A journalist whose work helped prompt the Big Tech backlash roiling Silicon Valley excoriated Facebook, labeled technology a “crime scene” and blamed tech platforms for precipitating a crisis in Western democracy.
During a TED Talk on Monday, Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist who helped expose the Cambridge Analytica data scandal and how 87 million Facebook users’ information impacted the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, addressed executives like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Alphabet founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin — calling them “gods of Silicon Valley” whose creations have wreaked havoc on democracy.
“Facebook: you were on the wrong side of history in that,” Cadwalladr said, according to TED. “And you are on the wrong side of history in this. In refusing to give us the answers that we need. And that is why I am here. To address you directly. …We are what happens to a western democracy when a hundred years of electoral laws are disrupted by technology.”
Cadwalladr figured out the role of Facebook during Brexit when she was reporting from a former coal-mining town in South Wales that had a high percentage of Leave votes, but also featured new entrepreneurial and leisure centers built with EU funds. Although many of the people she spoke with mentioned immigration, the British journalist met very few actual immigrants.
“This entire referendum happened on Facebook,” she says. The Leave campaign was able to manipulate data harvested from Cambridge Analytica to identify users who appeared “politically persuasive” and feed them targeted ads that stoked right-wing ideas, framing immigration as a threat and the EU as a constricting force–even as the government funneled investments into people’s backyards.
In the wake of Brexit and Russia’s influence campaign in the United States 2016 presidential election, Facebook created an Ad Archive for political advertising in the US and Britain, provided more transparency for researchers looking to see how elected officials are using the platform and strengthened its policies and staffing resources to fight disinformation and hate speech.
“It’s not enough to say you’ll do better in the future,” she said. “To have any hope of stopping this from happening again, we have to know the truth…what the Brexit vote demonstrates is that liberal democracy is broken and you broke it.”
Cadwalladr laid down a stark marker for tech executives during her TED Talk.
“And so my question to you is: Is this what you want? Is this how you want history to remember you? As the handmaidens to authoritarianism that is on the rise all across the world? You set out to connect people and you are refusing to acknowledge that the same technology is now driving us apart.”