Facebook should be nowhere near politics”.

“Facebook makes statement after statement about how it’s being more transparent and is changing x and is changing y but… If there is a general election in this country in the next few months or whatever we have to call for a moratorium on political advertising on Facebook,” she said. “That is absolutely key.

“Boris Johnson is advertising on Facebook now. He has started his election campaign, but it is outside of the six-week period in which it’s monitored and regulated. So there is no regulation as to what he’s doing, how much money he’s spending… and there’s no legal obligation to.”

She said that changing the way that paid for political advertising on platforms such as Facebook works is the “really, really low hanging fruit” when considering practical solutions to safeguard future elections.

“You can’t say that eating Pringles crisps is going to make you more sexually attractive to women because that’s not true and you’re not allowed to say that in an advertisement, but you can say that Turkey is joining the European Union and we’ll give £350 million to the NHS and that is fine because it’s a political advertisement and they’re unregulated,” she said.

Referring to a damning report by Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee into the dangers of disinformation and fake news, she added: “Parliament has said that our electoral laws don’t work and the whole thing needs to be reformed and we cannot keep our elections free and fair and the Government has ignored it. It is up to us. We have to kick and scream and not let them ignore it.”

Cadwalladr also cited the example of the 2018 Irish referendum on whether to overhaul its abortion laws as a political event the tech giants decided to stay out of – but stressed that the onus to do so could not be left on them. 

“Google and Facebook actually voluntarily decided to stop accepting political advertisements because they realised that they couldn’t ensure that that was only Irish money and Irish groups and they knew that there was American dark money,” she said. “So it’s not impossible that the platforms will take the step themselves and it doesn’t solve all of the problems because ‘what’s a political advertisement?’ etc. But I really think [a moratorium is] something that we really need to think hard about.”


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