Misinformation is disrupting democracy

During this Movement Control Order (MCO), I happen to spend some time reading about current affairs in the United Kingdom and particularly about Brexit. 

It came to my attention when I was reading about Carole Cadwalladr, an award-winning journalist who has done investigative journalism towards the famous Cambridge Analytica scandal.

It began on the day after the Brexit vote, when Britain woke up to the shock of discovering that they’re leaving the European Union, her editor has asked her to go to South Wales to write a report about Brexit.

She went to the Ebbw Vale of South Wales Valleys as one of the reasons is that it has one of the highest ‘Leave’ votes in the country. 62 percent of the people there voted to leave the European Union.

When she arrived in the town, she was surprised by the changes that happened over there. There is a new college of further education which costs 33 million pounds. And there is a new sports center that’s at the middle of a 350 million pound regeneration project, 77 million pound road improvement scheme, new train line and new railway station. Most of these projects are funded by the European Union.

As she was walking around the town trying to find more answers, she met and talked with a young man. He told her that he had voted to leave, because the European Union had done nothing for him. He was fed up with it. When she went around, people were saying the same thing. They said they wanted to take back control. They said they were most fed up with the immigrants and with the refugees.

Carole also added that it was odd as she did not meet any immigrants or refugees in the town. Even when she checked the figures, Ebbw Vale has one of the lowest rates of immigration in the country. She was confused as to where the citizens acquired the information from.

When her article was published, a woman from Ebbw Vale contacted her and told her about the scary information about immigration especially Turkey, that she had seen on Facebook. She tried to source for the information in Facebook, but there was nothing there. There’s no archive of advertisements that people have seen, there’s no such data shown in any Facebook accounts’ newsfeeds. No trace of anything, gone completely.

The entire Brexit referendum took place in the darkness, because it only took place in the Facebook. And what happens on Facebook only happens in your newsfeeds, and then it vanishes, so it is impossible to research anything. Nobody has any idea who saw what ads or what impact they had, or what data was used to target these people, or even who places the ads, or how much money was spent, or even what nationality they are. It can happen just from any part of the world. 

The ‘Vote Leave’ ads were targeted towards the group of people who are identified as persuadable, or fence sitters, and these people saw them.

The Ebbw Vale citizens did not vote the referendum based on what has happened in their town, but they voted because of the perception created in their minds through the ads that have been targeted at them in social media. 

This type of ‘Vote Leave’ campaign has not only happened in Brexit, but in many parts of the world especially during elections. Misinformation has been targeted groups that are vulnerable towards swinging their decisions.

The recent locally produced movie about our politics, ‘Daulat’ is a clear reflection of how politics really works in our country. How these politicians planted news and created misinformation in the media. And how ruthless some politicians can be in order to stay in power. 

Misinformation has disrupted democracy. Even in Malaysia, we have heard some voices of regrets over their votes in the general elections after voting for a representative that could not do their work, but simply there for the sake of power.

This reminded us that we should be questioning our own representatives on what they had done during the Covid-19 crisis. I happen to see some photos in social media that some of the representatives handed face masks in the postbox of the houses, and senior citizens were required to queue up to get daily necessities, and the representative was there for a photo session. Are they genuinely helping the people or Covid-19 is just another opportunity for publicity?

Simply said, what you see on social media today, must not be the basis of your decision in the elections. Free and fair elections are not only about running the elections in a proper manner and are free from corruption. It is also making sure that the people voted for what they want in their community, and not due to distorted perceptions.

This article is published in Kwong Wah Yit Poh in Chinese dated 21 April 2020.