On Monday, Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist and Pulitzer award finalist, in her TED talk revealed how Facebook impacted the Brexit voting by enabling the spreading of calculated disinformation.
Brexit, short for “British exit”, refers to UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU). Back in June 2016, when the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum happened, 51.9% of the voters supported leaving the EU. The final conclusion was set to come out on 29 March 2019, but it is now extended to 31 October 2019.
Cadwalladr was asked by the editor of The Observer, the newspaper she was working at the time, to visit South Wales to investigate why so many voters there had elected to leave EU. So, she decided to visit Ebbw Vale, a town at the head of the valley formed by the Ebbw Fawr tributary of the Ebbw River in Wales. She wanted to find out why this town had the highest percentage of ‘Leave’ votes (62%).
Brexit in South Wales: The reel and the real
After reaching the town, Cadwalladr recalls that she was “taken aback” when she saw how this town has evolved over the years. The town was gleaming with new infrastructures including entrepreneurship center, sports center, better roads, and more, all funded by the EU. After seeing this development, she felt “a weird sense of unreality” when a young man stated his reason for voting to leave the EU was that it has failed to do anything for him. Not only this young man but people all over the town also stated the same reason for voting to leave the EU. “They said that they wanted to take back control,” adds Cadwalladr.
Another major reason behind Brexit was immigration. However, Cadwalladr adds that she barely saw any immigrants and was unable to relate to the immigration problem the citizens of the town were talking about. So, she verified her observation with the actual records and was surprised to find that Ebbw Vale, in fact, has one of the lowest immigration rates. “So I was just a bit baffled because I couldn’t really understand where people were getting their information from,” she adds.
So, after her story got published, a reader reached out to her regarding some Facebook posts and ads, which she described to her as “quite scary stuff about immigration, and especially about Turkey.” These posts were misinforming people that Turkey was going to join the EU and its 76 million population will promptly emigrate to current member states.
“What happens on Facebook, stays on Facebook”
After getting informed about these ads, when Cadwalladr checked Facebook to look for herself, she could not find even a trace of them because there is no archive of ads that are shown to people on Facebook. She said, “This referendum that will have this profound effect on Britain forever and it already had a profound effect. The Japanese car manufacturers that came to Wales and the North-East people who replaced the mining jobs are already going because of Brexit. And, this entire referendum took place in darkness because it took place on Facebook.”
And, this is why the British parliament has called Mark Zuckerberg several times to get answers to their questions, but each time he refused. Nobody has a definitive answer to questions like what ads were shown to people, how these ads impacted them, how much money was spent on these ads, or what data was analyzed to target these people, but Facebook.
Cadwalladr adds that she and other journalists observed that during the referendum multiple crimes happened. In Britain, there is a limited amount of budget that you are allowed to spend on election campaigns to prevent politicians from buying the votes. But, in the last few days before the Brexit vote the “biggest electoral fraud in Britain” happened. It was found that the official Vote Leave campaign laundered £750,000 from another campaign entity that was ruled illegal by the electoral commission. This money was spent, as you can guess, on the online disinformation campaigns.
She adds, “And you can spend any amount of money on Facebook or on Google or on YouTube ads and nobody will know, because they’re black boxes. And this is what happened.”
The law was also broken by a group named “Leave.EU”. This group was led by Nigel Farage, a British politician, whose Brexit Party is doing quite well in the European elections. The campaign was funded by Arron Banks, who is being referred to the National Crime Agency because the electoral commission was not able to figure out from where he was able to provide the money.
Going further into the details, she adds, “And I’m not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government. Or the weird timing of Nigel Farage’s meetings with Julian Assange and with Trump’s buddy, Roger Stone, now indicted, immediately before two massive WikiLeaks dumps, both of which happened to benefit Donald Trump.”
While looking into Trump’s relationship to Farage, she came across Cambridge Analytica. She tracked down one of its ex-employees, Christopher Wiley, who was brave enough to reveal that this company has worked for Trump and Brexit. It used data from 87 million people from Facebook to understand their individual fears and better target them with Facebook ads.
Cadwalladr’s investigation involved so many big names, that it was quite expected to get some threats. The owner of Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer threatened to sue them multiple times. Later on, one day ahead of publishing, they received a legal threat from Facebook. But, this did not stop them from publishing their findings in the Observer.
A challenge to the “gods of Silicon Valley”
Addressing the leaders of the tech giants, Cadwalladr said, “Facebook, you were on the wrong side of history in that. And you were 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, the gods of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey, and your employees and your investors, too.”
These tech giants can’t get away by just saying that they will do better in the future. They need to first give us the long-overdue answers so that these type of crimes are stopped from happening again. Comparing the technology they created to a crime scene, she now calls for fixing the broken laws. “It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. Because as it stands, I don’t think it is,” she adds.
To watch her full talk, visit TED.com.