On the same day that she became a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her work bringing to light the Cambridge Analytica scandal, journalist Carole Cadwalladr took the stage at TED to “address you directly, the gods of Silicon Valley.”
Cadwalladr began her talk by recounting a trip she took after the Brexit referendum, back to her hometown in South Wales.
She recalled feeling “a weird sense of unreality” walking around a town filled with new infrastructure funded by the European Union, while being told by residents that the EU had done nothing for them. Similarly, she said they told her about the dangers of immigration, even though they lived in a town with “one of the lowest rates of immigration in the country.”
Cadwalladr said she began to understand where those sentiments were coming from after her story ran, and someone contacted her about seeing scary, misleading ads about Turkey and Turkish immigration on Facebook . Cadwalladr, however, couldn’t see those ads, because she wasn’t targeted, and Facebook offered no general archive of all ads that had run on the platform.
Eventually, Facebook began building that archive of ads. And the pro-Brexit campaign was found guilty of breaking British election laws by breaching campaign spending limits to fund campaigns on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Cadwalladr said her interest in these issues led her to Christopher Wylie, whose whistleblowing about Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook user data helped prompt broader scrutiny of the social network’s privacy practices.
Cadwalladr described Wylie as “extraordinarily brave,” particularly since Cambridge Analytica repeatedly threatened them with legal action. The final threat, she said, came a day before publication, and it came from Facebook itself.
“It said that if we published, they would sue us,” Cadwalladr said. “We did it anyway. Facebook, you were on the wrong side of history on that, and you are on the wrong side of history in this.”
The “this” in question is what she characterized as a failure by the social media platforms to fully reckon with the extent to which they’ve become tools for the spread of lies and misinformation. For example, she pointed to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal thus far to appear before parliaments around the world that have asked him to testify.
Calling out executives like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Alphabet/Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey (who’s scheduled to take the stage tomorrow morning), Cadwalladr insisted that the stakes could not be higher.
“This technology you have invented has been amazing, but now it’s a crime scene, and you have the evidence,” she said. “It is not enough to say that you will do better in the future, because to have any hope of stopping this from happening again, we have to know the past.”
She went on to declare that the Brexit vote demonstrates that “liberal democracy is broken.”
“This is not democracy,” Cadwalladr said. “Spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash from God knows where — it’s subversion, and you are accessories to it.”
And for those of us who don’t run giant technology platforms, she added, “My question to everybody else is: Is this what we want? To let them get away with it, and to sit back and play with our phones as this darkness falls?”